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Flowers of ShanghaiThe Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is widely considered by international film critics to be one of the greatest living directors in the world -- a prominence which, in this country, seems grounds for near wholesale neglect. If you don’t know Hou, you‘re not alone. None of his 15 features has received a commercial release in the United States, and, until recently, there existed little hope of even seeing his rapturously cinematic work on video. Los Angeles audiences have been luckier than most; a Hou retrospective was mounted here in 1990 at the L.A. Film Festival, and through the years, a number of his films have screened locally, including at the UCLA Archives. Now comes another chance to experience his work onscreen, this time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose film department is hosting a seven-feature retrospective. Organized by the Lincoln Center Film Society and Winstar, and occasioned by the company’s forthcoming release of most of Hou‘s work on video and DVD, the retrospective is already the city’s film event of the year.
In January 2000, when Film Comment polled over 100 world critics and other cineaste types to name the film figure -- the best or the worst -- of the 1990s, the second most admired was Hou Hsiao-hsien. (Iran‘s Abbas Kiarostami, who’s getting his own retrospective at LACMA next month, earned the most approbation.) At the time, the only film of Hou‘s I’d seen was 1996‘s Goodbye South, Goodbye, which I’d violently hated when it screened at that year‘s Toronto Film Festival. That’s not an orthodox recommendation, to be sure, but it‘s honest to the sort of jitters that Hou’s meditative, often leisurely paced films can inspire, especially in the impatient and distracted. The story, such as it is, involves a posse of urban malcontents doing a whole lot of nothing. The filmmaking is exquisite, but I recall being bored out of my mind. Still, critic Kent Jones has written, ”Is there another film since Warhol with a better sense of just hanging out?“ That may not make your engines roar, but now, after having seen five more of Hou‘s films, it’s enough to send me back to Goodbye South when it screens with his tender love story Dust in the Wind (1987).
Hou was born in China‘s Guangdong province in 1947 and moved to Taiwan a year later. He grew up in the southern city of Hualien, and the measure of his childhood, including the death of his parents and his involvement with gangs, can be seen in the autobiographical A Time To Live and a Time To Die (1985). In the film’s prologue, we hear a man‘s voice as the camera wanders room-to-room through an empty house. ”This is a nice place,“ the narrator says of Taiwan, writing to his wife and family on the mainland. ”It has tap water.“ What happens next is a series of interludes that together tell the story of a family divided between mainland and island, and torn among generations, from the grandmother who keeps searching for a path to the old country to the granddaughter with her own dreams of a way out. To call the film a ”multigenerational study“ is to risk bleeding it of its poetry, but as with many of Hou’s films, questions of Taiwanese identity, along with trepidation about the modern world and lamenting over lost tradition, cast shadows everywhere.
Hou was the leading figure in the Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s. (Edward Yang, who cast him as the lead of his own Taipei Story, is another important link.) His films became favorites on the international circuit (the last six were selected for the New York Film Festival), seducing audiences with their beauty as well as with the wrenching human dramas so often at play in his stories, even the more overtly political ones. Among his greatest films, The Puppetmaster (1993) was inspired and, eventually, narrated by an old man named Li Tien Lu, who, before his death several years ago at age 89, enlivened several of Hou‘s films with an earthy, often very funny, cool. (He tells his story with a fair number of expletives, nearly always with a cigarette dangling from his fingers, a beret parked on his head.) At once a model of narrative invention and a chronicle of everyday Taiwanese life during the Japanese occupation, the film unfolds through documentary-style interviews with the old man, a patchwork of voice-over narration, glimpses of Chinese opera, vivid re-creations of his youthful adventures and, finally, various puppet shows.
Hou doesn’t use the puppets as a crude metaphor -- to remind us, for instance, of how we are all, finally, dangling off strings, manipulated by unseen forces. (Indeed, all the dominating forces in the film, from parents to Taiwan‘s Japanese occupiers, are in full view.) Rather, the puppets and their stages, which echo the mise en scenes through which the human actors move, are gentle reminders that our lives are the sum of very specific moments in time and space. We live here, Hou seems to say -- right here, right now, in a world of suffering which, he quietly and stubbornly insists, is also a world of beauty. Few other contemporary filmmakers show us the world, our world, like Hou, whose sense of composition -- of the way things are if only we would, or perhaps could, open our eyes to see -- is at times so beautiful as to have made me gasp aloud.
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