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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on November 1 , 2003.

Cinema of Sadness: Hou Hsiao-hsien and 'New Taiwanese Film'

Hou Hsiao-hsien (courtesy of Asianfilm.org)

by Adam Bingham

Towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, a number of new national cinemas began appearing in the countries of East Asia. Owing to factors primarily related to sweeping governmental change and reform, The Philippines, Hong Kong and especially Mainland China and Taiwan all produced a startlingly innovative and distinctive generation of directors who have gone on to create some of the most coherent, resonant and challenging bodies of work in contemporary world filmmaking.

Of the directors to have achieved prominence in these predictably termed ‘New Wave’ cinemas, two markedly antithetical career trajectories have become apparent. On the one hand, there are those to have been lured away to the bright lights and big budgets of Hollywood (obviously Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam, but also Taiwanese Ang Lee and Chinese Chen Kaige). Whilst others, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang, Huang Jianxin, Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang, have all remained in their homeland and have tended to make films that, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with the social and political history and reality of their country as experienced by small, everyday characters.

If it is the case that China, and its ‘fifth generation’ of filmmakers have, arguably, come to exemplify the Asian cultural and cinematic renaissance of the past 20 years more than their neighbouring countries, then it should also be noted (again arguably) that the richest strain of this revival, and indeed of the latter directorial tendency outlined above, is to be found in Taiwan. And, further still, in the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a filmmaker who has undoubtedly done the most to cultivate a distinct and distinctive national and cinematic identity for his country, as well as developing one of the most idiosyncratic filmic styles in contemporary cinema.

Constructing a national cinema

The history of filmmaking in Taiwan from the end of World War two onwards is almost as complex and erratic as the history of the country itself. Initially under strict government control as a result of a nationwide declaration of martial law following Mao Zedong’s 1949 revolution (which saw over two million mainland Chinese flee to Taiwan, transforming it into an authoritarian state). The indigenous industry spent over two decades producing little but anti-communist documentaries and imitations of popular comedies, costume pictures and especially martial-arts films from Hong Kong.

Production initially soared under the auspices of the CMPC (Central Motion Picture Corporation) in the 1960s and just after, but the constant influx of ever more dynamic and star-driven originals, as well as the setting up of Taiwan studios by major Hong Kong companies, took such a toll on domestic filmmaking that profits plummeted. And by the mid 1970s, when Taiwan’s modernization: its shift from a rural, agricultural economy to one built on technology and manufacture, was continuing apace, revenue from domestic pictures wasn’t even fully covering production costs.

Added to this was a disastrous series of political and social backward steps for the country. The forced severing of all diplomatic ties with nations like America and Japan in the early 1970s was proceeded soon after by Taiwan’s exclusion from the Olympic games. And as a result, a national crisis and, in June Yip’s words: “A period of self-reflection” [1] followed: leading to an awakening of strong nationalistic feeling and sentiment that found its artistic apogee in so-called hsiang-t’u, or nativist, literature, which broke from the mainland refugee and Western-inflected writing that had long since dominated Taiwan to focus on the particulars of the Taiwanese experience in the post-war years. The new cinema of the country can logically be seen as the heir to this tradition.

For the generation of now college-educated and white-collar workers in Taiwan who had grown up with motion pictures, this kind of cinema couldn’t come quickly enough. For some time they had been calling for an indigenous film culture that created a distinctive Taiwanese identity, and (in a similar way to what had happened in America and various European countries in the 1950s and 1960s) for a challenging and intellectually stimulating art cinema.

This coincided with the emergence in 1979 of a national archive, and in 1982 with the establishment of an annual film festival, several film magazines and the beginning of screenings of European art-house classics. The audience, the industry and indeed the country were all ready for a ‘New Taiwanese Cinema.’

The CMPC thus looked to the first post-war generation of directors, several of whom had trained at film schools in the US and who were eager to break into the industry, to make films quickly and cheaply that would put Taiwan on a par with the other Asian nations that had already (or were beginning to) establish themselves internationally. The new wave thus began with the success of two anthology films: In Our Times (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983), which brought these new filmmakers together to make a short film each as they wanted. And which between them introduced the two directors who would go on to become the most celebrated of the whole school: Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

The Sandwich Man (Central Motion Pictures, 1983

The Sandwich Man, (Central Motion Pictures, 1983).

