The Review/ Feature/

Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Infinite Sadness

As our Olivier Assayas retrospective comes to a close, we spotlight one of the French director’s greatest influences

by James Quandt
Aug 18, 2017

As our Olivier Assayas retrospective comes to a close, we spotlight one of the French director’s greatest influences: the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, whom Assayas profiled in his essential documentary HHH – Portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien.

In this essay written for our Hou retrospective in winter 2015, TIFF Cinematheque Senior Programmer James Quandt reflects on the melancholy beauty and aesthetic rigour of this filmmaker whose influence is now pervasive in international art cinema.

These are the saddest films ever made. One might say the same about the films of Nicholas Ray or Mikio Naruse, directors with whom Hou has glancing affinities, but in contemporary cinema no filmmaker has so insistently defined life as an accrual of loss and injury, of broken or vanished ideals and irretrievable loves, as Hou. The Ray-like ending of his early work Dust in the Wind (whose very title intimates mortality) suggests that as fated and ephemeral as life is, it also offers us the consolations of place and memory. (Never mind the implied consolation of art, of which Hou’s is paramount.) But memory, as the tormented heroine discovers in Good Men, Good Women, can become less solace than trap, and place—all-important to Hou, poet of verdant landscapes, rural train stations, and mingy, inhospitable cities—cannot transcend the history that weighs upon it. The capital Taipei, the port city Kaohsiung, the seaside town Giu Fen, the bucolic hillside villages of Hou’s autobiographical films, and the Shanghai either invoked or actual are all, in Hou's melancholy estimation, sites of stoic despair, all in some way “cities of sadness.” (Perhaps the Paris of Flight of the Red Balloon eludes this description, but even its radiance cannot mask a Houian sense of isolation and disquiet.)

The bereft tone of that phrase, drawn from the title of Hou’s epochal 1989 family saga, characterizes much of his cinema. Even the comparatively direct, largely autobiographical early films — The Boys from Fengkuei, A Time to Live and a Time to Die and A Summer at Grandpa’s — eddy with unease despite their delicate, summery surfaces and pastoral settings, and one can already discern an acute awareness of how history impinges upon the personal.

Time to Live (FRL)

A Time to Live and a Time to Die

Filmed in the village in which Hou grew up and set in the fateful year of 1947 (the mere mention of which elicits dire memories in the minds of many Taiwanese), Hou’s breakthrough film A Time to Live and a Time to Die aches with nostalgia for the Mainland his family had to leave behind and evokes the immense loneliness of their new life in Taiwan. The isolation and unease of the elders — the addled granny orders a rickshaw to take her to the Mainland, while the father seems to die of longing as much as from tuberculosis — breeds in the children a sense of insecurity and dislocation (a psychological legacy readily apparent in much of the New Taiwanese Cinema), while the film’s oblique references to political events — including an ominous incident in which a military convoy passes by the family’s household in the middle of the night — suggest that the destiny of the boys abandoned at the end of the film is inextricable with the fate of their new country.


Dust in the Wind

Dust in the Wind extends the theme of exile in its quiet chronicle of two young people who move from their hillside village to Taipei and find themselves exploited and adrift. Full of fugitive, unfulfilled yearnings, Dust reveals Hou’s romantic attachment to the disappearing traditions and landscapes, the paradise past, of Taiwan. While the nostalgic tone of Hou’s early work sometimes veers into the sentimental (the music in A Time to Live and a Time to Die, for instance, is pure slurp), the emotion in these films is consistently heartfelt, true, unstinting; in Dust, a fixed shot of the boy’s grandfather — played by octogenarian actor and official “national treasure” Li Tien-lu, whose life story would be the basis of Hou’s subsequent film The Puppetmaster — gazing into the serried green of the surrounding hills captures in one rending image Hou’s vision of an eternal Taiwan, rooted in the land and centred on the family. (Small wonder that many of Hou’s admirers have seized on comparisons with John Ford, but Hou’s nativist cleaving to the past never seems self-mythologizing, as Ford’s so often does.)

Martial law was lifted in Taiwan the same year Dust in the Wind was released. With a welter of mixed metaphor, Hou described this sudden freedom: “Like spring has come and a hundred flowers can’t but bloom. If you have been shut up for a long period, you can’t help bursting out with your feelings, and use different media, like the movies, to do so. You are like a newborn baby, full of energy and vitality.” Ironically, the films Hou produced under the new democracy — including his “Taiwan Trilogy” of City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women, which spans the postwar history of the island — were even more meditative and elliptical than his previous work, which led some leftist critics to chastise Hou for what they considered his personalizing of historical events and slighting of economic and political forces.

Focusing on an extended family in the years between the end of World War II and the takeover of Taiwan by the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces after the Communist victory on the Mainland, Hou’s intimate epic City of Sadness was the first film to address an event which had deeply scarred Taiwan’s body politic: the “2.28 Incident,” referring to the massacre begun on February 28, 1947 when a struggle between a policeman and a Taiwanese woman erupted into an island-wide conflagration. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Nationalist regime, whose forces killed as many as 20,000 Taiwanese natives and broke the independence movement. Expunged from official history, the 2.28 Incident became a kind of festering wound, left suppressed and suppurating in the national memory.


