Made in Taiwan

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


If Goodbye South, Goodbye wanders deliberately toward its dead-end destination, Hou's historical films, with their static, distant views of the most opulent settings, remain almost magnetically fixed in their place and time. It's as if the filmmaker, having willed a lavish return to past traditions, wishes to let the era linger--protectively keeping his characters within a frame that he knows can never hold.

Of course, that past is painful as well. Roughly spanning the period of Japanese occupation from 1909 to 1945, and pointedly mixing narrative and documentary styles, The Puppetmaster (Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.) opens with a wide-angle view of a family gathered around a festive table (a familiar scene in Hou's body of work) as the patriarch discusses plans for his newborn grandson's first party. At this, the movie's real-life subject--Li Tien-lu, the most legendary of Taiwan puppeteers (who was 84 years old when Hou shot the film in 1992)--interjects with a voiceover explaining the complex origins of his two names, each stemming from a family dispute. As the film goes on to present the puppetmaster's turbulent life as an allegory of Taiwanese history, it's fitting that his cognomen--and, in a sense, his identity--should be a question in the first scene.

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

At the same time, The Puppetmaster is a celebration of Li Tien-lu's incredible resilience in the face of that history: The politics change, but his traditional Chinese performances--a number of them played before the camera in ten-minute takes--remain largely the same (if sometimes costumed with kimonos, by order of the Japanese Puppet Propaganda Group). And to the degree that puppeteering is akin to filmmaking, Hou seems here to be drawing strength from his subject's stubborn independence and critical spirit, while distinguishing his own aesthetic as that of a documentarian more than a string-pulling dramatist.

Befitting its ambition, The Puppetmaster ranks with Alain Resnais's consummate Sixties head-scratcher Last Year at Marienbad as among the most formally challenging features ever made: With its disarmingly minimalist signifiers (a single air-raid siren conveying the outbreak of World War II, for instance) and its sudden, decades-long ellipses held together provisionally by Li Tien-lu's sometimes contradictory narration, it's a film I needed to see three times before I could begin to untangle the strings. In this sense, it's a bit unfortunate that the Walker's chronological series should begin with the summit of Hou's storytelling innovations (although any chance to see it should be seized at once) rather than with his latest, Flowers of Shanghai (Friday at 7:00 p.m., and at Oak Street Cinema for a week beginning Saturday), which draws the viewer more directly into the canvas of his painterly compositions.

Examining late-19th-century brothel life in Shanghai through the portrait of four "flower girls," Flowers of Shanghai is a beautiful, tantalizingly oblique, and thoroughly hypnotic film--a work so sensual that one can nearly smell the perfume wafting from the screen. As before, the view is from a distance--for one thing, the director here moves to the mainland in his continuing search for Taiwan's roots--but, more than ever, the meaning lies in the details. (In this, it helps to sit up close.) Allowing isolated scenes to stand for a broader story, Hou offers languorous vignettes between a faithful customer (Tony Leung) and the flower girl (Michiko Hada) he loves, or between a brothel madam and her scheming workers--stitching a narrative patchwork that would lose its pattern in the absence of a single square. The dialogue amounts to a running commentary of the rules of the brothel game, while the director's tactile inventory of ornate period items (including every luxurious shade of embroidered silk and stained glass) befits the materialist nature of the milieu. And swirling through the air like opium smoke is the sense that sex has nothing to do with how the handful of relationships evolve, whereas love poses a threat to this hermetically sealed but fleeting world.

Ironically, it's Hou's own affection for the integrity of this fragile environment that compels him to keep it at arm's length. When the filmmaker began his career in the Eighties, near the end of martial law in Taiwan, and at the dawn of what would come to be known as the New Taiwanese Cinema, he claimed that he kept his camera at a distance from its subjects so as not to spoil the spontaneity of his nonprofessional actors. These days, that distance seems to be more about preserving his own powers of observation (and ours)--a way "to let the scene, characters, and spaces themselves speak to me," as he recently put it. Deriving his stories less from traditional (and Western) means of "characterization" and "plot" than from a clinical study of the physical environment, Hou has rightly been compared to other transcendental stylists such as Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. He's a puppetmaster who allows the puppets to tell their own story, an archaeologist whose considerations of cultural detail--those things that might only be seen from atop a mango tree--make him more like an anthropologist. His films catalog all that has been lost, and, in so doing, they restore it.


Walker Art Center's "Hou Hsiao-hsien: Master of Mise-en-Scene" runs Wednesday through Friday; (612) 375-7622.

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