TIFF’s got a retrospective of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien on right now. Which could make you swoon, if you love lush cinematography, oblique story-telling and very long takes with a free-wandering camera. Or it could be as exciting as a long night with your second cousin’s family, driving around aimlessly, wishing these people you barely know actually had something to say. Beautiful, meditative, complex, tedious, distant, and meandering are all words that could apply to Hou’s mesmeric take on movies. Sometimes the spell works. Others… Join me after the jump to find where you fall on the Hou scale.
Unreservedly an accomplished director, Hou’s work is inextricably tied up with his home of Taiwan and its complex identity. An industrial powerhouse today, Taiwan’s been a colony of Portugal and Spain, taken over by China, ceded to Japan after their war at the end of the nineteenth century, to be controlled by the Republic of China after the end of World War II. (The Republic of China existed in opposition to what would become the communist People’s Republic of China, and is democratic). Many of Hou’s films are historical in setting and theme, exploring the complex changes the past century has wrought in Taiwanese society. Some are period pieces, like the beautiful Flowers of Shanghai, set in a series of elegant brothels in the British quarter of late nineteenth century Shanghai. Some are contemporary, like the hapless nineties gangsters of Goodbye South, Goodbye or the modern drifting ennui of the bar hostess in Millennium Mambo.
What sets Hou apart from others is this historical project, and the way that manifests in his style. Hou’s filmmaking exists in stark opposition to classical Hollywood. Which makes his films a tough ride if you, like me, love classical style and its powerful economy. Whether you’re watching The Avengers or Mulholland Drive, you’re always watching classical style. It’s almost impossible to talk about Hou’s methods without turning into a film major, but here goes. Classical style in the Hollywood vein is mostly a function of editing. When two people are talking, the scene is cut up into angles. We see one person’s face, typically with the other person in the conversation shot from behind, their shoulder and the back of their head looming in one side of the frame. When the other speaks, we reverse the angle, with the same character framing as before, but flipped. It’s simple and effective, cuing you the viewer that a conversation is taking place. It’s all over movies and television, and if you’re academically inclined, it’s also called hegemony. As in that’s the only way to make movies. Which couldn’t be further from the truth of course, but god damn it works so well. (There are exceptions, natch, with fans of the long take including Orson Welles and Robert Altman, and even, in the right place, Steven Spielberg (see this post for a superb study of Spielberg’s “oners”). In contrast, Hou’s camera captures all the characters in a scene, often from a distance, without cutting. Originally stationary in his earlier films, Hou’s camera becomes more of a restless observer as his films evolve, wandering about a scene, sometimes zeroing in on a conversation, sometimes meandering over random details, like the bowls of food on a table, or other strangers in the foreground. In the service of Hou’s project, it’s a more democratic way of seeing, weaving a moving tapestry of life for the viewer to focus on details as they choose, perhaps with a gentle nudge from the director. Sometimes it’s hypnotic and entrancing. Others it feels like a drunk uncle’s wedding video. Which to be fair is still in the service of the project, because sometimes Hou wants you to feel alienated, as he captures the aimlessness of his protagonists.
There’s probably more cuts in that TIFF series trailer than in the entire running time of a Hou film. It works with the ravishing art direction of Flowers of Shanghai, as Tony Leung plays a civil servant torn between his longtime companion Crimson and new fancy Jasmin. The movie is a series of scenes which are really set tableaux, often with a group of flower girls and their patrons gambling and ordering sumptuous multi course dinners. The opening scene sets the table, literally, with a seven-minute single take that is exactly that: drunk people laughing, gambling, eating and joking around with casual banality. Yet much of the main action, as such, occurs off-screen, between the scenes, and it’s for the viewer to infer what has happened as the prostitutes make their power-plays, making the film a curio to be puzzled over, seeing how the pieces fit once it’s done. The style is less successful in other films, depending on your sensibility. Millennium Mambo could just as easily be titled “Youth in Bars”, with endless scenes of young Taiwanese drinking and bopping to electro. It’s hypnotic to a point, but with a narrative pretext so flimsy there’s next to nothing to latch onto, just a pretty girl and her dickish stalkery boyfriend and her half-hearted attempts to find a way out of the dull repetitive cycle she’s caught herself in. Often beautiful in a gauzy way, a little economy could do the same work in a half-hour for all we get on-screen.
Now Hou can hardly be said to have invented this distant, laconic style. For all of his films, the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu adopted a stationary camera at a lowish height, said to approximate the point of view of one seated at a tatami table. But Hou seems to have become emblematic of an opposition style for a new generation, as revelatory as Italian neo-realism was for the film critics of the fifties and sixties, which went on to influence the seventies New Hollywood style of Scorsese, Coppola, Polanski, Lucas and Spielberg (who became huge institutions themselves in time). Perhaps as Hollywood cinema has become so incredibly homogenized in the blockbuster era, Hou offers a bracing tonic for those who wish to drink. Gotta say though, it’s not my cup of green tea.
Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien is on now at TIFF in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and runs to the beginning of March. For a full list of films screening and tickets, see here.