Born in 1947 in China, but raised in Taiwan, Hsiao-hsien Hou
began as assistant director of Rongtze Li on Jinshui Loutai/ First Come First Love (1974), the film where he first met the cameraman Kun-hou Chen.
The two then worked together for director Chengying Lai.
Hou scripted his films
Yue Xia Laoren/ Matchmaker (1976),
Nanhai yu Nuhai de Zhanzheng/ War of the Sexes (1978) and
Yan po Jiang Shang/ Love on a Foggy River (1978).
Hou also scripted
Kun-hou Chen's debut Wo ta Lang er Lai/ Lover on the Wave (1978),
a romantic comedy.
Hou then directed
his own romantic comedy Jiushi Liuliu De Ta/ Cute Girl/ Lovable You (1980),
and the melodrama Feng er ti ta Cai/ Play While You Play/ Cheerful Wind (1981)
for one of Taiwan's most popular singer, and television host, Feng Feifei.
Hou had already scripted the similar
Qiulian/ Autumn Lotus (1979), directed by his mentor Chengying Lai .
The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) is a rural drama.
Fenggui Lai de Ren/ The Boys from Fengkuei (1983) is a comedy about young people moving from a village to the city.
Hou also scripted Kung-hou Chen's Xiaobi de Gushi/ Growing Up (1983)
that became a hit.
Hou and Kung-hou Chen
collaborated at Erzi de da Wanou/ The Sandwich Man (1983), a film
that inaugurated a new era in Taiwanese cinema.
Dongdong de Jiaqi/ A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) tells a simple, calm domestic, coming-of-age, story, but slowly the story becomes more dramatic with its own share of suspense and pathos.
A child is slowly introduced to the sordid world of adulthood, full of
crime, sex, hatred, betrayal, and strange rituals.
We, the viewers, are treated like children who are only granted
limited knowledge of the events and have to infer the rest, both the missing parts and the logic of the whole. The child's discovery of the mysterious world of the adults becomes an allegory for our discovery of the stories hidden inside the film.
At the same time the film unveils the false tranquillity of rural existence.
The longer the child experiences it, the less "tranquil" it appears to be.
Humans pollute the idyllic nature surrounding their village.
Harmony is only an illusion for people who come from the city and are used to a different kind of stress.
Uncle Chang-ming and his girlfriend Pi-yun take
the boy Tung-tung and the little girl Ting-ting to visit their mother at
the hospital in the big city.
Their father stays in the city while
the uncle and his girlfriend then take the two children to the country town where their grandparents live, so they can spend the summer vacations in the countryside.
The uncle and his girlfriend get stuck at a station and the children
have to continue alone.
Luckily Tung-tung knows at which station to get off.
They wait at the train station.
They join other children playing with a turtle and Tung-tung demonstrates
his small radio-controlled car. In fact, he trades his car for the turtle.
Finally, uncle finds them and takes them to granpa and granma.
Granpa Liu is a doctor and reads a letter from the hospital's head-doctor about his daughter's conditions.
The children of the railway square find the house and invite
Tung-tung and Ting-ting to play with them.
They all got a turtle and want to trade theirs with one of Tung-tung's toys,
but Tung-tung only has one.
The children decide to stage a turtle race and the winner will get to trade
his turtle for Tung-tung's toy.
Then the boys jump naked in the river and Tung-tung tells Ting-ting to go away because she's not allowed to look.
One of the children, Cheng-kuo, is also watching his family's cow.
She pretends to leave but then comes back and steals their clothes and throws them in the river.
The children cover themselves with some big leaves and run back home.
On top of that, Cheng-kuo's cow has disappeared.
Cheng-kuo sets out, still naked, to find the cow, walking in the river.
The cow returns home by itself and his parents go look for the child until
they find him asleep on a bridge.
Another time Tung-tung and Cheng-kuo have climbed on a tree when the
madwoman Han-tzu appears. All the other children run away because they are
scared of her, and watch her from afar as she makes offerings to an altar
and smokes a cigarette.
