Sunday, April 06, 2014

An Appreciation: Hou Hsian Hsien

Cute Girl (1980) /Play While You Play, aka Cheerful Wind (1981) **1/2- The second installment in Hou Hsian Hsien’s introductory to the film world after his debut film (“Cute Girl”, which I was able to view sans subtitles) retains the same actors in another variation on the rom-com genre. A-Hui (Feng Feifei) is a photographer working with her filmmaker boyfriend (Andrew Chang) along the coast when she meets blind man Lu-Jatai (pop star Kenny Bee). Happenstances re-unite them in Hong Kong where A-Hui finds herself falling in love with him, forcing her to choose between the two men. Re-uniting Bee and Feifei for a second variation on the romance genre (where in “Cute Girl” they meet in the countryside with roles reversed), “Cheerful Wind” seems inconsequential in the Hsiao-Hsien filmography and it is a lightweight effort compared to the works we know he later culminates, but this simple, straightforward tale of two people finding each other settles into a comfortable tone, especially its sappy ending that would make any John Hughes lover a little weak in the knees. Not available on DVD.

The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983) **- Even more cutesy than his first two films, “The Green, Grass of Home” takes as its subject the relationship between newly arrived teacher Lu (Kenny B, again) and fellow female teacher Su-Yun (Meifeng Chen). A second part of the film settles on three youngsters in Lu’s class and their respective problems with parents, bullies and their general quizzical nature about life. The problem with “The Green, Green Grass of Home” is it’s aloof attitude towards generating wacky humor, such as the young students’ attempts to collect their own stool samples or the various musical interludes that feature pretty awful songs. Unlike the films of Edward Yang, this one doesn’t capture the innocence or adventurous remembrances of youthful exuberance in quite the same unique fashion.  Available on region 3 DVD.

The Son’s Big Doll (1983) **- HHH’s contribution to an anthology film, “The Sandwich Man”, is a simple tale of a man who finds work as a walking advertisement for a local movie theater. Dressed as a clown, often ridiculed and bullied by street kids, his daily routine consists of wandering town and returning home to wife and young child… a son who only recognizes his father as a clown. By framing this story- and the others- in the early 60’s, “The Sandwich Man” is a political film as well, exposing the turmoil of daily survival. Borrowing from the Italian neo-realists… especially one scene that has the man almost losing his clown suit and therefore, his way of life… Hou’s effort is the most striking of the three, yet still feels like a minor advance in his early career. Not available on DVD.

The Boys From Fengkuei (1983) ***½ - Here is HHH settling into a more elaborate craftsmanship, one that glimpses his now patented style. Three friends from a coastal village move to the big city when their everyday existence of playing practical jokes and getting in trouble with gamblers becomes stagnant. Once in the city of Kaohsiung, their eyes are open to more modern advances, namely as one of them falls for the girlfriend of their neighbor. Being the first in what I’ll call Hou’s “punk” films (later exemplified in “Goodbye South Goodbye” where Hou’s fascination and experience with the listless yet charged atmosphere of young people hanging out and dealing with culture change), “The Boys From Fengkuei” really feels like a Hou film. Lots of deep focus shots through windows and doorways that forces our eyes to different edges of the screen and the overall melancholy feel of young men and women hovering around the edges of adulthood create a visually mature film. And it’s not without feeling either as the film eventually focuses on Ching-Tzu (Doze Nui) and his interest in neighbor Hsiao-Hsing (Lai Ying Yang). While the interest is typically Hou Hsiao Hsien in its puppy dog raggedness, the overall emotions incorporated between the two are uniquely moving. Not available on DVD.

A Summer At Grandpa’s (1984) ****- As we were just beginning to see in the New Taiwanese Cinema, children were often the focal point. While “A Summer At Grandpa’s” is one of the few films by Hsiao-Hsien to place children at the center of his universe, its effect is no less moving. While their mother recuperates from an illness, a young boy and girl are sent to the countryside to live with their grandparents. Once there, they become innocent observers to the harsh realities of life, including illicit pregnancies, local hoods causing trouble and the imprecise vagaries of love. What makes “A Summer At Grandpa’s” so moving- and Hsiao Hsien’s first great film- is its simple dedication to the natural aspects of life. A young girl stuck on a train track rescued by the local ’madwoman’… or the way life seems to bleed from one day to the next… all of this is handled with such delicacy. If any early film of Hou deserves a mainstream release, this is it. Not available on DVD.

A Time To Live and A Time To Die (1985) **½ - Hou’s first real international notice came with this generational drama based on his own family’s settlement in Taiwan from China during the late 40’s. In showing three generations of a family- senile grandmother, sickly father and providing mother, and four brothers and sisters- “A Time To Live and A Time To Die” stays true to its title as they experience death and childhood wonder equally. Filmed with Hou’s usual grace and precision, the edit that spans years as the face of a child turns into the face of a teenager seems rote now, but works so well in the context of Hou’s exploration of evolving time. Yet, if “A Time To Live and A Time To Die” doesn’t quite reach epic status like later films its because of the almost too gentle nature of the film. The final scene, though, is quite heartbreaking and one of the most punctuating examples of the generational gap ever filmed. OOP DVD.