The Puppetmaster

Even as it exposes this hidden history, like much of Hou’s late work City of Sadness demands urgent, unwavering attention, so abstruse is its narrative; and if City sometimes seems to require a full exegetical apparatus of family trees and background notes on Taiwanese history, The Puppetmaster is even more demanding. As he would henceforth, in The Puppetmaster Hou compresses time, sometimes conflating past and present within the same frame, or leaping a decade in a single cut. The caesuras between narrative events can be abrupt, or unmarked, or provisory; he elides central events or leaves them off-screen, and collapses fact and fiction, history and performance; moves between a multitude of characters with an occasionally baffling lack of transitional devices, and fills his deep-focus, long-held compositions with so much quotidian detail that one’s eye is left to roam a field of potential signifiers that may be mundane, even indifferent, but seem so implicative that they demand deciphering. (A character’s red hat in Flowers of Shanghai, for instance, initially seems ornamental but becomes key to the meaning of the film.)

The final panel in Hou’s historical triptych, Good Men, Good Women, explores another topic long taboo in Taiwan: the period known as the “White Terror,” during which 1950s Cold War paranoia escalated into full-scale repression as the Chiang Kai-shek regime imprisoned or executed many leftists and freedom fighters. Once again merging past and present, Hou examines how the inhibition of a painful past continues to exact a psychic toll through a daring juxtaposition of political/historic memory—in the tragic tale of Chiang Bi-yu, a brave Taiwanese patriot who fell victim to the Nationalist repression—with personal/romantic memory, in the story of an actress playing Chiang in a film who begins to receive pages from her own stolen journal via fax, a reminder that she cannot live in the present, so wounding and utter is her memory of the man she loved and lost. (That she succumbed to booze and smack while he was alive only underscores her drift to oblivion.) Good men and good women still exist in modern Taiwan, Hou suggests, but idealism and commitment (to anything other than the immediate and the monetary) now seem impossible.


Hou Hsiao-hsien


Yasujiro Ozu

When Hou emerged in the ’80s as a major auteur whose personal vision and stringent aesthetic miraculously combined humanism and formalism, the inevitable search for influences led some of us to premature conclusions. For many, Hou’s debt to Yasujiro Ozu seemed obvious: the focus on the everyday and seemingly insignificant; the charged domestic spaces, organized as frames within frames; the precise frontal compositions and static, observant low shots that hang back from a scene, often fixed on an “empty” or abandoned space, just vacated or about to be entered; the subdued, contemplative rhythms and atmosphere of disappointment, even despair, slowly gathering to exquisite epiphany. (Some even saw Hou’s interstitial shots — e.g., a tree in A Time to Live or the darkling isle in City of Sadness — as the equivalent of Ozu’s trademark “pillow shots.”) That Japan had occupied Taiwan for the first half of the century, leaving many vestiges of its culture, only reinforced this assumption of influence.

However, Hou has long been adamant that he saw no Ozu films until he was well into his career, at which point he recognized the affinity. (He later placed an italicized reference to Ozu in the opening sequences of Good Men, Good Women before producing a full-fledge homage to the director in Café Lumière.) Subsequent scholarship has placed more emphasis on Hou’s domestic influences — Hong Kong critic Stephen Teo, for instance, has explored Hou’s roots in Chinese melodrama or wenyi, with its bathetic emphasis on ren qing (“human feeling or relationships”) and beihuan lihe (“the joys and sorrows of human life”) — while according to Hou’s own account, his cinema was shaped by an impure confluence of chambara and action films from Japan and Hong Kong, European art cinema (he cites Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex and Godard’s Breathless, as well as Bresson, Antonioni, and Truffaut), and diverse American imports such as Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity and Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement.

Hou has also repeatedly corrected assertions that his emphasis on the “empty” frame, his use of off-screen space and ellipsis, are derived from Ozu or from European modernism. Rather, he says, they originate in the Chinese visual tradition of liu-pai — literally, “to leave a whiteness” — which asks the audience to infer the absent, to imagine the whole when shown only a little, and ally with the artist “to complete the shot.” This conjoins with his use of the Chinese narrative tradition, which — in its method whereby the part stands for the whole, revealing it more intensely — is roughly equivalent to the poetic device of synecdoche. As Hou explains:

It’s like a piece of rope which you dip in oil. You only want to use one portion of it but the whole rope must still be soaked.... This type of structure is like our ancient Chinese theatre. It simply gives a scene without much of a clear narrative, unlike Western drama where all the elements must be put in place. Ellipsis and other indirect narrative methods are, ironically, more clear-cut and to the point. It all depends on how you master these methods.... This is like a Chinese painter who paints a plum blossom. He doesn’t need to paint the whole tree, just a twig, and it would be enough to leave an impression, not only in terms of its fidelity to the subject but also the feelings it conveys. It asks the viewer to use his own powers of imagination, to join in the pleasures of looking with the artist, and to embark on the process of interpretation.