They steal a bird from the cage of a bird-catcher and see him flirting with the madwoman in her shop.
When her father returns to the shop, they see the old man chasin and beating the young man with a bat.
Another uncle arrives at the house. His wife is already there with her
children. Granpa receives news about Tung-tung's mother: they from the head doctor are not good news.
Another time the children witness a crime: two young men rob two other men who are taking a nap under a bridge, and one of the two thieves is holding a big stone as if ready to crush the skulls of their sleeping victims.
Later one of the victims is carried to the house with wounds on the head.
While granpa Liu takes care of the wounded, Tung-tung tries in vain to explain
that he knows who did it: nobody pays attention to him.
Later Tung-tung witnesses when Pi-yun's mother comes to discuss her daughter
with his grandparents: the girl is pregnant and they are not married, a scandal.
Tung-tung warns uncle Chang-ming, who hides outside. When granpa sees him,
he grabs a big stick and chases him in the street, and then smashes his
Chang-ming is too scared to return home and finds another place to stay.
Another day the boys are going back to the river and don't want Ting-ting to follow them, as punishment for when she stole their clothes, but she still run after them.
The girl falls on the railway tracks just when a train is coming and at the last second the madwoman saves her life.
Tung-tung watches petrified.
The madwoman carries his sister away on her shoulders
all the way to her granpa's house and then leaves,
limping and laughing.
Granpa Liu meets with the madwoman's father: the poor girl is pregnant too.
They decide that the madwoman should give birth: it will be good
for her mental illness.
Chang-ming and Pi-yun now live together.
Tung-tung see his granma give money to Chang-ming and
Chang-ming invites Tung-tung to visit his new place.
Chang-ming explains that his granpa is not willing to give them any money.
Chang-ming and Pi-yun get married.
Tung-tung writes a letter to his parents in which he reports that he was the
only family member to attend the wedding.
A police officer who is investigating the robbery visits granpa Liu: they
have identified the attackers, and their pictures are in the newspaper.
Tung-tung looks for his uncle and stumbles just into the two criminals.
He runs away terrified but they capture him. Luckily, Pi-yun alerts Chang-ming
who stops them from harming him. Chang-ming explains to Tung-tung that the two
criminals are childhood friends of his and he must help them even if they broke
the law. However, Tung-tung reports everything to granpa Liu who calls the police.
They escape, Chang-ming is interrogated but refuses to cooperate with the police, despite his mother's pleas.
Another day Ting-ting finds a dead bird and Tung-tung tells her to throw it in the river so it will be reincarnated.
At the same time granpa Liu gets a phone call: the operation on Tung-tung's mother has complications.
Tung-tung sees his granma crying and packing for the trip: she intends to
join Tung-tung's father and offer whatever help she can.
Ting-ting brings the dead bird to the madwoman who is washing clothes in the river.
The madwoman takes the bird in her hands and starts sobbing.
She then climbs a tree to deposit the dead bird on a branch, but she falls
and injures herself.
She is taken to granpa Liu: he and granma were at the train station, with
granma ready to travel to the city, but they returned home to take care of
the poor crazy woman.
Ting-ting doesn't say a word but we guess that she feels guilty.
She ends up sleeping next to the madwoman.
The following morning Tung-tung learns that his mother recovered and writes a
letter to his parents, explaining that granpa bailed Chang-ming out of jail
and that the madwoman Han-tzu lost her baby.
Tung-tung writes that he is getting homesick.
Granpa Liu finally visits his son Chang-ming, who is in pain because he has
just been operated of hemorrhoids, and only asks him to take Tung-tung and
his sister back to the city now that their mother is feeling better.
Ting-ting sees Han-tzu and calls her to say goodbye but the madwoman ignores her.
And finally the children begin their trip back to the city.
Hou was now more interested in long takes and distant shots, a fact that
terminated his collaboration with Kung-hou Chen.
The style of
Tongnian Wangshi/ 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.
