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Revisiting Hou Hsiao Hsien's Best of Times

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

Hou Hsiao Hsien is one of the most important film directors in contemporary Taiwan. Even if his films are not always blockbusters, there is no doubt in his artistic achievements. Peggy Chiao, author of Films: Made in Taiwan, describes Hou as a director whose "unique aesthetic style illustrates a combination of the introspectiveness and maturity of the Eastern style and the Westernized objectivity and alienation." Hou himself summarizes such an aesthetic in one line: "Being close yet so faraway, being faraway yet so close." Spoken in praise of Stanley Kwan, this line also captures Hou's perspective on what film art should be like.

Revisiting Hou Hsiao Hsien's Early Works

Born in 1947, Hou Hsiao Hsien entered the film industry after graduating from the National Taiwan Arts Academy and worked as an assistant director and a scriptwriter. In 1981, he made his first films Cute Girl (aka Lovable You) and Blind of Love (aka Play While You Play). With The Green, Green Grass of Home and The Sandwich Man: The Son's Big Doll (adapted from Huang Chun Ming's short story), Hou gradually changed his style to move beyond commercial filmmaking.

All the Youthful Days (aka The Boys from Fengkuei) (1983) was the turning point when Hou began to create in a self-conscious way instead of depending on pure intuition. Hou once frankly admitted that All the Youthful Days is his most beloved and powerful film because of the directly and purely portrayed emotions.

Following All the Youthful Days, Hou directed several films that drew from his experiences growing up - A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), and Dust in the Wind (1986). All of these films, including All the Youthful Days, are about Taiwan in the 60s and 70s. The rich pastoral imagery and spirit are the metaphorical motif of the cinematic bildungsroman. Hou deliberately puts the protagonist's enlightened vision in binary opposition between the urban and the rural. The process of growing up finally culminates in the city with the child's innocence forever gone, much like the villages that disappeared during the economic boom in the 60s and 70s. The chaotic and disordered urban space of the cinematic world becomes the place that youth most yearn for.

In Hou's next work, Daughter of the Nile (1987), the camera focuses on the contemporary Taiwanese city, showing a side interest in the city's grotesqueness and gaudiness, but the central issue remains around the growing teen. For Hou lost innocence seemed to be the most interesting cinematic aftertaste.

After a period of reminiscence for the lost village and childhood, Hou's next three films - City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Men, Good Women (1995) - revisited the historical memory of Taiwan with topics like the Japanese occupation and the taboo "2-28 Incident". These three films are also known as the "Taiwan Trilogy" or the "Trilogy of Sadness". Next, Hou made Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), which is about modern life in contemporary Taipei; Flowers of Shanghai (1998), an adaptation of an Eileen Chang novel; and Millennium Mambo (2001), which was a complete departure from his previous style. Looking at Hou's various cinematic forms and styles, is there any remembrance of the good old past hidden behind the portrayals of alienated interpersonal relationships and reconstruction of past splendor?

Revisiting the Past in the Cafe

Hou Hsiao Hsien was invited by Shochiku Co.,Ltd. in 2003 to film Cafe Lumiere in commemoration of the 100th birthday of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Starring Japanese pop singer Hitoto Yo (whose mother is Taiwanese) and Tadanobu Asano, the film is about the freelance writer Yoko (Hitoto Yo), who is tracing the footsteps of the Taiwanese composer Jiang Wenye's life in Japan. Returning to Japan from Taiwan, Yoko finds that she is pregnant with her Taiwanese boyfriend's child, but she decides to bring up the child alone rather than marry abroad. Her elderly parents, though worried, can only leave her be when she tells them the news. Yoko always spends her time drinking coffee with Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), a secondhand bookstore owner and railway fan. After meeting Jiang Wenye's widow and her parents' visit, Yoko develops different views about family, Hajime, and her unborn baby.

As Hou's first foreign film, Cafe Lumiere does not portray the nostalgia for the village, the rethinking of history, or the disorderliness of the modern city. However, in echoing Ozu's concern for the family, Hou expresses a plain and light feeling towards the changes in contemporary familial relationships. Hou explained that he had been imagining what Ozu would think of today's Japan while he was making the film. The tram in the opening scene of Cafe Lumiere is obviously a tribute to Ozu as trams frequently appear in Ozu's works. Yoko's parent's visit in Tokyo is also an interesting mirror of the widow Setsuko Hara receiving her visiting parents-in-law in Tokyo Story. Hou Hsiao Hsien's Cafe Lumiere is not simply a remake of Tokyo Story, as there is between the two a connection as complicated as the transit network in Tokyo.

