Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1997) takes place on the original set where Hou made his semi-autobiographical A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), which begins with Hou’s recollection of his hooligan childhood in the village of Fengshan, a 20-minute bus-ride from Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city. From this little village where Hou was nicknamed “A-ha,” Assayas followed the gum-chewing, affable karaoke singer over five days, filling the documentary with a thread of interviews that slowly relate how Hou became a landmark figure in contemporary international cinema.
The Boys from Fengkuei
Drawing upon the histories of colonialism, martial law, and post-martial law in Taiwan, Hou’s style is marked by his nostalgia for the “Orphan of Asia,” its past and present. Born in Mei County, Guangdong, 1947, Hou and his family migrated to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, and were stranded there after the Communist victory in 1949. Once there, they hesitated to buy durable and long-lasting furniture and electronics, not thinking they would become permanent residents. Later, after encountering cinema during his military service, Hou made his mind up to be an actor, but ended up doing multiple jobs in the film industry, primarily as director, but also as producer, and later as the chair of the Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards (2007 – 13), the Chinese-language equivalent of the Academy Awards.
After his early involvement with big-budget escapist comedies and romances, Hou plied his talents as director with the critically acclaimed The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983), his first collaboration with novelist Chu Tien-Wen. The film attracted the attention of the state-run Central Motion Pictures Corporation which commissioned Hou to join in the making of an omnibus film, The Sandwich Man (1983), the aim of which was to promote young Taiwanese directors, a strategic method for the state-run corporation to counter the blossoming commercial filmmaking scene. Together with American-trained director Edward Yang and locally based writers such as Chu and Wu Nien-jen, Hou and his contemporaries gradually built a small film community, later known as the Taiwanese New Cinema movement, and made their voices heard in the international cinema world promoting their work through the international festival circuit.
After the success of these early directorial efforts, Hou furthered his detachment from commercial cinema with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), a story of high-school friends leaving home for military service and growing apart from one another. In the film, the young protagonists leave their village in Penghu Island off Taiwan’s West Coast for Kaohsiung where they’re lured into an abandoned building by a vendor selling tickets for a pornographic film (“In color! Big screen!”). Once inside, the boys climb to the 11th floor only to find an open wall with a view looking out onto Kaohsiung city—and onto their unknown future. Here, the screen becomes the in-between where the landscape of the city coincides with the fictional lives of the three adolescents from the countryside seeking cosmopolitan experiences.
As a new director in Taiwan in the early 1980s, Hou followed a largely intuitive approach to cinema. But from The Boys from Fengkuei onwards, this instinct was slowly taken over by an emerging style that relied on long takes and omniscient narration, a sensibility partly inspired by modernist Chinese writer Shen Congwen’s autobiography. Shen’s work was recommended to Hou by his long-term screenplay collaborator Chu Tien-wen, who later joked that a film always belongs to its director, and that screenwriter’s job was really that of a secretary: taking notes to serve as a blueprint of the general plot for the cast and crew, while the exact lines are supplied by the actors and non-actors at the specific time and place of shooting. Thus, Hou and his collaborators developed a style of working in keeping with an artisanal tradition, a form of cottage-industry filmmaking that coincides with many vestiges of early Shanghai cinema.
Over the next 10 years, this improvisational style gradually became Hou’s signature, reaching its peak with The Puppetmaster (1993), an autobiographical story of Taiwan’s national treasure, puppeteer Li Tien-Lu, who was born before Taiwan was taken over by Japan and who lived through the colonial history. Li learned glove puppetry from his father, and left the family at an early age for a puppetry troupe, traveling around the Taiwan island. The film weaves together three major storylines: Li’s own narration and interviews, a puppet play, and detached scenes that track but don’t necessarily follow Li’s story. The open-ended long takes slowly document the carefully staged performances of Hou’s actors and non-actors with only extremely minor intervention from behind the camera. In some interior scenes, you can tell that the performers are deliberately performing in relation to the position of the lights, showing or not showing their faces and costumes through their slow movements. Some of Li’s recollections are contradicted by the fictional parts of the film, a reminder of the inextricable nature of the fictional and the real.
