By Sherrie Li
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By Sherrie Li
What makes his visual style all the more remarkable is its modesty. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s also what defines Hou as an artist. Beauty in his films is neither the triumph of virtuosity nor its own end, but a way of engaging with the world, of making meaning, maybe even sense, out of the raw stuff of life. It is in communion with the world, not competition. No matter how perfect his landscapes, no matter how lush the mountains, wreathed in mist and mystery, there is never the sense that Hou is trying to trump the natural world. Even as his films have become more beautiful, his visual sensibility deepened, that modesty remains, whether in Goodbye South, Goodbye‘s image of a country road canopied in green, or in the powdered face of a whore in his emotionally shattering masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai.
The French critic and theorist Andre Bazin once wrote that before Jean Renoir made Rules of the Game, he ”forced himself to look back beyond the resources provided by montage and so uncovered the secret of a film form that would permit everything to be said without chopping the world up into little fragments, that would reveal the hidden meanings in people and things without disturbing the unity natural to them.“ Bazin’s words easily apply to Hou, a kindred spirit to Renoir both aesthetically and in his boundless humanism. Hou has been compared to Yasujiro Ozu, and although there are parallels -- in the way emotional tension builds, for instance, slowly, slowly, then a twist of the knife -- Renoir seems the truer comparison, and not just in his refusal to chop the world up into bits. There is something of Renoir in Hou‘s sense of the world, in his fairness toward all his characters. In A City of Sadness (1989), Hou’s epic about the period between the end of the Japanese occupation and the dawn of the 1949 revolution, relationships between the former occupiers and the formerly occupied have a complexity that goes beyond cant and ideology: When a Taiwanese patriot recites a haiku, or a Japanese woman on the verge of being repatriated gives her Taiwanese friend a kimono, Hou isn‘t offering up a palliative about forgiveness; he’s showing that to be Taiwanese is to be also a little Japanese, for better or worse.
That sort of honesty about human entanglements reaches an apotheosis in Flowers of Shanghai (1998), a film about a handful of men and women who live out a world of feeling within the confines of nearby brothels. Set in the late 19th century and played out entirely inside the opium-blurred rooms of these ”flower houses,“ the film has a great formal elegance that initially fills you with admiration, only to slowly, almost cruelly, stun you with dread. In these hothouses of desire, every object, every gesture, carries with it the lethal threat of a hidden bomb -- one wrong word can lead to disaster. Inside the brothels, the women control the men, but also and only because they never leave the houses; their fates are as bound as their feet, their worlds as small as their rooms. Flowers of Shanghai is one of the most sublimely beautiful films I‘ve ever seen, and one of the most unbearably sad. To watch these characters break one another’s hearts, and then to have your own broken, is to experience something that the movies rarely grant us -- perfection.
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