Theo Angelopoulos' The Travelling Players

Although critics have fastened on Hou’s similarities with Ozu and Ford, an equally fruitful (if ultimately deceptive) point of comparison is the late Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who, like Hou, achieved the stature of national bard or poet laureate, their respective canons cohering as vast, imposing meditations on their nations’ tumultuous 20th-century histories. This is not to suggest, however, that either saw or absorbed the other’s films. The analogies between these two fundamentally unlike directors are merely suggestive, and remind one that any two filmmakers can be made to seem soulmates, just as any two images from disparate movies can, through the sheer pressure of juxtaposition or montage, seem to mirror each other. However, a pointed comparison with Angelopoulos helps to emphasize Hou’s great achievement, his questing ability to refine and intensify his artistry while the other gradually succumbed to pomposity.

To begin with, both Angelopoulos and Hou developed their narrative styles under oppressive regimes (the colonels’ dictatorship in Greece, Kuomintang martial law in Taiwan), and it is easy to infer that the cerebral cat-and-mouse game Angelopoulos played with the Greek censors led directly to his employment of silence, off-camera action, and oblique narrative — what has been called “dead space, dead time.” (However, the effect of martial law and censorship on Hou’s elliptical style is not so simple to gauge.) In both, personal and collective memory are simultaneous and inseparable; one could profitably pair Angelopoulos’ Voyage to Cythera and Hou’s The Puppetmaster, both employing temporal experiments to tell stories of men who represent their country’s idealism and heroic past. The unease experienced by Hou’s characters is, in part, a manifestation of the natural anxiety experienced by many Taiwanese in the face of their history of statelessness and threats from their ancestor on the Mainland; similarly, the bloody history of the Balkans and the burden of myth and antiquity play no small role in the disquiet of Angelopoulos’ characters.

On a stylistic level, both directors admire the materialist, one-shot/one-sequence approach of Kenji Mizoguchi. Though the Japanese master’s influence can be more readily illustrated in Angelopoulos, its identifying features of the long take, choreographed action, and distant camera — “Pull back! More detached!” Hou remembers intuitively telling his cinematographer — are central to each director’s aesthetic, though to markedly different ends. Angelopoulos’ Brechtian epics, full of dioramas and processionals often photographed in great circling pans, employ this style to emphasize the Marxist, “objective” analysis of history and its reiterations of myth. In Hou, conversely, history inheres in the everyday, and the aim of his remote camera is, perhaps contradictorily, empathy and intimacy; he gives the viewer a space to explore and fill, to be drawn into. (One might say that where Angelopoulos resorts to the fresco, Hou is disposed to the frieze: e.g., the boys at the end of A Time to Live, the troupe of travellers in Good Men, Good Women, the family photo in City of Sadness.)


Hou's City of Sadness

The coming of democracy in Greece and Taiwan had a decisive but inverse effect on each director: while Angelopoulos embarked on a trilogy (Voyage to Cythera, The Beekeeper and Landscape in the Mist) that decisively turned from the political to the personal, from epic to elegy, Hou — suddenly freed to broach hitherto forbidden subjects — turned from the autobiographical, intimate and distinct to the oblique, epic and historical with his Taiwan Trilogy (which he sometimes called his “Three Tragedies”). Both directors, however, arrived at the same sense of disillusionment with their beloved homelands, focusing on the loss of idealism and authenticity in their increasingly consumerist, Americanized nations. The controlling theme of Angelopoulos’ trilogy is his country’s stasis and collective amnesia, which finds its image in his deserted autobahns, faceless towns, depopulated railway stations (another Hou motif) and boarded-up cinemas. These settings, and his often rootless youths and despondent old people who have retreated from politics and history, are echoed in Hou’s later films, particularly the neon-lit nocturnes of Good Men, Good Women, Goodbye South, Goodbye, Millennium Mambo, and the final third of Three Times. (The latter seems a conscious summa of Hou’s oeuvre, each of its three tales presented in a different style that evokes a distinct period of the director’s career; similarly, with Eternity and a Day Angelopoulos created a virtual compendium of his previous films, though in a far more grandiose and self-important manner.)

MillenniumMambo (CMIA)

Millennium Mambo

Though Angelopoulos returned to the subject of History in such films as The Suspended Step of the Stork and Ulysses’ Gaze, the rigour of his early work progressively yielded to abstraction, ponderous pastiche and self-regard, whereas Hou intensified his thrilling ability to combine objectivity and empathy. From Flowers of Shanghai to Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou’s themes of the inescapable past (even as it physically vanishes), of unspoken (and hence unreciprocated) affection, and his characteristic visual rhythms, textures, and compositions — all quotidian tarry, precise light, and complex spatial articulation — are given increasingly rapturous expression. Patiently waiting for Hou’s stories to coalesce out of floating, notational detail, for the relationships between his characters to emerge from a nimbus of obscurity, for the muted and indistinct to slowly flare into incandescence — the fires at the end of Good Men, Good Women literalize this sensation — one knows precisely what Emily Dickinson means when she instructs that “The Truth must dazzle gradually.” Hou’s dazzle is gradual, then engulfing.