Yoko is psychologically and physically dependent on her parents. In telling her parents about her pregnancy, she hopes to get spiritual support from her family to face pre-marital motherhood. Near the film's end, Yoko childishly demands a dish of meat and potatoes and she and her mother borrow some sake from the neighbor - these scenes clearly show the warmth between the two generations. No doubt, these scenes depict the same meaning of familial affection between the elderly parents and the daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story. The parents, though worried about disturbing the daily lives of their children, are nicely received by the daughter-in-law. Yoko's parents, in contrast, have to take care of Yoko's finances and everyday routines. Such a situation captures the abnormality of present day familial relationships. We also must not forget that Yoko's family was once broken, and the mother we see on screen is actually her father's second wife.

In Cafe Lumiere, Hou also attempts to connect with Ozu through cinematic language. There is both continuation and subversion of Ozu's language. While all Ozu's characters are shot at a lower eye-level, as if the spectator is resting on the tatami, in Cafe Lumiere, this angle is used only when capturing Yoko's parents. Characters in Cafe Lumiere speak with their backs to the camera even in important scenes like Yoko announcing her pregnancy. Ozu, however, never shoots conversation scenes from behind. Hou's signature use of long takes, fixed camera angle, and empty shots make frequent appearances.

Cafe Lumiere should be seen not only in reference to Ozu's films, but also the ethics and values that are stressed, as they have disappeared from contemporary Japan and Taiwan. All the reminiscence elements point to this issue. Hajime's old books, retracing Jiang Wenye's story (implying the history of Taiwan), and even the only existing surface tramway in Tokyo all represent the memory of disappearance. Cafe Lumiere, however, does not fall into emotional indulgence of the past; rather, it revisits the past peacefully and calmly in order to understand the path to the future.

Revisiting the Best Memory

Hou returns to local issues after Cafe Lumiere with Three Times (2005). Starring Chang Chen and Shu Qi in multiple roles, the film weaves three love stories that are reincarnations of each other. In "A Time of Love", set in 1966, a young man, who is about to enter the military service, falls in love with a girl working in a parlor. She disappears when he returns from holiday, and his search for her takes him all over Taiwan. The second episode, "A Time for Freedom", goes back to the 1911 Revolution period and portrays the tender relationship between a courtesan and a man who is promoting Taiwan's freedom from Japanese occupation. Trapped by circumstances, she wonders about her own freedom as well. The third episode, "A Time for Youth", is a contemporary tale set in 2005 in which a young, bisexual, epileptic woman falls in love with a photographer in a printing shop. She gradually ignores her girlfriend, but the triangular relationship remains confusing and meaningless.

These three "times" record three different eras in Taiwan. The parlor in "A Time of Love" and the popular song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes reflect the influence of American culture in Taiwan since the late 50s. "A Time for Freedom" sidetracks the conflicts and tensions during the Japanese occupation by keeping the outside world distant. Its presentation as a silent film not only avoids the challenge of speaking in old dialect and Japanese, it also serves as a remembrance of classic cinema. "A Time for Youth" represents the urban youth being soaked into the sub-cultures of a disorderly Taipei.

Three Times can be considered Hou's revisit of his previous films, with every episode reminding us of various periods in his cinematic journey. The parlor in A Time of Love echoes with Hou's beloved All the Youthful Days. The realistic tone, descriptions of the growth experiences of the protagonists, and the autobiographical elements in this episode also echo with A Summer at Grandpa's, A Time to Live, A Time to Die, and Dust in the Wind. The female courtesan in "A Time for Freedom" naturally reminds us of the strong female image in Flowers of Shanghai. The historical consciousness about the Japanese occupation period, in turn, is a conceptual continuation of City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women. The disorderly Taipei in "A Time of Love" continues the exploration of contemporary youth culture and laments the loss of innocence like Daughter of the Nile, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo.

The love stories in Three Times continuously reincarnate, just like the cyclical rebirth of the central issues in Hou Hsiao Hsien's films. Disappearing villages, disappearing simplicity, disappearing history - romanticized by memory, lost time can reappear again and again through the lights and shadows of film.

Hou Hsiao Hsien's own words say it best: "Our lives are full of fragmentary memories. We can't give them names, we can't classify them and they have no great significance. But they lodge in the mind, somehow unshakeable... 'The best,' not because we can't forget them, because they're things that have now been lost. The reason they're the best is that they exist only in our memories." (Quoted from the official website of Three Times.)

When time is lost, it becomes good time. Because Hou Hsiao Hsien's films are good, they always linger.

(English translation by Fiona Law. Originally published in a.m. post Issue 19. Reprinted with permission.)

Published August 12, 2006

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