Dust In the Wind (1986) ***- Again examining the diverse ways of life between rural and urban dwellings, “Dust In the Wind” settles on boy Wan and his girlfriend Huen as they leave their small village and try working in Taipei. Bouncing back and forth between both lifestyles of family diligence and adult responsibility- and their own inert, distanced relationship- “Dust In the Wind” feels slight upon first viewing, but grows on you due to Hou’s supreme mastery of time, place and mood. It’s something he does in every film, but the way he continually reverts back to a single lonely shot of concrete steps leading up to Wan’s home immediately gives us direction without a single word. Likewise, the scene where Wan’s grandfather walks with him to the army deployment office, casually throwing firecrackers as they walk in celebration, is a quietly moving act of bonding. “Dust In the Wind” is also immensely sad as Wan and Huen’s relationship goes in distinct directions. As mentioned earlier, this film may be one that grows in stature over time. Not available on DVD.

Daughter of the Nile (1987) **- If “Daughter of the Nile” isn’t quite as moving or interesting as other HHH films, it clearly delineates his present career arch  that took hold in the 90‘s. Here the setting is modern, neon-lit Taipei (accentuated by zippy motorcycle rides and a soundtrack that features both The Bangles and some stirring techno dance music) and we follow the ennui of Shia-yan (pop star Fan Yang) and the various members o her family. Brother is a thief…. Sister dates mafia types… and she herself is infatuated with one of these mafia guys as she goes to night school, trying to stay focused on her own straight path in life. Small disasters happen at every turn and time, place and mood is hazily reduced to long shots where even a violent act like a shooting seems to occur in slow motion. All the ingredients are there for “Daughter of the Nile” to be something great, but the film’s distant, unaffected gaze seems to place a barrier against the audience. For once, the distinctive style seems to work in reverse. Not available on DVD.

A City of Sadness (1989) ***½- Part of the greatness of Hou’s “A City of Sadness” is the way it deposits the viewer directly into a family’s life with little exposition. The family in question, three brothers and their various wives and friends, are placed in Taiwan in the late 40’s after Japan has ceded its stronghold back to the Chinese. Political suppression and character assassinations are rampant, and through his cloudy, turbulent atmosphere Hou runs this family though the ringer. Though the first half of the film can be confusing as it establishes the various relationships, the second half settles on deaf-mute third brother played by Tony Leung as he bears witness to the atrocities firsthand. What develops in “A City of Sadness” is not overwrought sentimentalism, but a precise attention to the reality of late 40’s Taiwan. In usual Hou style, violence erupts at a moment’s notice and huge plot devices are given in sparing voiceovers or handwritten notes, which only deepens the sadness of the film since so many of life’s pot holes can only ever be expressed in words. Just a haunting, deliberate film. OOP on DVD.

The Puppetmaster (1993) ****- After using the elder actor Tianlu Li in several previous films in small roles, Hou here decided to dedicate an entire film to this man’s life. Born in poverty and eventually rising to become one of the country’s most cherished puppet masters, the film blends Lianlu’s own words told directly to the camera and actor-based characterizations to flesh out the larger moments in his life. Taking the same sweeping set-up as his previous efforts by intermingling the personal (Li’s marriages and the various deaths around him) as well as the political (how he shuttered back and forth between the prominent Chinese parties during their occupation of Taiwan) , “The Puppetmaster” becomes an intensely personal epic that covers so many variations of a human life with simplicity. And watching the puppet shows, held at medium length in long takes as it would be watched by children, is such a delight.

Good Men Good Women (1995) **- With “Good Men, Good Women”, HHH tried to do something a bit more radical in terms of storytelling. Beginning with an actress named Liang Chin (Annie Inoh) in the present, we see her struggling not only with the death of her lover, but a series of menacing phone calls from someone who never speaks but faxes her copies of her diary which was stolen. In the middle of all this, Ching is the star of the film-within-the-film (separated by its monochrome visual style) about the travails of a couple in 1950’s Taiwan scooped up for their Communist ties. Everything about “Good Men Good Women” should work, but I struggled to find the connection between the stories. It felt strained, at the least, unable to justify the destructive nature of post-war Taiwan with the silly reverberations of jealousy and sorrow that comes from the death of a mobster boyfriend. One scene, in which Hou films a conversation between gangsters in a nightclub, is mesmerizing in the way he manages to simply pan and zoom for over ten minutes, never failing to capture the important moments. 

Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) ***½- Much more freewheeling and invigorating than any of his previous films, “Goodbye South, Goodbye” seems to be the seminal entry point for a lot of people in the 90’s when Hou’s name was popping up all over the cinematic world. It certainly is his most visually daring film yet, utilizing a roving steadicam approach that gives expansive emotions to the lush environment around his characters and several hovering overhead shots that, as always, capture just the right amount of action to tell a story. There’s also the long, gliding traveling shots as Gao (Jack Gao), Flatty (Giong Lim) and Pretzel (Annie Inoh again) ride around a mountain or bus through Taiwan- sometimes from the POV of their yellow-tinted sunglasses. More than anything else, “Goodbye South, Goodbye” etches into one’s mind the basic idea of time passing and the ways we can sometimes be stuck in reverse. There are various criminal shenanigans around the trio, but Hou’s ultimate goal seems to be in how people react in stagnation, indecision (such as Gao’s relationship to his girlfriend) and the ruts of everyday life.

