Monday, December 12, 2011

The Contemporization of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Renowned for his mastery of the static long take, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien caused quite a stir in the critical film community when his camera first began to move in 1995’s Good Men, Good Women. While it may seem like a superficial, ultimately insignificant stylistic tic to get hung up on, there was something simultaneously disconcerting and exciting about a director so committed to stasis and detachment suddenly deciding to openly follow his characters around their environment. With the mere loosening of a tripod head for greater mobility, Hou embarked upon a new chapter of his career that continues right up to his most recent film, Flight of the Red Balloon. This is a chapter of willful naiveté and unassertive observation that intentionally removes the traditional director/subject dynamic. For the first time, it is the agency of the characters - more so than the direction - that seems to dictate the flows and meanings of these post-2000 works.

Hou’s early films, right up until his renowned Taiwan Trilogy, were already thought of as radical redefinitions of conventional film grammar. They were particularly antithetical the films residing within Taiwan’s cinematic heritage. Using long, single-take scenes and a suppression of dramatic events and dialogue, the films luxuriated in objective reality in a way that is not entirely dissimilar from the director’s contemporary approach to his material, but there was a dense, serious historical-political dimension to the work, a predilection towards grand and unorthodox statements about Taiwan’s troubled national heritage that suggested a common understanding of cinematic authorship. The film’s lofty intentions were distinct, if not always totally clear. In the past decade, however, Hou has preferred to leave the meanings of his films in the hands of the viewer more openly than ever before, and his focus has shifted in more ways than one. Particularly when placed aside his early, heavily studied, and historically engaged offerings, these films (Millenium Mambo, Café Lumiere, Three Times, and Flight of the Red Balloon) not only signal the director’s substantial artistic and intellectual development, they also yield abundant insights into the still-turbulent relationships between Taiwan and its neighboring East Asian countries, and introduce new perspectives on his signature motifs of time, history, and the irreversible effects of the political on the personal.

One major shift is clear enough from the outset: though already present in his filmography in less overt fashion, Hou’s work in the 2000’s displays an intimate fascination with the youth of Taiwan. A possible practical explanation for this is that Hou is now 64 years old, and nestling his camera within the environment of twentysomethings is one convenient route to feeling younger. But over thirty years of work commenting upon the fractured history of the island nation of Taiwan, it’s easy to see this recent preoccupation as a gesture of simultaneous hope, concern, and curiosity. The idea that history repeats itself, and that shocking national changes force a rupture in collective psychology that remains insoluble, is given repeat emphasis in Hou’s cinema, so naturally his contemporary films reflect a profound desire to break that damaging mold. Guo-Juin Hong summarizes this tendency in his book Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen: “To write history, to represent history, is finally a desire for a future hidden under the backward temporal movement of cinematic retrospection that has been, from the beginning, casting its longing gaze forward.”

This desire points to Hou’s trend of imbuing his recent films with a serene romanticism, a delicate surface beauty that contrasts the often harsh, uncompromising verisimilitude of his earlier work. It’s a feeling – somewhat vague and indescribable, but a feeling nonetheless – that sends a ripple through his entire contemporary aesthetic. Hou’s still faithful to the long take, but the timbre of his shots has changed. Figures get closer to the camera than ever before, causing elegant shifts in depth of field that result in the lovely, amorphous blobs of background color that characterize a great deal of his films’ visual palettes. As previously stated, the camera now moves luxuriously with the characters, nudging slowly with every shift (minor to major) in body position. Finally, his films now entertain the possibilities of non-diegetic sound, brimming as they do with the pop, techno, and romantic music listened to by their characters. All of this – and it’s by no means an exhaustive list of the subtle changes in Hou’s style - indicates, as Haden Guest puts it in his essay Reflections on the Screen: Hou Hsiao Hsien's Dust In the Wind and the Rhythms of the Taiwan New Cinema, the “attempt to understand the larger rhythm or design of these worlds.”

Hou’s talent, however, is not merely in his quiet, surface-level observation, but in the way he manages to instill thematic complexity into his seemingly minimalist films. Understanding the director’s background provides a key to unraveling the many layers of meaning cloaked within his modern work. Born in Mainland China to a Hakkan family (Hakka and Minnan are two Taiwanese languages inherited from early Chinese settlers), Hou moved to Taiwan in 1947 only two years after the cessation of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and right around the time of the tragic February 28th massacre of non-violent protesters in Taipei by the violent Chinese nationalist government, the Kuomintang (KMT). This caused the decades-long White Terror period of extreme suppression by the KMT of any Taiwanese citizens potentially bearing Communist sympathies, which cast a dark shadow over Hou’s entire youth. As his filmmaking career progressed, he became increasingly willing to speak directly about these historical taboos, culminating in the internationally acclaimed Taiwan Trilogy (The Puppetmaster, City of Sadness, Good Men, Good Women), which engaged with Japanese colonial rule, the February 28th incident, and the White Terror period, respectively. These marked some of the first attempts by a Taiwanese filmmaker to raise the difficult issue of the nation’s own complex and traumatic identity. But the history presented in Hou’s work is rarely free of a subjective filter, indicative of a pluralist conception of history that speaks to the fractured collective psyche of Taiwan.