Later, this observational tendency was contagious among Hou’s followers in Asia, especially after he won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for City of Sadness in 1989. The influence of Hou’s style is most prominent in the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Jia Zhangke. Jia tells the story of being a young man living in Shanxi province, in Northeastern China, biking to the local post office to check the latest newspaper expecting news from the Tiananmen Square. Instead, good news arrives from Taiwan that the Golden Lion has been awarded to City of Sadness, a film about the 2/28 Massacre, in which an anti-government uprising was violently suppressed by the KMT-led Republic of China government in Taiwan, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Jia paid tribute to Hou’s scene in The Boys from Fengkuei, with a similar shot of an open wall facing the hallucinatory Three Gorge Dam town Fengjie in Still Life (2006).
Until Good Men, Good Women (1995) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998) there was a lack of female roles in Hou’s works, which tended to marginalize women characters in their stories about boyhood or gangsters, fueled by his obsession with “Robin Hood”-style heroics. (Hou would liken his film crew to a gang, as both occupations require teamwork, and in fact a few films of his were also partially sponsored by the mafia.) A reflection of his experiences with the three generations of women in his family, Flowers of Shanghai represents a decisive shift from his early male-oriented focus. Combining the luxurious production design of Hwarng Wern-ying, the stalking and feline cinematography of Mark Lee Ping-bin, the memorably ambient sound design of Yoshihiro Hanno, and the cast’s well-trained Shanghai dialect, the film was shot entirely in the studio, a static, durational portrait of a flower girl’s suffocating life, prolonged and carefully framed throughout the piece as if to suggest that life inside the brothel lasts an eternity. Since that film, female performers started to take major roles in Hou’s films, such as Yo Hitoto in Café Lumière (2003), Juliette Binoche in Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), and Shu Qi in Millennnium Mambo (2001), Three Times (2005), and his upcoming The Assassin, which tells the story of a female assassin during the Tang Dynasty.
Throughout his career, Hou has always jumped between the national and the international. As the representative of Taiwan in the West, he has the burden or joy of building the local film industry and helping young directors in Taiwan to succeed. Before Hollywood dominated Taiwan’s film market, the patronage of the European arthouse audience allowed him the freedom to stay away from populist cinema, but this has become increasingly difficult in an era in which it takes ages for him to produce a new film. With his recent films, Hou has moved on to shoot films outside of Taiwan—Café Lumière in Japan to honor the 100th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu, and Flight of the Red Balloon in France. Hou’s first martial arts film, The Assassin is based on a Chuangqi story, the first form of short story in the classical Chinese language which developed in the Tang Dynasty, and was also partially shot in Japan and Mainland China. Half of the film’s funding also came from the Mainland, a first for Hou.
But Hou’s international success has always relied on styles and themes that are relatable across borders. Chu Tien-Wen recalls her visit to New York with Hou for the New Directors/New Films Festival in 1986 when A Summer at Grandpa’s was featured. A prominent arthouse publicist in New York attended the screening, and later picked up the film, telling Chu:
Even the people in Oklahoma can understand this film. The mother is ill, and the father sent the kids to the village for summer vacation. The storyline is understandable, entertaining, and gives a different impression of the ‘Chinese’ people. The audience can’t understand the sad and sophisticated films from China, especially the ones from the mainland, in which the leading actor and actress just couldn’t be together, can’t be in love. We couldn’t understand.
In conjunction with the retrospective Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Museum of the Moving Image (September 12 – October 12), a new monographic study of Hou, edited by Richard Suchenski at Bard College is set to release, with interviews and production documents, and contributions from scholars, critics, and filmmakers from Taiwan, China, Japan, France, and North America.