Flowers of Shanghai (1998) ****- A patient study of four ‘flower girls’ and their various suitors in 1880’s China, “Flowers of Shanghai” is such a sad film… the type of smoldering effort where the outbursts of anger when a man trashes a room or two people sit in quiet desolation smoking opium feel like earth-shattering events. The set up is simple- a gentle, fixed camera slowly pans and zooms around candle-lit rooms where the various political and social games are played between man and women, the confinement of body and soul always hovering at the edge of the frame. This is Hou at his most spiritual, mining the divide between rich and poor, male and female and the caste system. As Master Wang, one of the central characters, Tony Leung says so much with his drawn, sad face and lingering presence. Watch this film alongside Bertrand Bonillo’s “House of Pleasures” for a lush, melancholy representation of turn of the century prostitution.

Millennium Mambo (2001) ****-  This is Hou in the midst of a terrific run of movies, each one displaying an acute feel for all the moodiness of life. And “Millennium Mambo” is all mood, starting with its trance-like opening scene in which beautiful Vicky (Qi Shu) wanders down a concrete tunnel and a subtle techno beat migrates with her in slow motion. From there, Qi Shu is the center of the film, struggling to find happiness in love. First, she tells the story of her relationship with Hao (Chun Hua Tuan)… a partnership that soon devolves into youthful jealousy and abuse. Then she meets Jack (Jack kao), an older man who treats her better, but whose criminal dealings leave a gap between them. Jack could be the older Jack from “Goodbye, South Goodbye”. The greatness of “Millennium Mambo” lies in the performance of Qi Shu, whose body language, slumped shoulders and pouty eyes reveal so much detail about the psychology of her young woman. Hou has treaded this territory before with floating women characters, but here her loneliness and sense of place in 2001 Taiwan soaks through the screen. It’s almost heartbreaking when Vicky finds real happiness with a pair of twin brothers in a snowy mountain town, only to be drawn back into the desolation of a doomed relationship. Like “Flowers of Shanghai”, “Millennium Mambo” is a portrait of sadness wrapped in in beautiful images and enigmatic voiceovers. 

Three Times (2003) ***½ - Encompassing all of Hou’s cinematic worldviews into one effort, “Three Times” feels like a gimmick, but winds up as a moving exploration of human contact. Telling a story of love, with the same two actors (again the lovely Qi Shu and Chen Chang) over three distinct periods (1966, 1911 and 2005), the film manages to strike at something universal. The strongest sections- the 1966 and 2005 portions- weld Hou’s style into short films of immense power as Qi Shu and Chang master the art of unspoken emotions and unsure body language. As a silent film, they would be spectacular, which makes the weakest portion all the more head-scratching since it does fashion itself as a silent film… the 1911 section as a courtesan and her client dance back and forth with subtle attraction, complete with intertitles and all. It felt a bit too gimmicky, which the other halves more than make up for. In 1966, Chang falls in love with a pool hall girl, and spends the rest of his time tracking her down across the region when he returns from the war. Advanced with 60’s pop tunes and Hou’s distinct way of passing time and place through exact images, it’s a wonderful example of his melancholy narrative. The 2005 portion, featuring lots of text messaging, loud motorcycles and a Gen-X woman bouncing between straight and homosexual relationships, is a direct descendant of the confused, messy, neon-lit modernity increasingly featured in Hou’s later works. “Three Times” not only succinctly represents the lay lines of love that exist throughout time, but the many shapes and forms these relationships take. 

Café Lumiere (2005) ***- Imitation has been called the sincerest form of flattery, and for once it’s HHH paying tribute to someone else. Made as part of a 100 year celebration to Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, “Café Lumiere” is a humble film. There are no great revelations…. No outbursts of gang violence or hint of malaise. It simply follows the life of young Yoko (Yo Hitoto) as she spends time with her parents and friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano).  Like Hou himself, Yoko is excavating the past through her research on the life of an obscure musical composer from the 30’s. She’s pregnant, but little development or deep narrative spin is put on this as she seems to be a fiercely independent woman. Hajime spends his days either working in his book store or wandering around Japan recording the sounds of trains. The film never raises the possibility of Yoko and Hajime falling in love… instead they share a silent shorthand that makes for honest interactions, especially when he cares for her when she’s sick or they run into each other on the subway. “Café Lumiere” is an observational film about the simple relationships in every day life. Ozu would be proud.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) **- Hou’s first non-Asian speaking film is a re-imagining of the 1965 film “The Red Balloon”, peppered with his own fascinations, including mom Juliette Binoche working with puppets and Hou’s long, languid takes acting as the observer. Although the ingredients are there, “Flight of the Red Balloon” is disappointment in the way it plods along. Binoche, also, is a character I really didn’t like. 

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