Lian Lian Fengchen/ Dust in the Wind (1986) is a sentimental melodrama,
the prototype for his stories of thwarted romance, but also a moving portrait
of poverty (bordering on Italian neorealism).
The two protagonists grew up together and take it for granted that they
will age together, going through all the stages of life together, but
they never kiss, they never hug, and they hardly communicate.
Their lives are simply programmed to converge.
It comes natural for them to take care of each other.
But there is no passion. Just a meek acceptance of their fate.
When they move to the city, though, all that predetermination is jeopardized.
Moving to the city is a choice that, inadvertently, opens a can of worms:
it unlocks even more choices. And so the young man who chooses to move to the
city to escape his predetermined fate in the village achieves precisely that: he alters his fate, and that includes losing what he took for granted, the person who would be next to him for the rest of his life.
A girl and a boy are reading while on a small commuters train in a lush foresty region.
The girl, Huen, is sad because she failed at math.
(short for Wen-yuan)
lives with his granpa, his parents and his siblings. His mother is desperate
because his brother Ding eats everything, even medicine pills: food is clearly
rationed in the household and the children are hungry.
Wan helps a neighbor write a letter to her husband.
One day Wan tells his father that he doesn't want to stay in school and his father replied that he is free to make his own decision.
Wan moves to the city and takes a job as an apprentice in a
printing shop, run by a woman, and at the same time
Wan started attending night school.
One day he picks up Huen at the train station and saves her from a dishonest
man who is trying to steal her luggage, but in the fight Wan loses the lunchbox
that he is supposed to give to the little boy of the shopowner.
Wan leaves Huen with a friend, painter Hen-chun, and goes to work.
Huen is quiet and shy.
The shopowner gets mad at Wan when her child is sent back from school after
fainting because he had no lunch. She also dislikes Wan because he is slow
Wan and Huen watch a movie in a movie theater that is annexed to the painter's studio.
Then they have dinner with Hen-chun, and
Hen-chun introduces them to his friend
King and to King's girlfriend Ying.
King tells Huen that Ying is the one who found her a job in the city.
King mentions that a shop needs a replacement for a friend of his,
Hsiung, who has been drafted for military service for two year.
This job is better paid than the one Wan has and will leave him more time to study.
During dinner Huen gives Wan
an expensive watch that his father bought in installments for him, a fact that
greatly upsets Wan.
After dinner Ying takes Huen to the tailor shop, also run by a woman.
Late at night Wan writes to his sister, who is in high school, and asks how much dad is paying for the watch.
Wan quits the job at the printing shop.
Ying and Wan live in their respective workplaces.
When Wan finally visits Ying, he is told that she cried the whole night because
Wan had not visited her for a few days and her family had not written.
Wan tells Huen that he hated the job at the printing shop but liked that he was
able to read the books they printed.
While they are chatting the mailman delivers a letter from Huen's sister.
Huen is happy again.
Hsiung introduces Wan to his new boss. Wan's new job mainly consists in
riding a motorcycle to deliver goods.
Wan and Huen, who hail from a small and poor provincial town, are shy when they have dinner with Hsiung and other city friends.
Huen even hesitates to drink alcohol.
They have saved money to visit their families.
Huen doesn't even want to spend money on a doctor when she injures an arm while ironing clothes.
While they are buying gifts for Huen's mother and sister, someone steals Wan's motorcycle.
Wan, desperate, thinks of stealing someone else's motorcycle but Huen begs him not to, the first time that we see her get emotional.
They arrive at the village.
She feels guilty that he lost his motorcycle to go shopping with her and now he is in a miserable mood.
Instead of visiting his own family, Wan goes to the beach and stares at the waves.
We don't see what he does at the beach but in the next scene he is at the police station, his clothes are all wet (did he try to kill himself?),
and the police feed him and give him a bed for the night.
The cops are watching on TV a reportage about mining.
Wan has the vision of his mother and his siblings screaming as they run inside the mineshaft and his father
injured, being carried out by other miners
Wan faints and has a nightmare.
