No one ever said it was going to be easy. Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni still live, but for my money, the world's greatest working narrative moviemaker is a 52-year-old native of Taiwan named Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Hou (as in who?") has long been a fugitive presence in New York. None of his 13 features has ever had an American commercial release, although, since A Time To Live and a Time To Die (1985), all but one have screened at the New York Film Festival. The Asia Society, Film Forum, and MOMA have showcased Hou's films, and now, with only months to go in the century, he's having his first local retroopening today, under near optimal conditions, at the Walter Reade.
Set and setting are crucial. Not only is Hou himself a master of camera placement but his films are leisurely and, by Hollywood standards, perversely uninflected. Rarely using close-ups, he frequently shoots an entire scene from a single point of view. Although his characteristic locationscourtyards, kitchens, nightclubstend toward the mundane, Hou's sense of the visual world is exalted. Before they are anything else, these movies are beautiful objects of contemplation.
The Straight Story
Directed by David Lynch
Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney
A Walt Disney Pictures release
Opens October 15
Hou got his start in the once commercial (now nearly moribund) Taiwanese film industry. These days, his work is most often funded in Japan, where he is frequently compared to the local masters of domestic drama, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. With their casual precision and beatification of the ordinary, Hou's films do have a Japanese flavor. Taiwan was Japan's colony for 50 years (time enough for many concepts to lodge in the island's consciousness), but Hou's movies are also highly specific. Cold War flashpoint and economic tiger, a temporary country (at once pre- and post-Communist) ruled by exiles, Taiwan has a history that colors virtually all of Hou's films.
Born in China and raised in rural Taiwan, as recalled by his bucolic A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), Hou pioneered the use of indigenous dialect in his films. But few of his characters are ever truly at home. Hou's historical featuresA Time To Live and a Time ToDie, City of Sadness (1989), and Good Men, Good Women (1995)evoke the experience of the mainland Chinese who arrived on the island with the nationalist army. His more immediately accessible youth filmsThe Boys From Fengkuei (1983), Dust in the Wind (1986), Daughter of the Nile (1987), and Goodbye South, Goodbye (1995)concern recent migrants from the countryside to Taipei.
The best Hou for beginners may be Dust in the Wind. Following a pattern common to their village, a boy and a girl quit high school and leave the mountains of central Taiwan for Taipei. In the evening, they hang around a friend's studio or have drinking parties to send off friends drafted into the army. (More steeped in pop culture, the undervalued Daughter of the Nile has a kindred sense of dreamy time-wastingmuch of it in a Kentucky Fried Chicken that, shot at dusk, seems a palace of tawdry neon jewels.) Part of Hou's genius as a filmmaker is his ability to construct a story from seemingly unconnected anecdotes. Throughout Dust in the Wind, small incidents eddy the indolent calm. The boy's motorcycle is stolen, the girl scalds her arm. By the movie's end, his loss and her wound seem emblematic of the irrevocable injuries all the principals suffer.
Hou's most daring movies have been made over the past six years. As ambitious as the headiest French art cinema of Rivette or Resnais, yet as rooted in local history as his earlier films, these recent narratives explore narrativity. Good Men, Good Women, the most literal (and least successful), interweaves three temporal statesthe past, the present, and a historical movie-in-progress. The Puppetmaster (1993), Hou's greatest film, does much the same. More accurately described by its Chinese title, Drama, Dream, Life, it restages and retells the early life of octogenarian Li Tien-lu, Taiwan's most famous puppeteer. A half-dozen performancesusually shown head-on, some in a single long takealternate with an ongoing family melodrama unfolding over a series of domestic settings.
For all The Puppetmaster's emphasis on real time, a single cut can span a dozen yearseven as Li's voice-over loops over and around the various staged scenes. Less concerned with travel across time than space, the misappreciated Goodbye South, Goodbye is a movie about an inexorable passage through history that, based on long sequences shot from moving trains or cars, tracks a hapless pair of no-future hustlers, forever talking about going somewhere else, until in the powerful last shot, their forward motion stalls dead.
Like The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai (1998) is a story about storytelling. Shot completely in richly lit interiors, Hou's first movie to be wholly set in China is populated by a gaggle of late-19th-century courtesans and their wealthy opium-addled clients. On one hand, Flowers of Shanghai takes a highly material approach to the business of prostitution (although a quick hug is as close to sex as it gets). On the other, this dense, oblique, sumptuous chamber-work is a near mystical reverie on the illusory nature of film. Time ripples and folds in on itself like a brocaded curtain.
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