If Hou’s earlier films represented direct engagements with the troubles of the Taiwanese nation, his attention to these political and social realities in contemporary films has been abstracted, no less important but still peripheral to the central narratives. Further underlining this concept are the films’ settings: Millenium Mambo spreads its time between Taiwan and Japan while Café Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon are Hou’s first productions set entirely outside of his home country and China, in Japan and France respectively. Here, a practical perspective may be instrumental in this shift. In describing the “miserable” state of the Taiwanese film industry, he mentions that the country “produces just a dozen or so films each year, and most of them depend on official funding. There are perhaps only three exceptions—Yang Te-chang [Edward Yang], Tsaï Ming-liang and myself—who can get financing in France or Japan.” But he alludes to something else that influences his turn away from explicitly political subject matter: “The trilogy of films I made [Taiwan Trilogy] was closer to the background of my own age-group… I always wonder, why don’t the directors who are ten or twenty years younger than I am record what was happening just before they grew up?” He continues his thought with a vague but telling point: “I have moved to another stage in my own creative work, and it’s difficult to go back to an earlier one*.”

This new stage is markedly clear, and it begins with Millenium Mambo (2001). The film was released three years after Flowers of Shanghai, one of Hou’s few films to not present the past through a subjective account. Millenium Mambo drastically reverses that framework in its approach to a historical narrative. Taiwanese starlet Shu Qi plays Vicky, an aimless young club hostess whose occasional narration recounts her story from ten years in the future. This gentle structural device puts the ostensible present through a dubious filter of recollection, making Vicky’s comments on the narration windows into her motivations and emotions as well as parables on the distinctions between past and present. As her relationship with her roommate and romantic partner Hao-Hao (Chun-hao Tuan) derails into verbally abusive and passive-aggressive territory, Vicky’s consciousness is slowly brought into focus through long, lingering medium shots following her mundane daily adherence to smoking and drinking while Hao-Hao indifferently concocts club music in his room, out of which glows an ominous neon haze. Out of boredom and apathy, she drifts into a tenuous relationship with Jack (Jack Kao), the enigmatic mob proprietor who is a regular at her club.

Despite her intended ambivalence to her surroundings, Vicky is a thoroughly insular individual, capable of suspending attention and interest only on the people and objects in her immediate vicinity (an idea that receives stylistic heft in Hou’s aggressively shallow focus). She is very much confined to the dance club scene she immerses herself in and the romantic relationships she is involved in. This shortcoming cuts to the heart of one of the major themes on the director’s mind as of late: the inability of his young characters to actively contextualize their lives within the larger scope of history. Hou has chosen to feature young men and women who show a propensity for compulsive border-crossing – Vicky travels to Japan for a film festival twice during Millenium Mambo, Café Lumiere’s protagonist shuffles between Japan, Taiwan, and China, and one of Flight of the Red Balloon’s characters is a Taiwanese woman studying in France – and as such their disregard of the complex historical relationships between these nations is made all the more visible.

Café Lumiere represents Hou’s most bald-faced exposure of this postcolonial dynamic. A daringly non-descript tribute to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu on the occasion of his 100th birthday, the film follows Japanese language teacher and modern-day Tokyo resident Yôko (Yo Hitoto) as she travels back and forth from Tokyo to Taipei studying Chinese composer Jiang Wenye (whose piano pieces of the 20’s and 30’s pepper the film’s soundtrack). Wenye was himself a regular traveler between China and Tokyo at a time when Taiwan was a colony of Japan. That Yôko is following a similar path through the countries illuminates the changes brought about in the decades since Wenye’s prime, and, as Song Hwee Lim writes in the essay Transnational Trajectories in Contemporary East Asian Cinemas, “demonstrates that the triangulated relations between China, Taiwan, and Japan throughout the twentieth century up until today are as complex as Jiang Wenye’s multiple identities and transnational career.” Hajime (Asanu Tadanobu), a secondhand bookstore owner in Tokyo, joins her in her research. Because she is so obsessive in her immersion into Wenye’s life, Yôko fails to register Hajime’s affection, and the two remain regrettably platonic. History, Hou suggests, is not the only blind spot in modern life.

