Made in Taiwan

Hou Hsiao-hsien's trademark is his cinematic search for a Taiwanese identity

When he was a mischievous child growing up in southern Taiwan, the future film director Hou Hsiao-hsien made a habit of sneaking into the courtyard of the Feng-shan temple to climb a mango tree. The tree's fresh fruit was its own reward, but even more nourishing for this budding master of mise en scène was the distance from the ground, providing him with an objective, ultimately melancholy glimpse of the human drama below. "On top of the tree," recalled Hou in a recent documentary, "I could really feel space and time, and a certain sense of solitude." Hence his cinematic equation: Distance multiplied by time and tension equals grief. Not for nothing did the director use A City of Sadness as the title of his panoramic film about the toppling weight of Taiwanese history on a single family.

But before we get to the specifics of Hou's oeuvre, let's return to the wide-angle shot from that tree. Imagine a bird's-eye view of the lushly green, mountainous Taiwanese landscape, dwarfing a maze of tiny streets and tinier bodies assembled around the Feng-shan temple (above which hangs a portentous sign instructing all mortals, "You are destined to come"), and you have some handle on the momentous scope of Hou Hsiao-hsien's cinema. Whether set in contemporary Taiwan (Goodbye South, Goodbye) or, more often, in the first half of the 20th Century (e.g., The Puppetmaster), his films seek to study, from a great distance, the relation of that tiny individual to the larger environment. Indeed, this is a rare filmmaker for whom perspective--spatial, historical, political--is everything.

Speaking of perspective, the Walker Art Center's essential three-film Hou retro (screening Wednesday through Friday) is cropped from a far more expansive touring program aptly titled "An Unfolding Horizon." Yet if this partial view represents less than a quarter of the director's vision since 1980, it's still plenty sufficient to characterize him as a consummate stylist, one whose radical choices about narrative style, camera placement, and the duration of shots not only seem to reinvent cinema but stem from a very specific set of circumstances. Put it this way: The particular challenges of Hou's films--their elliptical editing, contemplative pacing, and mercurial moods, not to mention those aforementioned panoramas that extend to the near-total exclusion of close-ups--are a direct reflection of his nation's complicated identity. Would Taiwan's tumultuous history as the former province of Japan and then China warrant a smooth, conventional aesthetic?

Rules of the game: Michiko Hada and Tony Leung in Flowers of Shanghai
Rules of the game: Michiko Hada and Tony Leung in Flowers of Shanghai

Some might say yes. In a 1996 issue of Asiaweek, writer Scarlet Cheng seemed to be auditioning for a gig with those tireless cineastes at The Hollywood Reporter when she argued that "Taiwan cinema is in the doldrums and its salvation lies in less artiness and more artfulness." Swiftly denouncing the acclaimed films of Hou and Edward Yang (Mahjong) as "pretty much unwatchable," Cheng went on to herald Ang Lee's innocuous crossover hit Eat Drink Man Woman as "one of the best films the island has produced in the past five years." To each her own, yes. But in the context of Taiwan's near-perpetual state of playing host to cultural imperialism (Hollywood's not the least), what does it mean to prefer the more accessible, less distinctive export?

One note of clarification: In citing anti-Hou sentiments from Asianweek, I certainly don't intend to suggest that the director's work meets resistance only (or mainly) from Asian commentators. (I might as well have mentioned the American who deemed Hou's Flowers of Shanghai "butt-numbingly slow" in the first graph of his Variety report from Cannes--or the telling fact that not one of the filmmaker's 13 features has enjoyed commercial distribution in the U.S.) Rather, my point is simply that the preponderance of American product around the world has made the Hollywood aesthetic into a global one--and that, in expressly fighting it with his particular "artiness," the Taiwanese filmmaker isn't merely facing opposition from the West.

This brings me to Goodbye South, Goodbye (screening Thursday at 7:00 p.m.), Hou's brooding lament for a Taipei that has turned into something like an outpost of the Bronx. Accordingly, the film seems to engage Mean Streets through its tale of two temperamentally opposed petty hoods (Jack Kao, Lim Giong), but the style--built on a string of interminable tracking shots that signify an aimless, restless mobility--bespeaks a worldview that's not only averse to gangsters (and gangster movies) but to modernity itself.

Where most of Hou's works are period pieces that mourn the past through its impeccable recreation, Goodbye (1996) is set in a contemporary environment of constant motion (by train, car, motorcycle), idle chatter (often via cell phone or karaoke mic), and cultural detritus (used video-arcade games, abandoned cars). With the benefit of Hou's characteristic distance from his subjects (nearly every shot plays like a painted tableau), these absurd industrial goods are counterposed with the last remnants of natural beauty: One of the film's more enlivening shots is an endless long take of the protagonists' motorbike tour up winding mountain roads surrounded by trees, while one of the saddest is of a herd of pigs awaiting sale in the latest of the punks' pathetic schemes. It gives little away to mention that the hustlers end up as used products themselves, their fate revealed in a typically remote Hou setup that has nonetheless remained etched in my mind for the three and a half years since I first saw the film. The long goodbye, it is.

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