Born in 1947 in China, but raised in Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-Hsien
collaborated at The Sandwich Man (1983), a film
that inaugurated a new era in Taiwanese cinema.
He then directed the romantic comedies Cute Girl (1980),
The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) and
Cheerful Wind (1981).
The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)
A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) tells a simple, calm domestic story.
The style of
Time To Live, Time To Die (1985) is almost documentary.
The war is always present in the background.
The grandmother's dream of returning to the mainland was everybody's unconscious
dream. When she dies, something dies with her.
Ah-ha is a spirited child in a poor Taiwanese family during the fight with
the Communists. The parents and the grandmother came from the mainland and
still hope to some day return. The grandmother, in particular, always dreams
of returning to her village.
Ah-ha grows up in that humble neighborhood.
One day the mother tells the daughter that she will have to marry soon and
the son will not be allowed to go to university, because
they can't afford so many children. Everybody helps with the humble chores of
The father lives the life of the exile, reading letters from relatives who
have been left behind. He is in poor health and one day they found him dead.
Ah-ha grows to be a little punk, who is always in the street with other
kids. He is secretely in love with a nice girl, but doesn't dare to talk
to her. The daughter gets married to a nice man. The wife is courted by a
kind-hearted man. The grandmother is losing her memory: she often wanders
away from home in search of her village and is brought back home by strangers.
The mother develops a throat cancer and the daughter convinces her to get
cured in the big city. During her absence Ah-ha's brother is in charge,
while Ah-ha keeps getting in trouble with his gang. He is introduced to
prostitutes and is feared but also hated by another gang.
The mother returns only to die. Ah-ha cries at the funeral. Now reformed,
Ah-ha approaches the girl of his dreams and is told that first he has to
graduate from school. That is enough motivation to start studying.
The grandmother is found dead on the floor, her body already rotting.
Ah-ha fails the exams.
Dust in the Wind (1986) is a sentimental melodrama.
Daughter of the Nile (1987) is a mix of
gangster film and realistic melodrama.
A City of Sadness (1989)
covers the end of World War II through the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan
in 1949 and concentrates on still photography
Hsimeng Jensheng/ The Puppetmaster (1993) is another pretext to
depict the history of Taiwan through its people: the film
covers the first 36 years (1909-'45) in the life of puppet master
Hou is less interested in telling a story (individual or collective) than in
shooting scenes of ordinary lives. He behaves more like a painter than a
filmmakers. The story proceeds much faster when the protagonist is speaking
than when an action is being shown. The visual action is often a simple domestic
scene with few characters in the center. The technique recalls flemish and
german paintings of the 17-18th century.
The camera lingers in long, deep shots, that sometimes capture several
environments at the same time. Sometimes the camera does not move and
characters appear and disappear in its horizon.
Hou shows little interest for the story itself.
Each scene is a self-contained expression of visual and psychological tension.
Tienlu is born during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. He is raised by
the grandparents. His grandfather is a man of honor but, like everybody
else, has to bend to the Japanese officials. Tienlu's mother offers her life
to the gods to spare the life of her very sick mother and the gods grant
her wish: Tienlu is left with a
stepmother who is a bitch and a father who is lazy and arrogant.
After the grandfather dies falling from the stairs (the camera
does not move: it keeps showing the stairs and the wall covered with portraits),
Tienlu has a terrible childhood and is eventually sold to a puppet company
for a yearly salary to be paid to his father.
His luck is that the grandmother gains the reputation of being a jinx after
she appears to cause one death after the other, and Tienlu's father eventually
asks him to take care of the old lady in exchange for his freedom. Tienlu
survives the curse and becomes a free man.
For the first time we see the narrator, Tienlu as an old man.
Tienlu becomes a master puppeteer and performs for the Japanese. He marries
a girl against his father's advice. He has a child but his job takes him
away from home.
The film now often employs the old Tienlu in the present telling his stories.
The main story is his encounter with a prostitute, Leitzu, and how he fell in
love with her aristocratic manners. The story develops from his words into an
actual sequence of scenes: a photographer takes a photograph of Leitzu,
they have dinner at her house, Leitzu tests his fidelity by sending a friend
to invite him out (the characters are concentrated in the center and light
sprinkles from a lamp above, like in a Rembrandt painting).
The old Tienlu in the present continues the story while he is sitting on the
floor (in the back details of the room, like in a Vermeer painting).