These, in many ways very different directors took immediate advantage of the liberalization of censorship guidelines to make films that were both technically more innovative and, like the nativist literature of, say, Huang Ch’un-ming, whose stories were adapted for The Sandwich Man, much more ambitious in exploring the problems of contemporary Taiwan and the impact of its post-war history. Like other famous filmmakers working as part of new waves and new movements from almost any time since the end of World War two, these filmmakers reacted strongly against prevailing norms, and put their national cinema, as well as their country, firmly on the map. 

Edward Yang, who had briefly studied filmmaking and worked as a computer engineer in America before returning to Taiwan to write screenplays and work in television, got his big break when he directed an episode of In Our Times. He has since gone on to become ‘the’ chronicler of modern, urban Taiwan in films like Taipei Story (1985), The Terroriser (1986), the more recent Mahjong (1996) and the celebrated A One and a Two (2001).

With a calm and contemplative style, his films juggle multiple stories that overlap and interconnect, presenting a rich mosaic of life structured, not unlike, say, Eric Rohmer, around small, incidental details, everyday actions and responses to all too recognisably real life-changing incidents (redundancy in Mahjong, the loss of a relative in A One and a Two etc). These simply and subtly observed actions then slowly, almost imperceptibly build in- to an organic, complex and tangible whole; one in which issues specific to time and place are played out on a local, personal level, but which are everywhere infused with an aura of universality.

Taiwan story

Hou Hsiao-hsien, on the other hand, whilst never making films that hermetically explore only the recent history of his country, has nonetheless consistently been the most overt of his contemporaries in the way he has told personal stories that have presented small, marginal characters living their lives in the turbulent and imposing shadow of history.

Unlike Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang, even Ang Lee, Zeng Zhuangxiang and Wang Tong, whose works have tended to be set in the present and to focus much more on contemporary Taiwan, Hou has made as many films as not set in the (recent) past. And even the ones set in the present offer a far more open and sustained social analysis/critique than can be found in almost any other Taiwanese films.

Indeed, where the central question in Yang or Zeng’s work could reasonable be said to be: what does it mean to be Human and to be alive in the modern world? (which does not preclude any exploration on their part of Taiwanese identity) The same overriding inquiry in Hou’s cinema is more: what does it really mean to be a modern Taiwanese?

Born on April 8th 1947 to a member of the Hakka ethnic minority in the Southern Guangdong Province of Mainland China, Hou fled the country to Taiwan (Kaohsiung) with his parents at just two years of age to escape the civil war that followed in the wake of Mao Zedong’s 1949 revolution. A long time movie fan, Hou entered the National Taiwan College of the Arts under the film program after his mandatory two year Military service in 1969.

After graduation in 1972 and a brief stint as a salesman, he embarked on a more traditional route to becoming a filmmaker than some of his contemporaries and worked his way up through the studios, finally reaching assistant director and then screenwriter in the late 1970s (as well as being a director, he would go on to write Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, 1985 and produce Zhang Yimou’s Raise The Red Lantern, 1992).

In 1980, he finally got the chance to direct a feature film. And though the result: Cute Girl (1980), a (necessarily) rather glossy and formulaic melodrama, made very little critical inroads (and certainly didn’t herald the talent and vision to come), it did allow Hou the opportunity to direct again. And it served to win him, as a young, up-and-coming director, the chance to work on a project that would allow him to take advantage of newly relaxed censorship laws and make the kind of film that he hungered to.

Hou’s segment of The Sandwich Man, entitled The Son’s Big Doll and based, like the two others (by Zeng Zhuangxiang and Wan Ren) on stories by Huang Ch’un-Ming, is an almost plot-less, impressionistic account of hardship in 1960s Taiwan, wherein a young father who is desperate for money to feed his wife and child has to take a demeaning job as a walking advertisement board. This simple tale, lasting little over thirty minutes, introduces certain aspects of Hou’s cinema that would become trademarks over the following years and films.

For instance, the dialogue (as in the other two segments) is in Taiwanese rather than Mandarin, which was sanctioned as the official state language under Chiang Kai-Shek’s repressive and reactionary Nationalist Government. Often in Hou’s films characters speak in other languages than Mandarin: usually Taiwanese, but also Hakka, Fukienese and even Japanese.