The film’s debt to Ozu, witnessed in the faint narrative echoes of the Japanese director’s 1953 classic Tokyo Story, ultimately overshadows its concentration on Wenye. What’s fascinating is that Hou remains intimately connected to the Taiwanese state of affairs by supplanting the issue of single motherhood that he is familiar with from his own country - and which is prevalent in Japan as well – into Yôko’s narrative. Her affair with a Taiwanese student only mentioned in conversation in the film has resulted in a pregnancy that she intends to keep to herself. When her parents are informed in their rural home, the film becomes fixated on the changing dynamic of the generational gap. In Tokyo Story, the daughter’s impending marriage is met with both happiness and resignation from parent and child. In Café Lumiere, marriage is not even in the equation, causing unspoken concern from Yôko’s conservative father and stepmother and plainspoken indifference on the part of Yôko. This predicament is visualized in Hajime’s piece of computer artwork depicting the Tokyo railway network as a circular womb housing a fetus. Yôko’s baby, it suggests, will be born into a world where ideologies are, like the many trains in Tokyo’s complex metropolis, increasingly headed in different directions.

A bold and subtle thematic statement such as this firmly separates Hou’s modernist project from the unmistakably traditional work of Ozu, and it’s indicative of the director’s fearless engagement with the tensions and contradictions of the globalizing modern world. In Café Lumiere, the traditional family unit has been severed, and in Hou’s subsequent film, Three Times, even the connections between individuals have broken off. The film observes modern Taipei as a schizophrenic war zone of competing stimuli, but not before it hops back to 1966 and 1911 to take note of the remarkable divergences in the texture of life, from modes of communication and behavioral formalities to political atmosphere and professional habits. Hou segments the film into three disparate chapters: “A Time for Love” (1966), “A Time for Freedom” (1911), and “A Time for Youth” (2005), setting up such on-the-nose headings only to reveal their fundamental inconsistencies. For instance, “A Time for Love” tells a story about a young soldier (Chang Chen) and a pool hall hostess (Shu Qi) who struggle to find a way to consummate their mutual affections (in effect, to love each other), “A Time for Freedom” - which is presented as a silent film with intertitles - involves a young man fighting for a revolution in China who fails to see the oppressive restrictions and lack of freedom imposed on the courtesan he regularly visits, and “A Time for Youth” features characters so self-absorbed and worn down physically and mentally that they exemplify nothing of youthful exuberance.

Chang Chen and Shu Qi play the featured man and woman of each respective tale. That they consecutively fall short of love hints at Hou’s melancholy worldview: real connection between two people is impossible in a world where, no matter what the time period and social context, external political, sociological, economic, and technological factors erect hurdles to be overcome. World War II, and the shifting economy it forged, dooms the lovers in the 60’s to a perpetual cat-and-mouse chase. Imperial rule in China and the leftist movement in Taiwan and Japan, as well as the behavioral constraints governing the self-contained brothel, result in physical proximity but no chance of emotional honesty. Finally, the contemporary lovers are so submerged in emails, texts, photographs, and not to mention other romantic affairs, that they lose sight of each other. During all of this, Hou is casually observing the changes brought about by time: the simultaneous accumulation of speed in communication (from written letters to instant texts) and the de-prioritization of communication. There’s a faint suggestion that the modern day people are more silent, inexpressive, and lost than the characters in the literal silent film, but overt messages are avoided. Hou’s overarching compassion, his modest acceptance of these inevitabilities, displaces the analytical work on the viewer.

Interestingly enough, Café Lumiere was Hou’s most decidedly unassertive and sparse feature of the 2000’s; Three Times, on the other hand, resembles the director’s comparatively maximalist effort. While the former comprised entirely of wide shots, quotidian details, and atmospheric silences, the latter uses regular cuts within scenes to close-ups and medium shots, entertains the occasional pop song (The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Aphrodite’s Child’s “Rain and Tears”) to comment on the characters’ emotional states, and incorporates dramatic incident into its narrative. In acknowledgment of the many aesthetic shifts marking Hou’s career, James Udden offers a potential explanation for this phenomenon in 'This time he moves!': the deeper significance of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s radical break in Good Men, Good Women:

“Hou has given Taiwanese cinema an identity not just through style alone, but by using that style to convey the unique flavor of what is now commonly called “The Taiwanese Experience.” And if anything sums up both the Taiwanese Experience and Hou’s films, it is sudden, unexpected, and often irreversible changes.”