He tells how, thanks to another superstition, he saved Leitzu's life when
she got sick.
But eventually Tienlu decided to go back to his family.
In the forest a Japanese band walks over a suspended bridge. The Japanese are
honoring a Taiwanese hero who died to defend the Japanese empire, and Tienlu
reenacts the hero's life with the puppets. Tienlu has accepted to work for
the Japanese propaganda. Tienlu gets in trouble when he hits a Japanese soldier,
but the commander reproaches the soldier. Tienlu's son, Hong, is arrested for
fishing illegally, but the commander is happy to be taught where he found
That relatively happy period comes to an end with the Japanese surrender.
Tienlu's family has been moved to a village that is in ruin after the war
and struggles to return to Taipei. When they finally manage to return, they
have carried with them malaria and the youngest child dies of it.
The woman cries near the bed where the dead body of her child lies (Vermeer).
The old Tienlu in the present tells the story of the peasants dismantling the
Japanese airplane with hammers and then we see the scene.
Hou experiments with technique and structure. Sometimes the spoken section
precedes the filmed action, sometimes follows it (ie, sometimes the visual
narrative explains the spoken one, sometimes the opposite).
Hou's quiet and reflective style is applied here to myth. The puppetmaster
tells legends (often built around popular superstitions) and Hou's images provide the pictorial support with their
magical lighting and their symbolic set of characters.
At the same time the continuous images of puppets and puppeteers
is a metaphysical reminder of how human lives are in the hands of more
powerful forces. Hou's characters are often puppets struggling against
Haonan Haonu/ Good Men, Good Women (1995) is the
concluding and culminating feature in Hou Hsiao-hsien's epic trilogy about the
Taiwanese nation. Each part of the trilogy is dedicated to a form of art:
A City of Sadness celebrates still photography,
Hsimeng Jensheng/ The Puppetmaster celebrates puppets and
Haonan Haonu/ Good Men, Good Women celebrates cinema itself.
And to celebrate cinema itself Hou resorts to Resnais' narrative
technique of interweaving three tenses
(the present, the individual past and the historical past).
The film therefore intercuts material from 1949 to the present: the script
that the actress has to study reenact the tragedy of a couple of intellectuals,
and the pages of the actress' diary reenact her troubled past as a
drug-addicted barmaid involved with a gangster that
was murdered after she betrayed him.
In the present a young film actress, Liang Ching, is harassed by an anonymous
caller who has stolen her diary and faxes her pages from it. Every fax
stirs painful memories of her past.
An actress, she is in rehearsal for a film called "Good Men, Good Women",
about a real-life couple, Ching Hao-tung and his wife Chiang Bi-yu, during
the struggle against the Japanese occupation.
These scenes are shown in black and white.
Peasants and soldiers walk in a procession through the fields to what looks
like a fortress. Inside, the Taiwanese are interrogated by soldiers and declare
their will to join the resistance.
Back to the present, the actress wakes up. The telephone rings. It is the
third anniversary of Ah Wei's killing. Ah Wei was her man. A flashback in a
blueish tint shows us a sexy girl in a miniskirt (the actress) who visits
Ah Wei. She's lively and teasing.
In black and white again, the exiles are interrogated by suspicious soldiers:
how and why did they travel from Taiwan to mainland China? The men are
eventually chained together and detained as Japanese spies.
The actress alternates reading the script and reading her diary. Her diary
now reminds her of when she told Ah Wei of being pregnant. She was a bartender
and he doubted who was the father, but he said he would like to be a father.
In black and white we see the activities at the camp (leafless trees against
the cloudy sky). The couple has
to give their child to foster parents through an old lady. They can finally
join the resistance.
Once the girl had been on drugs and Ah Wei had to handcuff her to the bed
while she was screaming like an animal. Her diary is revealing a past of
depression, loneliness, insecurity and depravation. She would eventually
turn Ah Wei in to the rival gang for a rich reward. But then she fell victim to
remorse after Ah Wei was assassinated in a disco. She was rarely in control
In black and white we see the farm attacked by Japanese soldiers, a close-up of
a tree. The war has ended, the Japanese are running away. The couple returns
to Taiwan. A meeting shows their new activity: fighting the injustice of the
capitalistic system in Taiwan. They start a newspaper to promote land reform.
