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The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Director of the Decade

At the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art Sept. 8 to Oct. 15

Beginning in the mid-’80s, Chinese-language cinema—or cinemas, because Taiwan and the then-autonomous Hong Kong made considerable contributions—exported an exceptional array of directors, notably John Woo, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The last of those names is the least known in the United States, yet early this year, critics and critics polls around the globe proclaimed Hou—in the words of the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman—”the world’s greatest working narrative moviemaker.”

None of Hou’s films have ever been released commercially in the United States, although most of the ones made since the Taiwanese director’s breakthrough, 1985’s A Time to Live and a Time to Die, have been shown at one of Washington’s noncommercial film venues. The two previously unscreened movies, 1996’s Goodbye South, Goodbye and 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai, are among the principal attractions of a Hou retrospective beginning this weekend and running five weeks at the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

American distributors’ lack of interest in Hou is not unwarranted; the director’s films are dazzling but difficult. Indeed, Hoberman’s classification of Hou as a “narrative moviemaker” seems almost defensive. The director does tell stories, but obliquely. Watching a Hou movie is a bit like attending the opera; it helps to know the plot going in. The films become richer on repeated viewings, when the narrative is less elusive. Because they’re visually ravishing, watching the movies more than once is no burden. It’s like returning to a museum to study a particularly dense, luminous canvas.

One useful bit of backstory is the history of 20th-century Taiwan itself. The island was a Japanese colony until the end of World War II, and residents were required to take Japanese names and speak Japanese. In 1949, after they lost to Mao’s Communists, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, essentially becoming a new invading elite just a few years after the Japanese left. A right-wing dictatorship ran the country for the next few decades, although its attitudes gradually moderated after the ’50s, when the anti-Communist “White Terror” led to the murder, torture, and imprisonment of many innocent people. These events form the backdrop for three of Hou’s films, the epic A City of Sadness (National Gallery, Sept. 9) and The Puppetmaster (National Gallery, Sept. 10), and the mosaiclike Good Men, Good Women (National Gallery, Sept. 16), which arranges fragments of past, present, and a proposed historical film starring the central character, an actress who used to be the mistress of a gangster.

Yes, gangsters feature prominently in Hou’s films, beginning with the semi-autobiographical A Time to Live and a Time to Die (National Gallery, Sept. 17), a characteristically contemplative account of rebellious youth. Like John Woo’s Hong Kong, Hou’s home is a brawling, morally ambiguous territory that’s making a sometimes violent transition from its traditional Chinese past to a rootless, Westernized, and tentative future. Yet Hou’s films don’t look or feel anything like Woo’s. Whereas the Hong Kong director’s work was shaped by French and American cinematic flash, Hou relies on classical Chinese aesthetics to ponder questions of identity and loss. Even the candy-colored Daughter of the Nile (Freer, Sept. 29), which is named for a comic book and transpires largely in a Taipei Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, would never be mistaken for a Hong Kong film.

As is revealed by French director (and longtime Hou admirer) Olivier Assayas’ documentary, HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Freer, Sept. 24), Hou is a regular guy, popular in the old neighborhood and crazy about karaoke. Himself an infant refugee from mainland China, where he was born in 1947, Hou is part of the frenzied transformation of Taiwan that is his principal subject. Like Assayas, he savors daily life, filming often in kitchens, nightclubs, gambling dens, hotel rooms, and other locations where everything is ordinary except the quality of light. The guys-around-a-table motif is one of the few links between the loose, contemporary Goodbye South, Goodbye (Freer, Oct. 13) and the formal Flowers of Shanghai (Freer, Sept. 8; National Gallery, Sept. 24), which was shot entirely on sets depicting 19th-century brothels in Shanghai’s British district.

Despite his enthusiasm for the everyday, Hou is no populist. He’s survived the virtual collapse of Taiwan’s film industry by cultivating an international art-film audience and financing much of his recent work in Japan. That Hou’s elegantly stylized films might be somewhat Japanese in spirit—they’re often compared to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan’s master of the domestic vignette—is ironic yet unsurprising; for Taiwan, Japan is both the hated oppressor and a crucial influence.

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Visually, Hou’s trademarks are burnished natural light and long takes. This style reaches its formal culmination in Flowers of Shanghai. Each scene is a single shot, with the camera sometimes swiveling but never leaving its fixed position; transitions are marked by fades to and from black, in which the lamps that warmly light the action are the first things to appear and the last to disappear. Not all the director’s compositions are so static, however. Both Dust in the Wind (Freer, Oct. 1) and Goodbye South, Goodbye emphasize the migration of rural youth to Taipei with shots of cars, motorcycles, and especially the local trains that rattle through tunnels—framing devices whose contrast of light and dark might have been invented for Hou—on their way to and from the capital city. Hou’s stories may be difficult to follow, especially when they involve large ensemble casts, as in A City of Sadness or Flowers of Shanghai, but his images are impossible to forget.

Ken Loach made Carla’s Song in 1996, between Land and Freedom and My Name Is Joe, and it combines elements of both those films. Like the eponymous Joe, Carla’s George (Robert Carlyle, who also starred in Loach’s Riff-Raff) is a scrappy, working-class Glaswegian who’s puckishly at war with the system. And, like the hero of Land, he ends up on the front lines of a Spanish-language civil war.