At the village Wan's youngest brother gets ill. Granpa blames this misfortune
on Wan's father,
who swore to adopt granpa's surname when he was adopted by him
but never did. Granpa suggests that they call a shaman and perform a ritual
to change the boy's surname.
In the city Huen visits Wan, who is staying at Hen-chun's studio.
She finds Wan in bed with high fever, a brochitis (clearly the consequence of whatever happened at the beach). Hen-chun tells her that Wan refuses to see a doctor in order to save money, and Wan refuses to tell her how he got sick.
Wan gets better and Huen can leave.
Wan returns to the village while his mother is preparing
the offerings for the exorcism. His father,
instead, spends his time
discussing a strike with the other miners. The strike has something to do
with the TV reportage about mining.
At night the villagers watch a movie in an improvised open-air theater,
but the projection cannot finish because someone forgot to pay the electrical
bill. Wan's mother tells him to quit his job and stop going to night school.
Wan tells his friends that he was injured in a motorcycle accident and that
his boss is abusive.
Back in the city Wan and Huen visit a friend who is hospitalized for multiple
injuries. Huen is sad because Wan has been drafted into the army.
On the last day of work,
Wan's boss tells him how hard it was in the army during the war: he was one
of the few who survived. And then gives him a gift of cash.
Huen is preparing a shirt for Wan, her farewell gift.
Then she goes to the train station. They wait in silence until the train comes.
Then she runs away. They don't exchange a single word, they don't even hug.
Wan visits him family one last time. His father Wu-hsiung has become a drunkard.
The film fast forwards to the military camp. Wan receives a letter from Huen.
Huen tells him that Hen-chun is getting married, that
his brother Ding moved to the city and found a job,
and that she became friend with the mailman, and that she's counting the days
until he gets discharged (more than a year).
The soldiers capture a Chinese family whose fishing boat has drifted to Taiwan.
The family is treated like friends, but initially they refuse to speak and to eat the food that the soldiers offer, thinking it is poisoned.
The soldiers repair the boat and wave goodbye to them as if they were relatives.
Wan writes to Huen the funny story.
Later the soldiers mention that Wan hasn't received a letter from Huen in two months and then we see that his letters to Huen are returned because she is no longer at that address. Finally, his brother writes to him the truth: Huen married the mailman, who has a better and stable job.
Wan's mother cried, heartbroken, but then she still gave Huen the ring that had prepared for Huen's wedding with Wan.
Finally, Wan is discharged and returns to the village.
Granpa is working in the field. He welcomes Wan back and complains that he's getting old and that a typhoon damaged the crop.
Daughter of the Nile (1987) is a mix of
gangster film and realistic melodrama.
A City of Sadness (1989) is a historical drama that
covers the period between the end of World War II and the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949; the first part of a trilogy on Taiwan's post-war history.
At the same time the film is an elegiac family saga, the story of the tragic lives
of four brothers.
The narrative is complicated (sometimes unnecessarily) by a shifting viewpoint
and a sequence of scenes that tends to explain a scene in the following one.
Not only was this the first film to address the truth of the February 28
massacre carried out by the Kuomintang, but
the film was released just after
the Tiananmen Square massacre in mainland China.
After the end of World War II, Japan returns Taiwan to China, which is ruled
by Chiang Kaisheng's Kuomintang (the "nationalists"), which the people of
Taiwan call "the mainlanders".
While this is happening, a woman is giving births and we hear her screaming
during the birthpangs (a metaphor for the birth of Taiwan's new era?)
The baby is the son of Wen-heung, a widower who had it from a concubine.
Wen-heung is a frantic businessman who looks down on his younger brother
who is deaf and mute, but actually has a reputation as a talented photographer.
Wen-heung complains that he is the only normal brother of the four: one
disappeared during the war and one is mentally unstable,
Wen-heung has to support the whole family, including his lost brother's
wife and children, his old father and his own
A voiceover introduces Hinomi, a girl whose brother Hinoe has advised to work
as a nurse in a mountain hospital.