But the nationalists, enemy of the communists, have retreated to Taiwan and
unleashed the paranoid, anticommunist "White Terror".
The activists are arrested as subversives. The men are tortured.
A beautiful girl is attacked by another girl because she flirts with her
brother in law (possibly the reason why she became what she became).
The phone rings. She picks it up and talk into it, even if nobody is
listening at the other end. She confesses that she killed Ah Wei, that
she visits her grave. She talks in the phone like she is talking to Ah Wei,
asking him to forgive her. She misses him.
In black and white we see the execution of the man while the actress reads
his last, moving letter to the family.
The troupe is finally in the shooting location. They are dressed like
peasants in the countryside. The woman that the actress is playing is old
but still alive.
The decadent excesses, the existential indeciseveness and the self-destruction
of the actress' past are balanced by the stoic idealism, the political
determination and the self-sacrifice of the couple. Even if they are
in the actress' mind the progress of her past (as a character in her own real
film) and the progress of the couple's past (as the characters she pictures
in the fictional film) mirror each other.
Hou's austere style holds a firm grip of the two tragedies, that never
deteriorate in mere melodrama. His long steady shots that slowly reveal light
and movement seem to counter human contingency with nature's eternity.
Less "directed" than "choreographed" or "conducted",
"Good Men, Good Women" is also a study in the relationship between history,
art and the individual.
Hou has reached a majestic maturity of style. The most famous shot is probably
a long static take showing the barmaid with her gangster boyfriend as she puts
on makeup at a mirrored dressing table with pockets of light in the surrounding
Moving away from historical Taiwan (his traditional turf) and towards contemporary Taiwan,
Hou Hsiao-hsien's Nanguo Zaijan Nanguo/ Goodbye South Goodbye (1996)
is a portrait of boredom amond the decadent, materialistic bourgeoisie of Taiwan,
a study of existential inertia and frustrated ambition.
The pace is mostly frantic, but very little happens. People mostly argue.
Closure is rarely reached. The lengthiest shots are shots of driving along
highways or city streets.
Hou's hyper-realism is so realist that he reproduces the insignificant
details of sordid lives that are traditionally omitted in action films.
We get huge amounts of casual conversation and mono-syllabic phone interactions,
but very little in terms of plot development or even psychological study.
The protagonists are not only anti-heroes, they are also anti-protagonists.
These are hollow lives, who create hollow stories in a hollow society.
Two friends, Gao and Flatty, are punks who make a living out of semi-illegal
transactions. Gao's girlfriend Ying and Flatty's girlfriend Pretzel are
accessories to their plans for getting rich. The problem is that they all seem
inept both at their business ventures and at managing their family life.
Pretzel, in particular, runs into a huge debt and fakes a suicide attempt.
Gao is a furnace of ideas. He manages a restaurant and has connections that
can help him profit from a deal with the government.
During a breakdown, he confesses that he only wants to marry Ying and settle
Desperate for money to rescue Pretzel from her debt, Flatty travels to his
ancestral land and asks his relatives
for his share of the inheritance that he forfeited years earlier.
His arrogant tone upsets a cousin who is a police officer and beats him up.
Looking for a quick revenge, Flatty tries to get a gun. The cousin finds out
and has him arrested. The cousin himself has to intercede with a politician
in order to gain Flatty's release.
But Gao is likely to lose the one thing that he really wants: Ying, whose sister
lives in America and wants her to move there too. Ying tells Gao that he could
conduct business in the USA even if he doesn't speak English, but obviously
this is implying that he has been so unsuccessful that being nobody in the USA
will be better than being a failed gangster in Taiwan.
Flowers of Shangai (1998) is a period piece filmed in a baroque style
with some of Hou's most daring camera movements. The whole movie seems to be
a psychedelic dream, slow, languid, brightly colored. Opium is an everpresent
The film's main characteristic is elegance: costumes are elegant, movements
are elegant, words are elegant, and even the camera moves like it is dancing
an elegant Viennese waltz.
In a 19th century Shangai brothel the "flower girls" receive their "callers".
The men often play drinking games and eat. The men's meetings work as interludes
that prepare the continuation of the story. They gossip about Yufus, a young
man who is in love with the prostitute Crystal and wants to marry her.
This is a very long cut.