George is a bus driver whose first encounter with Carla (Oyanka Cabezas) is the Brit-socialist equivalent of Hollywood’s meeting cute: He helps the Nicaraguan refugee escape an inspector who finds her on the bus without a ticket. This gesture gets George suspended from his job for a week, giving him time to prowl the city for Carla. Because the young woman makes a tiny living by dancing in the street, she’s not that hard to find.

George announces himself as Carla’s benefactor, first finding her a better place to live. Carla, however, has bigger issues than shelter. A witness to the Contras’ torture of her lover, Antonio (Richard Loza), she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has already attempted suicide once. George commandeers a double-decker to take Carla on a scenic trip into the mountains, but that doesn’t solve her problems—and substantially adds to his. Now unemployed, George decides to take Carla back to Nicaragua to confront her nightmares.

Only vaguely aware of what’s happening in Central America in 1987, George turns to a schoolgirl acquaintance for information. She admits that her own teacher is confused: The Sandinistas are godless communists, but some of them are Catholic priests.

The ironic note sounded by this current-affairs primer is drowned out by more didactic lessons once George and Carla arrive in Managua. Scripter Paul Laverty, who spent several years in Nicaragua in the mid-’80s, doesn’t want anyone to miss the point: The CIA trained and financed the Contras to torture and kill Sandinista troops and their supporters, as well as to target schools, medical centers, and agricultural co-ops. This message is far more believable than the character who tells clueless George the news: Bradley (Scott Glenn), a hard-boiled Witness for Peace organizer who knows just how the evil the CIA is because he used to work for it.

Actually shot in Nicaragua, albeit five years after the Sandinistas ceded power, the film’s war-zone scenes are as firmly rooted in that ravaged country as most Loach films are in rust-belt Scotland or northern England. The two worlds connect in warm, simple scenes like the one in which a group of peasants asks George what farmers in Scotland grow. Such moments, however, are overpowered by the script, which contrives for Bradley to keep Carla away from Antonio just to keep plot going—and to provide another occasion for George to steal a bus to prove his love for Carla. That neat bit of narrative doubling aside, the latter half of Carla’s Song is a well-meaning muddle that learns little on its ideological road trip.

Lars von Trier used to be a filmmaker. Zentropa’s startling imagery trumped its meta-political hokum, Breaking the Waves’ intensity almost redeemed its sentimental-exploitative premise, and The Kingdom was as acidly weird as the subsequent films from the Danish director and his pals have aspired to be. These days, however, von Trier is principally a manifesto writer and provocateur. His controversial new Dancer in the Dark (due next month) may again alter his reputation, but The Idiots (which debuted in Europe more than two years ago) certainly plays like the end of the Dogmatic road.

Filmmakers who take the Dogma 95 “vow of chastity”—written by von Trier and accepted by several spiritual accomplices—must forgo sets, camera stands, artificial lighting, and special effects, among other Hollywood staples. That leaves acting as Dogma’s last great indulgence, and it’s acting that is the subject of the unironically titled The Idiots. It’s the tale of a troupe of guerrilla performers who assault staid Copenhagen by “spassing” in public. Terms like “mentally challenged” are more gallant, but the press kit bluntly calls these pretenders “retards.”

“Only a fool does not fear actors,” notes von Trier in a press-kit interview, “but you can’t beat them, and if you can’t beat them, join them, as they say.” In fact, The Idiots opens with a sequence in which quiet Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) joins the group after witnessing ringleader Stoffer (Jens Albinus) spassing in a fancy restaurant. Karen follows the performers—who include a doctor and an ad agency executive—as they go “searching for their inner idiots” on a factory tour, at a public swimming pool, and on a snowless ski jump. The players’ acting out leads to an idiotic “gangbang” at the group’s headquarters, an upscale suburban home Stoffer’s supposed to be selling for his uncle; this is one of several scenes where cast members’ full-frontal nudity is defaced with black boxes to preserve American modesty. Finally, the group dissolves under the pressure of suburban land-use policy and the revelation that both Karen and another ensemble member are suffering from actual emotional traumas.

Because the purpose of von Trier’s code is to sacrifice control over the filmmaking process, The Idiots is the ultimate expression of Dogmatism. It’s an assault on both cinematic conventions and bourgeois good taste, partially improvised and including some scenes that mock what seem to be innocent bystanders. The result is as anarchic and confrontational as the film Cecil B. DeMented wanted to make—as opposed to the dull one John Waters actually made about his fictional alter ego. But The Idiots is dull, too.

The movie was shot by the director with a handheld digital-video camera, which produced nothing like the graceful long takes of Hou or Assayas. The most distracting aspect of the film’s look is not the spasmodic camera movement but the frequent cuts; apparently the chaotic style and improvised dialogue seldom yielded shots that von Trier deemed worth watching for more than a few seconds. The Idiots may have been filmed with shock-troop tactics, but the director’s final gambit was pure Hollywood: He tried to save the picture in the editing room. CP