This highlights the director’s persistent view of Taiwan as a country unto itself: not remote and isolated nor closed to other languages and cultures, but nonetheless distinctly Taiwanese: Unique and singular. In a nation that went from being a Japanese colony to an extension of Mainland China to an isolated island in a short space of time after World War 2, there has long existed an uncertainty in the Taiwanese mindset: a lack of a stable and distinctive identity. Hou’s has long been the mind that has probed into this turbulence and offered cinematic, indeed cultural representation. No easy answers (often no answers at all), but certainly the right questions.

The other trait to be taken as prophetic from The Son’s Big Doll, at least for Hou’s work in the 1980s (the scope of his films became more ambitious and esoteric in to the 1990s) is the focus on the family, and on characters nominally, condescendingly considered to be marginal to the norm (in this film one and the same). Although, like Yasujiro Ozu (the filmmaker most frequently cited as this director’s cinematic progenitor), the extended family is recurrent in Hou’s films; the displaced, poverty stricken young couple with child at the centre of this story still look forward, in their trials and tribulations but ultimate togetherness throughout adversity, to such later familial protagonists as the ones in The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) and, especially, Daughter of the Nile (1987).

The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Central Motion Pictures, 1985)

The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Central Motion Pictures, 1985. Courtesy of Strictly Film School.

The notable difference in Hou’s later 1980s films from this short effort is that the central characters are often children: either under 12s (the autobiographical The Time to Live and the Time to Die, A Summer At Grandpa’s, 1984) or teenagers (The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983, Daughter of the Nile, Dust In The Wind, 1986). With these protagonists and their families, Hou is able to explore (albeit implicitly) the tensions inherent in modern Taiwanese society, where the youth have to grow (and the country develop) at an alarming speed as traditional values crumble beneath a search for identity.

As in Ozu, generational conflicts abound (as well as in films like A Summer at Grandpa’s a dichotomy between urban and rural), and a potent sense of the gulf dividing them reflects the turbulent changes the country has undergone and is undergoing. The focus on children can therefore be seen as underlining a feeling of a new Taiwan, and such characters’ messy and protracted excursions into the realms of adulthood (the encounters with criminals in The Boys from Fengkuei and A Summer at Grandpa’s and with burgeoning sexual awakening in The Boys from Fengkuei, Dust in the Wind and Daughter of the Nile) from this viewpoint reinforce the notion of a new (i.e. transformed) nation moving none too sure-footedly forward into uncharted territory.

The observational, contemplative cinematic style of this group of films (likened to neo-realism by Abe Mark Nornes) [2] bears something of an affinity with those of Edward Yang and Zeng Zhuangxiang. Long takes and long and extreme long shots dominate these works (a comparison with Mizoguchi suggests itself, though it is more with his later works than with the rigorous and radical style of earlier films like Sisters of the Gion, 1936), with cutting and camera movement (unlike Mizoguchi) tending largely to be functional.    

The narratives of these films are very much de-dramatized, and built (not, in effect, unlike Ozu’s) as much around incidental scenes that would conventionally be elided (the train journey at the start of A Summer at Grandpa’s) and scenes that go on far beyond their establishing of any narratively significant information, than as around plot, causality or even art-cinema-like emphasis on character psychology. Hou’s is, in effect, as bold and intense a cinema of phenomenological reality as any filmmaker working today.

The slow, casual rhythms and day-to-day activities of rural life are thus to the fore, with the shots that frame characters as tiny in vast landscapes, as well as the also Ozu-like interstitial presentations of empty landscapes and interiors (that remain the same as people simply pass through them) lending a sense of these people as dominated by their environment, their society. Which, whether explicit (The Time to Live and the Time to Die) or implicit (Dust in the Wind), underlines Hou’s often central thematic of small people at the mercy of larger forces that shape and blow them around like dust in the wind (this theme becomes far more overt in later films).  

These transition, or “pillow” shots: whilst never used with the frequency or complexity of Ozu, nonetheless still bestow a feeling in Hou’s (as Ozu’s) films of the transitory nature of life, Human existence and, more centrally, childhood and all that it connotes. More than the critique of modern Taiwan as is developed in the later works (which is nonetheless detectable), these early films tend almost to coming of age or romantic tales whereby the harsh realities of the adult world inexorably intrude into childhood and shatter its innocence and fragility.