The voiceover is her diary that continues throughout the film.
She receives farewell gifts from Shizuko, a Japanese girl who lost her brother
in the war and who is being repatriated by her government.
Hinomi is one of the nurses who takes care of Wen-leung at the hospital.
He attacks the doctors and almost strangles his own brother Wen-heung before
they tie him to the bed.
Hinomi befriends the deaf-mute Wen-ching: they communicate through written
Wen-leung is released from the hospital and begins to deal with gangsters,
notably a man nicknamed Red Monkey who smuggles Japanese banknotes.
However, Red Monkey is set up by his girlfriend and kidnapped and killed
by rival gangsters.
At a family dinner the men complain about corruption and unemployment in
the island, run by a Kuomintang governor.
Wen-ching tells Hinomi that he wasn't born deaf and mute: his disability
is the consequence of a childhood accident.
Wen-heung gets extremely angry at his brother
Wen-leung when he learns of his dealings with the gangsters, and blames it
on Ah Ga, the brother of his concubine.
Wen-leung's father too is disappointed in him: the old man admitted having
broken the law but justifies it as a patriotic act against the Japanese
Wen-leung takes revenge on the gangsters by attacking them with a sword in
a remote jungle location.
A matriarch makes peace between the parties to stop the trouble initiated
Wen-ching and Hinomi travel to the coast and take pictures of themselves.
Soldiers enter the house to arrest
Wen-leung, who has been reported as a traitor who helped the Japanese when
he was in Shanghai.
Older brother Wen-heung begs the Japanese gangster who has connections with
the mainland to get Wen-leung released and pays a huge bribe.
Wen-leung is indeed released but has been tortured and has lost his mind.
A radio broadcast announces that martial law has been instituted following
the riots that broke out after the police beat a cigarette vendor
(the "February 28 Incident"). The staff of the hospital listens to it
worried about what may happen next. We learn part of the story from
Wounded people soon begin to arrive. One of the people who take refuge
at the hospital is the deaf-mute Wen-ching who collapses after telling
Hinomi what happened (via written notes): he was almost arrested on
the train as a Japanese collaborator and it was her brother Hinoe who
saved him from the soldiers.
Hinomi's brother Hinoe and some of his intellectual friends decide to
escape into the mountains.
Hinomi is also told not to go back to the hospital but to remain with
Wen-heung's family. Many people are arrested including Wen-ching, but
Wen-ching is released while others are shot.
Hinomi is happy to see Wen-ching. Flashbacks show what he tells her
via written notes: he tried to join Hinoe in the mountains but Hinoe
sent him away and told him to marry Hinomi.
Meanwhile, Wen-heung has become an angry and rude man. When a gangster
tries to stab his man Ah Ga, Wen-heung attacks the gangster, and the
gangster shoots him dead. Following the funeral, Wen-ching and Hinomi
get married. She is soon pregnant, a baby is born,
he opens a photographic studio. One day they receive a letter
that makes her cry and a flashback shows the soldiers attacking
her brother Hinoe's refuge in the mountains.
Hinomi and Wen-ching take the train to the capital, but her diary tells
us that he was arrested three days later they took a selfie.
In December 1949 Mao won the civil war and the Kuomintang moved to Taiwan.
The family's survivors dine at what used to be Wen-heung's house.
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.
This film marks the peak of Hou' improvisational style.
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, which 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.
Haishang Hua/ Flowers of Shangai (1998), based on
Han Bangqing/ Han Ziyun's novel "The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai" (1894),
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. Credit goes also to designer
Hwarng Wern-ying, cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin and soundtrack composer Yoshihiro Hanno.
The film was shot entirely in the studio.
This is the first Hou film that focuses on women.
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 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 meant as a tribute to Ozu.
Largely plot-less, the film follows the lives of young single people in the big city.
Zui Hao De Shi Guang/ Three Times (2005) is a trilogy of short films, set in three different periods (1911, 1966 and 2005), each dealing with romantic love:
between a soldier and a woman who works in a pool-hall in 1966;
between a prostitute who lives in a brothel after the Japanese invasion of 1911 and a nomadic anti-Japanese activist;
between an epileptic lesbian night-club entertainer and a photographer in 2005.
