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 dont know Hou, youre 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 companys forthcoming release of most of Hous work on video and DVD, the retrospective is already the citys 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. (Irans Abbas Kiarostami, whos getting his own retrospective at LACMA next month, earned the most approbation.) At the time, the only film of Hous Id seen was 1996s Goodbye South, Goodbye, which Id violently hated when it screened at that years Toronto Film Festival. Thats not an orthodox recommendation, to be sure, but its honest to the sort of jitters that Hous 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 Hous films, its 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 Chinas 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 films prologue, we hear a mans 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 Hous 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 Hous 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.
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Hou doesnt 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 Taiwans 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.
What makes his visual style all the more remarkable is its modesty. That may seem paradoxical, but its 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, Goodbyes 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. Bazins 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 Hous sense of the world, in his fairness toward all his characters. In A City of Sadness (1989), Hous 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 isnt offering up a palliative about forgiveness; hes 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 Ive ever seen, and one of the most unbearably sad. To watch these characters break one anothers hearts, and then to have your own broken, is to experience something that the movies rarely grant us -- perfection.