In 1989, however, as Hou moved into the next phase of his filmmaking, this largely implicit sense of huge change, of a way of life being eroded and of a darkening of personal horizons would prove to be a very apt, indeed central metaphor for the direction some of his new films would take.                      

Beyond the city of sadness

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinema changed somewhat at the end of the 1980s and beyond, taking steps toward a more overtly socio-political historicity of subject and a more refined, ambitious and obtuse tone and style (that was nevertheless built on the principles outlined above). Beginning with his so-called ‘Taiwan trilogy:’ A City Of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) and Good Men, Good Women (1995), the director worked out a highly idiosyncratic blend of the epic and the intimate in portraying sweeping nationwide transformations and reforms as seen through the eyes of almost entirely commonplace characters.

The clear precursor in Hou’s early work to his ‘Taiwanese trilogy’ (particularly A City of Sadness) is, demonstrably, The Time to Live and the Time to Die. This paradoxically serene and scathing film, which looks at a typical rural extended family as they struggle with life and cultural displacement following their post-war move from mainland China to, first Northern Taiwan and then a Southern town, was the director’s first to concern characters overtly living in the shadow of history; in this case the mass migration to Taiwan in the wake of the 1949 Chinese Communist revolution. 

A City of Sadness spans the turbulent four years leading up the aforementioned revolution: 1945 –1949; between the Japanese withdrawal from Taiwan (after 51 years of colonisation) and the secession of the country from mainland China. This was a highly uncertain, unstable and politically charged period: the key period (in many ways) in Taiwan’s 20th century history, and Hou, in his first true ensemble picture, chronicles the events as seen through the eyes and felt through the experiences of an average family: the Lin’s.

Of the multitude of characters to take centre stage throughout the film, the three (of four) brothers of the Lin family are most prominent. The eldest, Wen-Heung, returns from the war to open a restaurant in celebration of Taiwan’s reunification with China; Wen-Leung, the second most senior brother, comes out of hospital after treatment for temporary, war-induced insanity and, with no prospects and no direction, falls into organized crime. The third brother, Wen-Sun, is missing in action in the Philippines, and the youngest, the shy and pensive Wen-Ching (played by Tony Leung), runs a photography studio as he escaped conscription due to deafness (he is actually a deaf-mute, which was Hou’s practical way around the language problem for the Hong Kong actor created by his radical decision - for Taiwanese cinema - to shoot in synch sound).     

The lives of these characters play out vividly against the backdrop of the aforementioned historical period, with key real-life events, such as the infamous February 28, or 2/28, incident of 1947 when Nationalist troops were ordered on anti-government protesters, directly shaping their fates (the most powerful scene in the film has Wen-Ching, who has been detained by the authorities, nervously pacing his crowded cell unable to hear the distant gunfire from the execution of dissidents).

Hou’s focus, though, is always on the people over and above the politics. In an interview with David Noh, the director has said: “I’m more interested in people and the family…in the decay of family and the impact of that on the individual.” [3] And such a statement is amply borne out by this film, with its foregrounding of character over action in the truest possible sense. The above noted scene, for example, is typical of the films’ presentation of action only as experienced directly (or not) by the characters, never becoming the point of the film in itself. The serene first shot, as a birth is awaited during a power failure, and the similarly intimate final shot with the family patriarch and Wen-Leung sitting pensively at the dinner table also reinforce this, making it abundantly clear that these people are at the heart of history as well as the film. It is they who suffer through such turbulence and turmoil.

That A City of Sadness was Hou’s most complex and ambitious film up to that time should be somewhat self-evident in the chronology of his career. Stylistically, it takes his previous use of interstitial shots to a new height of connotation and complexity: using, for example, a shot of the entrance to a hospital several times to symbolise both death (the wounded soldiers and Wen-Leung admitted there) and life (the birth of a child).