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.
Hou's first martial arts film, Cike Nie Yinniang/ The Assassin (2015), is
loosely based Pei Xing's wuxia classic "Nie Yinniang" (9th-century).
Hou is obviously more interested in creating tableux than in telling the story
and the story proceeds by incoherent jumps, and remains fundamentally
confused. There is little dialogue, as the characters seem more intent
in staring at each other and staring nowhere. It is a frustrating experience
only partially redeemed by the visual experience (credit Mark Lee Ping Bin).
So it is a film of costumes and settings, not of actions and emotions.
In fact, the action scenes are a bit amateurish: the dance scene and the
few fighting scenes look like parodies.
During the last years of the Tang Dynasty in the 10th century, as the empire
Tian Ji'an has become the semi-independent warlord of the Weibo province.
Yinniang is a beautiful woman who has been raised
by a Taoist nun who trained her to become a cold and invincible killer.
The nun orders Yinniang to assassinate a governor. Yinniang follows the
governor and his escort in the woods and suddenly attacks him and cuts
his throat. Then she disappears again in the woods.
(This first scene is shot in black and white).
Yinniang then meets the nun in a mountain temple and the nun orders
Yinniang to kill her cousin, lord Tian Ji'an.
Tian Ji'an is married to a silent and elegant wife from whom he had a son
who is still a child. Yinniang is spying on them.
Yinniang jumps in front of the lord (her cousin) but spares his life when
she focuses on the child.
Yinniang's mother is princess Jiacheng
(confusingly played by the same actress who plays the nun),
who gives a jade ring to
Yinniang has been gone for 13 years, living with the nun, and just came back home for this mission to to kill Ji'an.
who serves Ji'an, regrets the decision to let the nun raise
The general reports to the lord what other provinces are scheming and how
the court may react, but the lord is annoyed.
Four years earlier the emperor died and since then the political situation
has been complicated and dangerous.
When Ji'an visits the concubine Huji, clearly his favorite, Yinniang is
there. Ji'an chases her but Yinniang flees without striking him.
He finds the piece of jade and understands who the mysterious killer is:
his cousin Yinniang. Now we learn that they were supposed to get married
when Yinniang was 15. Ji'an is not the legitimate heir to the province,
Yinniang was. Her mother thought of solving the problem by making them
marry, and we are not told what disrupted the plan, just that this would
be a motive for Yinniang's revenge. Ji'an also remembers that
Yinniang's father once saved his life when he was a sick child.
Ji'an summons her father Nie Feng, calling him "uncle", and tells him that he has to escort the princess' brother (deemed a dangerous rival) into exile.
The two men are ambushed and almost killed but a peasant intervenes and
then Yinniang arrives in time to kill all the attackers. The peasants,
who is a mirror maker, then takes them to his humble village.
Meanwhile, Ji'an's wife learns that Huji is pregnant and is keeping it
a secret. Ji'an doesn't speak but is clearly upset and jealous.
Then we see a bearded wizard at work in his remote hut making some kind of
deadly potion. Sure enough Huji catches fire and it's
Yinniang who saves her. Ji'an thinks that
Yinniang tried to kill her and attacks her but
Yinniang simply tells him that Huji is pregnant.
Ji'an also finds evidence that it was black magic and understands that his wife
has asked the wizard for help.
He first tries to kill his wife but his son stands in front of her protecting
her, and then he orders the wizard to be killed.
His advisors again report of the political trouble in the empire, and
incidentally that Nie Feng is safe.
Yinniang meets the nun again. The nun is disappointed that
Yinniang has not killed her cousin, clearly because she still has emotions.
Yinniang justifies herself by saying that
killing Ji'an while his children are still too young would plunge Weibo into chaos.
Yinniang returns to the village and keeps her promise to escort the villagers
on a dangerous journey.