Made in Taiwan

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

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?

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.  


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.

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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