More powerfully, the photo taken by Wen-Ching of his family when he is sure his own death is at hand is treated with overt complexity in that the still photo in the diegesis, in which the family sit nervously and awkwardly, is mirrored by the static camera and composition of the overall scene.  The effect of this is to doubly relay the feeling of a moment in time captured and crystallized forever: the very fact of which also reinforces the Common Hou element of the transitory nature of time (especially in such circumstances as the film depicts) and the mere fleeting togetherness these people have.

The long shot is similarly more pervasive throughout this film than at any time before, which serves as a visual manifestation of the notion of characters at the mercy of forces much larger than they, characters (again not unlike in Mizoguchi) dominated by their environment and society, and everything connoted by that.

City of Sadness (Artificial Eye, 1989)

City of Sadness (Artificial Eye, 1989). Courtesy of Strictly Film School.

Also, as previously stated, this is the director’s first work to handle the demands of a full ensemble cast, giving equal narrative and thematic weight to many (at least seven) characters without any one assuming centre stage and becoming the moral or emotional centre of the film or the point of identification or agent of focalisation (something pushed to the extreme in the later Flowers of Shanghai, 1998).

Furthermore, it is also the film where Hou set in motion a play with narrative experimentation that increased through subsequent works in the following decade. His next film: The Puppetmaster, which tells the biographical story of folk (puppet) artist Li Tianlu (an actor in several Hou films) over the 30 plus years of Japanese domination leading up to the war, also weaves several distinct histories (of people, place, art and culture), but does so in a much more sinuous, complex and symbolic way. In this more opaque picture, a kind of symbiosis develops whereby these various strata of truth mirror and inform one another as opposed to the dominant way the political and the social trample people underfoot in the previous work (though still is still present). 

After the ensemble method of A City of Sadness, the single protagonist in this film (of which, furthermore, he is the subject) was another step in a new direction for Hou. As was the nature of his protagonist: not in the everyday sense of which all the director’s characters have thus far been, but in the sense of an artist who (not unlike the eponymous characters in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players, 1975) in a way traverses history; who can stand to one side and make his own comment on the turmoil around him; who, though shaped as directly by what happens in society, nonetheless has a reflective outlet not open to the ordinary, everyday person.   

In this way The Puppetmaster’s overt self-reflexivity as a film, in that Li speaks directly to the camera and in that there is an ambiguity resulting from the fiction/discursive dichotomy being deliberately blurred (the picture was originally conceived as a documentary), makes stylistic and thematic sense. Li’s monologues, as well as the inserted footage of theatrical performances, seem to belong to a different textual level than the rest of the work, sometimes complementing, sometimes jarring with it, producing a film that repeats at the level of discourse the tension between the subject and the period; or, in terms more readily appropriate to Hou’s work, between the personal and the political.

The film that completes the ‘Taiwan trilogy,’ Good Men, Good Women, which again looks at the turbulent period just prior to the end of Japanese domination and just after the break from China, was Hou’s most formally accomplished up to that time. The narrative, which features a film-within-a-film and which moves freely between reality and fiction, past and present, centres, like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), on an actress who is to star in a film about a real historical incident (here the plight of resistance fighters in post-war Taiwan). She is a scarred and emotionally frail woman, and the catalyst for the difficult inward journey she makes during the course of this film is terrorization at the hands of an unknown man who has apparently has access to her diary, and thus her thoughts and secrets.  

Criticized by some for being an empty exercise in form, this film in fact is very clearly structured in a way that beautifully elucidates both story and thematic. In fact, the above comparison with Resnais, one of the cinema’s supreme poets of memory and time, is not as superficial as it may seem. Hiroshima Mon Amour, along with his chilling concentration camp documentary Night and Fog (1955), both foreground the notion of remembering past tragedies, of passing them on as part of an almost national consciousness, and the trouble of representation when it comes to film.

Good Men, Good Women, whilst never as overt as in Resnais in this regard, still contains an element of such a thematic in the proposed film about the anti-Japan student resistance fighters (whom, crucially, we actually see at the very beginning). This, of course, can be seen as a comment on the nature of what Hou has spent much of his career trying to accomplish: a direct engagement with Taiwan’s turbulent past as a means of fostering a resonant national identity (although a degree of ambiguity holds forth in that overt filmic dramatization has never been Hou’s project, and, as one of the points of Hiroshima Mon Amour implies, direct representation is impossible and/or useless).