The camera swings back and forth like a pendulum, slowly, methodically,
We never meet Crystal, as Crystal will commit suicide.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film: the girls live in permanent
anxiety about their future, hoping that a gentleman will buy their freedom
and marry them, fearing that another girl will steal their "caller".
Wang is the patron of Crimson, a girl who has been exclusively his for years
and now is worried that he is seing another girl, Jasmin.
In the brothel there is constant rivalry and jealousy: Treasure and Jade
argue all the time, and the elder Pearl tries to mediate.
Jasmin and Wang eat and smoke opium at her place. Crimson hears the rumours
and hold a grudge to Wang, who is breaking the promise he implicitly made her.
She has debts and wants him to pay them. Friends mediate.
Wang and Crimson eat. The men play the drinking game. And so forth.
The old lady who runs the brothel explains to Luo how she buys girls when they
are very young and then trains them over the year. Each girl is an investment.
Now Luo wants to buy Emerald, an aristocratic, calculating, assertive and
very proud girl.
Instead of being grateful, Emerald at first declines the offer and Luo leaves upset.
The men have another round of drinking and this time Wang gets drunk. Wang goes
to visit Crimson and finds her sleeping with an opera actor. Furious, he smashes
everything and leaves. The following day he decides to marry Jasmin. An old
friend talks him into paying Crimson's debts as a farewell gesture.
Emerald has accepted the proposal and her belongings are carefully cataloged.
Jasmin cheated on Wang (with Wang's own nephew) and now Wang has returned to
Crimson. Wang has been
promoted, but that means that he will have to leave and this makes him sad.
Another man, Shuren, is in love with Jade. Where Crimson is a renaissance
beauty, Jade is a lively little girl. Jade is also a fool like all other girls,
but decides to break the rules: when she learns that Shuren is engaged, she
decides to poison him because he once promised her she would die together
rather than be separated. Shuren is saved.
Wang and Crimson smoke opium.
The film is also a parade of female portraits. Each girl has her personality,
reflected in her posture and language.
The film is figuratively impeccable, but relies on almost no story. The plot
"is" Hou's self-indulgence with film-making. His cinematic skills are a little
wasted, because they are self-referential rather than being used for a complex
story. Some cuts last forever, some cuts are very short and fade away rapidly,
more like paintings than movie scenes. Often, the camera is not moving, it is
just "looking" in a direction and waiting for the characters to walk into
the scene. This language of camera movement and camera immobility is very
Food is everywhere. Most of the time people are eating. Eating seems like
a substitute for sex, that is never shown. Eating is almost always accompanied
by opium. All characters are permanently enveloped in a melancholy ecstasy.
Millennium Mambo (2001) continues with this obsessive analysis of
drifting, decadent characters in what amounts to a reinvention of
film noir for the age of raves. Very little happens in this film.
The dialogues are few and hardly interesting. The story is disconnected,
although mostly linear in time.
It almost feels like the director has not made the effort to complete his film.
It almost feels like the director himself is subject to the
stupor of the drugs that are pervasive in the film.
A girl, Vicky, is walking a pedestrial bridge and smoking a cigarette.
While the camera follows her in slow motion, as in a dream or a hallucination,
the narrator tells her story in third person.
She has a jealous boyfriend, Hao-Hao, and has a lot of money in the bank.
She is planning to leave him when she finishes spending all of the money.
And this is happening ten years earlier.
In a club a young man, Ding, is celebrating with friends because he won an
award at an international context of magic. One of the guests is the girl,
She goes home to meet her boyfriend and housemate, Hao Hao, who tries to make
love to her, but she puts him off.
They met in the techno clubs and moved in together, but they had no money,
so he had to steal from his father. His father then called the police and
the police came to search their apartment.
They have frequent arguments, mainly because of his jealousy.
Vicky is hired in a strip-tease club, where she meets a middle-aged man,
Jack, who seems to be the boss and obviously likes her.
Vicky knew two Japanese brothers, whose grandma lives in the Japanese mountains,
and spent a vacation there, playing in the snow.
More scenes between Vicky and Hao-Hao, with Hao-Hao trying in vain to interest
her sexually. They break up, he begs her, she's annoyed. Eventually, she
leaves him for good and moves in with Jack. She doesn't want to be a hostess
anymore, but doesn't really know what she wants to be. At the club, Jack is
faced with a problem: Ding, who works for him, has stolen some money, while
pretending to perform a magic trick. Jack has to leave for Japan in a hurry
and Vicky wakes up alone in his apartment. Days go by without any news from
Jack. Vicky moves to Japan, crashing at her Japanese friends in the mountains,
perhaps hoping to find a clue of what happened to Jack.
