Book Review: The Humanist Cinema of Taiwanese Director Hou Hsiao-hsien — Nothing But the Essential

An exciting complement to the new book is a traveling retrospective of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, a rare opportunity to see 19 of the director’s movies shown on 35mm film: at Cambridge’s Harvard Film Archive through November 2.

Hou Hsiao-hsien – Edited by Richard I. Suchenski. Austrian Film Museum Books, distributed by Columbia University Press. 256 pages. $32.50.

By Betsy Sherman

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The rewarding, humanist cinema of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien gets an in-depth examination in a new collection of essays named for the 67-year-old filmmaker. Editor Richard I. Suchenski, founder and director of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College, has assembled a group of scholars that spans several nationalities and cultures. In addition to their comments on the many facets Hou’s work, there are pieces by, and interviews with, fellow filmmakers and artistic collaborators. The book is volume 23 in the Austrian Film Museum’s FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen series.

An exciting complement to the book’s publication is a traveling retrospective of Hou’s films called Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. The series, a rare opportunity to see 19 of the director’s movies shown on 35mm film, began a month-long run at Harvard Film Archive on Friday, October 3 (it will be followed on November 3 by the in-person visit of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Pin, who has photographed many of Hou’s features and will be showing Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town).

Born in Mainland China but raised in Taiwan, Hou trained to become a skillful maker of mainstream films, television and commercials. Then something happened that made him regard the cinema as not merely an entertainment medium but a way to express a vision more personal and poetic. Or, according to Jean-Michel Frodon in his essay “Unexpected but Fertile Convergence,” two things happened. First, Hou began an artistic collaboration with the young author Chu Tien-wen when he adapted one of her stories into the screenplay for Growing Up (1983). She introduced him to traditional Taiwanese and Chinese literature, as well as to visual and performance-based arts. Inspired by his discoveries, Hou developed an interpretive style of, as he has said, “looking from afar, as if watching the world’s disorders in a detached way.” Secondly, he banded together with a group of young directors who would emerge as the New Taiwan Cinema; the two who gained prominence on the world stage were Hou and the late Edward Yang. Olivier Assayas, who celebrated Hou’s artistic process in the 1997 documentary HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien, in his essay calls Hou’s style “at once intuitive, powerful and contemplative, at a remove from any attempts at seduction, and able to use sheer brute force to head towards the essential and nothing but the essential.”

A scene from Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Puppermaster."

A scene from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Puppermaster.”

A familiarity with 20th-century Taiwanese history helps in understanding Hou’s oeuvre, which contains several period pieces and prizes wordless communication and subtext over explicit exposition. Suchenski asserts that Hou explores history “in all its complexity, upending expectations and refusing facile judgment,” and has organized the collection in a way that gives readers a quick grounding in the complex relationship among native Taiwanese, Japanese occupiers, and emigrants from the Mainland. Peggy Chiao provides context with “In Search of Taiwan’s Identity: Nativism and Traditional Aesthetics in A City of Sadness.” Hou’s 1989 masterpiece spotlights the travails of one family during the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of rule by exiled Chinese nationalists, the Kuomintang. Chiao writes: “The power shift from the Japanese to the KMT is expressed through dialogue, music (songs and the score), images, and metaphors, all informed by a sense of fate and irony.” Similarly, Jean Ma describes the mixture of feelings evoked by The Puppetmaster (1993), an epic that relates the real-life story of budai xi puppetry performer Li Tien-lu: “These ‘slices of life’ convey a shift from the representation of history as grand narrative into a more minor key, with history mediated by ordinary life, its grand schemes overshadowed by the personal rather than vice versa.”

Commentators discuss not only what Hou accomplishes, but also how he does it. The director feeds to his audience elements both visual and auditory which don’t always connect in a conventional or logical manner; intelligent and patient viewers are trusted to forge these joins themselves, or to let them be (Frodon invokes the Chinese concept of the Void, as in the way a painter deliberately leaves some paper blank). Hallmarks of the Hou style (especially in his earlier films) are his still, contemplative camera and shots that are both long in duration and long in the distance between the lens and the subject. As in the work of the filmmaker with whom Hou is most often compared, Yasujiro Ozu, there is a fascination with the gestures, objects, and interactions common to everyday life. As Suchenski puts it, “In film after film, a holistic impression of the cultural layering and vital energies of a period gradually emerges from the accumulation of seemingly anecdotal minutiae.” Abé Mark Nornes, delighted by Hou’s paradoxes, declares that “what is so striking about Hou’s cinema is its odd combination of randomness—of narrative events, of mise-en-scene, of narrative space—with masterful control.”

A scene from one of Hou Hasiao-hsien' s masterpiece -- "A City of Sadness."

A scene from one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’ s masterpieces — “A City of Sadness.”

The critical assessments give way to reports from the trenches by the men and women who work with this iconoclast who, says one, “tends not to communicate with his crew members” and “does not use precise scripts or detailed storyboards.” There’s an interview with Hou in which we learn a bit about his forthcoming martial arts film The Assassin (2015). Suchenski draws on a key quote for the interview’s title, “Working Within Limits.” Hou’s discipline of challenging himself with a limit for each project–for example, his period piece Flowers of Shanghai (1998) employed fewer than 40 shots and was set in a closed environment—says something about his restless creative spirit (“Within limits you are free”).

The volume has a good variety of voices, and the writers (in some cases their translators) seem stirred by their subject’s example to craft some lovely phrases. A few of the scholars, preoccupied with quantifying Hou’s art, take a stopwatch to his lengthy shots—it could be useful, it’s just not very interesting. When academic reserve threatens to dominate, a firecracker goes off with Hasumi Shigehiko’s opening gush about Flowers of Shanghai: “A magnificent film exists …” (there’s even a leap to Busby Berkeley’s “Shanghai Lil” number in Footlight Parade). There’s a minor, but vexing, speed bump regarding the book’s usefulness: no index.

A definite highlight is the interview with Hou’s longtime editor and sometime producer, Liao Ching-sung, entitled “Finding the Right Balance.” The old friends have a relationship that is occasionally contentious, but each is intensely invested in the work. Liao pegs his old friend with candor and insight: “Hou is a meticulous perfectionist camouflaged by a quasi-casual attitude. He tends to say ‘It doesn’t matter,’ but it all matters.”

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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