However, the real heart of this film beats in the same way as in its progenitor’s in Hou’s oeuvre, and the central focus here extends the scope of A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster to neatly tie up the trilogy by commenting on the state of Taiwan today, and comparing it with the Taiwan of the 1940s. There are three distinct time periods that converge during this film: the early 1940s/50s of the actual resistance fight and the staged reconstruction, the recollected point in time of Liang’s troubles when she dated a smalltime gangster (which is not explicitly identified but which can be taken as being roughly the late 60s/early 70s). And, most importantly, the present: contemporary Taiwan.

As the writer Acquarello astutely points out:

"By presenting the temporal confluence of three separate historically and personally relevant time periods, Hou not only reveals Liang’s behavioural pattern of anonymous affairs, emotional isolation, and inner turmoil, but also parallels her self-destructive behaviour with the national crisis of identity, hedonism, and cultural disconnection in contemporary Taiwan." [4]

The essence of the social conscience of Good Men, Good Women is that Liang’s betrayal of the memory of her first love, Ah Wei, by a forced suppression (the mysterious terrorizer could in fact be read as an external manifestation of her guilt and grief) corresponds to Taiwan’s own persecution of its people during what is now known as the White Terror: the denunciation of anti-Japanese resistance fighters in the 1950s as Communist sympathisers under Chiang Kai-Shek. She can then be seen as representative of her country’s modern plight in her own unstable identity (she was once a drug addict and sleazy bar hostess) and the fact that she can never hope to move forward when her past remains so tremulously turbulent and unresolved.

Good Men, Good Women (3H Films/Shochiku Films, 1995)

Good Men, Good Women (3H Films/Shochiku Films, 1995). Courtesy of Strictly Film School.

Although another film designed as a commentary on modern, 90s Taiwan: Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) was consciously made with a different pace and rhythm to Hou’s previous meditative, quiescent work, being largely composed at it is of a multitude of various travelling shots. In terms of content, it echoes not only the director’s own The Boys From Fengkuei in its story of small time punks on the fringes of the underworld, but also Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988). Stylistically also the film has overtones of the above mentioned works (particularly Wong’s) with its kinetic soundtrack and far more free form camerawork than is the norm with Hou. It is a film full of movement (especially the interstitial travelling shots taken from vehicles mentioned above): which not only reflects the aimless experiences of the protagonists, but also the cultural disconnection of Taiwan itself.

With Hou’s next film came the biggest and boldest move away from the kind of filmmaking he had become justly celebrated for; a film that really seemed designed to push the envelope out as far as possible: Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Set exclusively in the brothels, or ‘flower houses,’ of late 19th Century Shanghai (Hou’s first work set outside Taiwan), and following the personal, intimate stories of several ‘flower girls’ and the men who patronize them, this is a film told almost entirely in sequence shots, and with an elliptical narrative construction to match that of Ozu in Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) or An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

The thrust of that narrative concerns two stories, with a third developing contrapuntally quite late on. The main thread sees Civil Servant Master Wang (Tony Leung in his second performance for Hou after A City of Sadness) encounter problems of monogamy (although it may all be in his mind) with first one and then another of his chosen flower girl partners. The second most prominent story has a more mature flower girl, Emerald, trying to buy her freedom and independence after a lifetime of working in the flower houses.

Then, late in the day, another tale becomes fore-grounded, whereby a rich heir, Master Zhu, begins seeing (after much chasing earlier on) a flower girl called Jade, and their romance comes bitterly to an end when she attempts to make good on a suicide pact they both agreed on when they first started courting. These two/three stories all intertwine to a great extent throughout Flowers of Shanghai, and thematically mirror and invert one another. Wang and Jade’s stories both involve couplings with a dominant partner imposing his/her will on the relationship, as well as protagonists with an almost pathological need for sole unity with another (though each character is permitted an empathic understanding, even when not graced by sympathy). Emerald on the other hand sits in the middle as someone wanting out of a life of domination and submission, to the extent that she refuses help and buys her independence herself.

Even more than the structure, the style of this film is singularly unique for Hou. Whereas all of his previous films have been shot largely on location and with a very naturalistic mise en scene, this was filmed entirely in the studio and, like the interior scenes in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), has the dreamlike effect of being lit entirely by diegetic sources. The result of this is that the world we see depicted has an illusory, artificial quality that seems an external explosion of the various kinds of illusion and self-delusion on view from the various characters, particularly Jade and Wang.  