Now it's been ten years since she left Hao-Hao.
Cafe Lumiere (2003) is a quiet domestic drama a` la Ozu.
Three Times (2005) is set in three periods (1911, 1966 and 2005) and deals with romantic love.
Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge/ The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
is a poetic flight of the imagination coupled with a realistic documentary
of a sad domestic life. The director begins the film by creating an emotional
symbiosis with the balloon: the spectator fears for the balloon's "life" when
the balloon is almost run over by a train; and then the balloon is rejected by
the crowd of the station, as if it was trying to tell them something and nobody
wanted to listen.
The other protagonist of the film is a woman who has put all her passion into
puppets because her family (the real beings, as opposed to the puppets) is
a disaster. She is always in a hurry, sacrificing her child, because she
cares so much for her puppets.
Between these two poles the film introduces the student of cinema whose job
is to take care of the child who is followed by the red balloon and whose
ambition is to make a movie precisely about what the child is experiencing
(but she doesn't seem to see it).
Song slowly becomes an involuntary witness to the lonely failed life of Suzanne.
Many of the scenes are filmed through a window: refracted, distorted or
overlapped to a background scene.
The balloon could be simply the child's consciousness as it becomes aware
of his environs and of his family's situation. After all, the child sees it,
but others don't see it, ignore it or have to make an effort to find it (the
Chinese student), whereas
the red balloon happens naturally to the child.
A child, Simon, is talking to a balloon that is stuck on a tree.
The balloon starts flying up to the sky and ends up in a subway station,
where it barely misses a train. The passengers who emerge from the train
annoyingly push it away. It finally takes off.
A woman is rehearsing a puppet show. She, Suzanne, is the child's mother.
Suzanne has hired a babysitter, Song, for Simon. Song is a Chinese student of
cinema who wants to make a movie about a boy and a red balloon.
The child plays videogames and the camera shows him through the window of
the room. Song has constantly the camera on.
Simon is taking lessons from a piano teacher. During the lessons the neighbors
and tenants, Marc and his girlfriend, show up demanding to use the kitchen
to prepare food for a dinner party. They don't seem to care that they are
making noise while the child is taking his lessons.
They leave a mess behind that infuriates Suzanne when she gets home.
She's unfriendly to their guest, who makes the mistake of asking about
the novel that her ex-husband has been writing.
Suzanne seems to be always in a hurry.
The child and the nanny take a walk in the park. He talks about her half-sister
Louise, who is far away in Belgium, and is not a "real" sister because his
parents are divorced.
Suzanne calls her attorney Lorenzo almoast crying because she can't find the
tenancy agreement. A Chinese master gives a demonstration in Chinese of
the art of puppets. Suzanne then comments on his performance.
While Song in the apartment is cooking breakfst for Simon, the
red balloon comes to their window, as if spying on them.
Lorenzo comes to visit and Suzanne tells him that she wants to evict Marc,
who is not only an annoyance but has not paid rent in a while.
She hires workers to move the piano upstairs so the child will not be
disturbed anymore. She then chats friendly with them, the way she doesn't
chat with her own friends.
Song wants to film a man in geeen holding the red balloon because it's
easier to erase green on the computer.
One one hand we see Song editing her red balloon movie on the computer,
and on the other hand we see
a lengthy scene of Suzanne rehearsing her piece of puppeteering.
In the car Suzanne calls her husband and argues about kicking out Marc.
The man is in Montreal writing a novel and she complains that he is not helping
her with the situation.
The scene is showed through the windshield of the car reflecting the trees
that line up the road (we never see the actual road).
Simon talks on the phone with Louise.
Outside Suzanne is having a loud argument with Marc.
Marc yells at her that her husband Pierre has no intention of ever coming back.
In the morning the red balloon flies over the room where Simon is still
sleeping. The camera shows it throgh the window.
A teacher takes children to a museum, and Simon is among them.
The canera shows them from behind the glass screen that protects the art.
There is a red balloon in the painting, and then Simon sees the red balloon
hovering over the glass roof of the museum.
The camera follows the balloon as it abandons the museum and starts
soaring towards the clouds.