Similarly, if Hou’s decision to adopt a relatively mainstream style (at least when placed aside the rest of his work) in Three Times has a political or extratextual motivation, it’s a side effect of his increasingly noticeable urge to “[think] about the difficulties of representing [modern times].”

Of course, given this penchant for artistic shifts, there was no concrete expectation for Hou’s next project. Not only did he decline to take the Three Times aesthetic further, he made the unlikely decision to pay homage to French director Albert Lamorisse’s delightful 1956 short, The Red Balloon. Hou decided to slightly morph the title into The Flight of the Red Balloon, and justifies it by having a bright red balloon float freely throughout Paris for the entire film, revealing itself here and there as a gentle grace note. The feature was commissioned and supported by France’s Musee D’Orsay in an instance of cross-cultural appreciation that has become increasingly common in the transnational film landscape. (Also involved in the museum’s commission was Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s Visage/Face and French director Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours.) Like his pastiche of Ozu in Café Lumiere, though, Hou’s references to Lamorisse’s film are only surface-level, and instead of blithely recycling the previous film’s themes and images, he works them into his own signature perspectives. In a delicately postmodern touch, his character Song (Fang Song) is a young Taiwanese woman studying film in Paris and concocting her own remake of The Red Balloon on the side, all while babysitting Simon (Simon Iteanu), the son of a busy Parisian woman (Juliette Binoche), during the day.

The Flight of the Red Balloon recalls Café Lumiere at first in its low-key urban poetry, but it’s ultimately a more accomplished and dense clarification of Hou’s themes. Again incorporating the idea of geographical displacement into the narrative, Hou now extends it to become an omnipresent trend in the globalizing world, a result of practicality and not merely the globetrotting adventurousness of the individual. Song represents the director’s surrogate as a Taiwanese filmmaker working in France, while the central Parisian family she deals with has their own family member studying abroad in Brussels. Within this framework, the balloon becomes a cipher for the absent sister and - as it’s pushed throughout the city by wind - a reminder of the transience of the life. Simon seeks solace in a memory of his sister, but the past is merely a subjective narrative prone to fallacy and is ultimately unfulfilling. Multiple shots of glass reflections emphasize the illusory layers of consciousness as well as the chaos of modern life. In Hou’s cinema, the past is but a reflection in the mind’s eye. Ultimately, however, art does provide a place of refuge for the mutual imaginations of Song and Simon; one of the persuasive secondary motifs of the film is the uniting power of art and, specifically, the moving image.

At their essence, Hou’s latest films have been rapt portraits of individuals living within their various subcultures. In each film, the central individual is a woman (though it’s hard to designate one member of Three Times’ ensemble as “central”), and one senses these characters gaining increasing agency and authority throughout their respective narratives and throughout the chronological progression of the films, culminating in Binoche’s character in Flight of the Red Balloon, an intelligent, persevering, and utterly self-sufficient voice actress who dominates the frame in her frenetic domestic behavior. Contrary to Tonglin Lu’s findings in her book . Confronting Modernity in the Cinemas of Taiwan and Mainland China that “in Hou’s search for a Taiwan identity, women play only passive and subordinate roles,” the director’s interest in the place of women in society now runs parallel to his desire for a harmonious democracy in Taiwan, and his concern for Taiwan’s “problem of mentality” and “incomprehensible narrow-mindedness.” His casual observation of these women represents a frank attempt to raise their dramas - and indeed their mere physical existences - into public awareness. The camera peers long and hard at them, often seeming taken aback by their movement and only catching the tail end of an activity offscreen. It’s as if the director has purposely severed off his control of the scene (something that would have been far less likely in his earlier work), preferring to consider the free will of the actress.

Many commentators have tossed around the term “documentary” when grappling with the feeling evoked by Hou’s non-confrontational filmmaking, but these contemporary films are too lush, romantic, and quietly surreal, their structures too subtly clever, to entertain the question of verisimilitude. Mark Lee Ping-bin, the cinematographer of all four features and indeed a longtime collaborator with Hou, exercises lighting schemes that are natural to the films’ settings, but his rendering of those settings in voyeuristic perspectives with blurs of shallow focus attempts to capture the uncanny atmosphere of them rather than depict them objectively. It fits with Hou’s complicated understanding of the Taiwanese condition that his latest work should present yet another subjective illustration of the country and its troubled past, and that he should often do so divorced geographically from the country itself. Few filmmakers manage to engage so deeply and unmistakably with the identity of their own nation through a vision so discreet.

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