Flowers of Shanghai (3H Films/Shochiku Films, 1998)

Flowers of Shanghai (3H Films/Shochiku Films, 1998). Courtesy of Strictly Film School.

Another Ozu-esque feature in this film: Hou’s extreme limiting of style and perspective, makes it similarly possible for a very meaningful and creative deviation from those intrinsic norms. Just as a crane or autonomous tracking shot in Early Summer (1951) seems loaded with significance, so too is the moment here when Wang looks under a door to see (what he thinks is) his girl, Crimson, being unfaithful, and Hou cuts to a direct POV shot, of an oblique view of two people’s feet.

Of the several possible motivations for this decision (a more complete identification with Wang being the most obvious), the most plausible actually seems to be that Hou is using an alignment with this character not in order for us to become identify more with him (the positioning of these characters in the narrative precludes sole identification), but for just the opposite: for us to understand his irrational mind by seeing exactly that it is far from clear from what he sees and how he sees it that Crimson being unfaithful (the girl Wang then marries, Jasmin, is later beaten by him for infidelity, but this whole episode is elided entirely).

With Flowers Of Shanghai, Hou’s cinema would seem to have moved well away from the type of filmmaking that has defined his career for much of its duration. A subsequent film, the little seen Millennium Mambo (2001) is in many ways another eye opener. Stylistically it actually feels more like a Tsai Ming-Liang picture, with its intensely claustrophobic tone and oblique compositions (characters half-viewed through doorways etc). But, thematically, in its portrait of a girl building up to dumping her unemployed, layabout boyfriend whom she supports, it can be seen as a companion piece to Flowers of Shanghai, in that both films feature a protagonist desperate for freedom from an aimless relationship (or series of them in the earlier film) and independence in a culture still largely unsympathetic to their plight.

Where Hou’s filmmaking will go next is a question now harder than ever to answer. Unlike Yang or Liang, Hou has recently substantially departed from the style of filmmaking for which he became famous. But, unlike his friend Yang (who had his biggest success yet, and indeed his first film to gain widespread international distribution, with A One and a Two), his work is being much less shown and much harder to see, and perhaps, given the broad production base of Millennium Mambo, even harder to make.

It certainly seems that the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ has run its course as a (more or less) coherent movement, and indeed that the industry itself has done likewise, as Yang recently declared it completely dead. What is surely above reproach is that it produced several major directors that will continue to produce challenging and innovative work (of whatever description) that should still explore problems and issues pertinent to the country as it struggles on through its recent, indeed ongoing hard times.

In an age where the concept of national cinemas, as defined by Andrew Higson in terms of cultural identity [5] seems to have somewhat less currency than it once did (in the golden age of art cinema in the 1960s, for example), it is to be hoped that Hou Hsiao-hsien and Taiwan’s great filmmakers, as in other Asian nations (like Korea, which has recently been put on the map thanks to filmmakers such as Jang Sun-Woo and Lee Myung-Se), can continue to assert both their unique cinematic sensibility and to (almost communally) produce work that constitutes a serious engagement with the reality in which they live. Wim Wenders has said of European cinema that without its own images, it will lose its identity, [6] and the same could easily be remarked of Taiwan. There, as in other Asian countries (as also in the Middle East), this strain of national filmmaking has rarely been more vital, or more rewarding.      



[1] Yip, J in Nowell-Smith, G (ed). The Oxford History Of World Cinema: Taiwanese New Cinema. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 712.   

[2] Nornes, A.M.

[3] ibid. (From Noh’s interview with Hou that can be read as part of the same epic study of all aspects of his cinema at Cinema-space at the above web page.

[4] Acquarello. http://www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/hou/html

[5] Higson, A in C. Fowler (ed). The European Cinema Reader, The Concept of National Cinema. London, Routledge, 2002. pp. 132-142. 

[6] Wenders, W in Jones, S in W. Everett (ed). European Identity in Cinema, Wenders’ Paris, Texas and the ‘European way of seeing.’ Exeter, Intellect Books, 1996. p. 45.

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