Hou Hsiao-Hsien


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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 house. 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 Li Tienlu. 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 such fish.
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 historical destiny.

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 of herself.
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 antithetic, 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 room.

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 down.
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 theme. 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, hypnotically. 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 articulate.
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, Vicky. 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.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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