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 retro—opening 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 locations—courtyards, kitchens, nightclubs—tend toward the mundane, Hou’s sense of the visual world is exalted. Before they are anything else, these movies are beautiful objects of contemplation.
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 features—A 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 films—The 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-wasting—much 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 states—the 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 performances—usually shown head-on, some in a single long take—alternate 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 years—even 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.
As in the earliest movies, each scene is a single take. At the same time, all action is recalled in the dialogue. (Virtually the whole movie is anticipated by the table gossip in an eight-minute pretitle banquet sequence.) The characters are trapped by their pasts, and yet, because much significant action occurs off-camera and months can pass between the fades, they seem to live only in the ungraspable moment. No less than these “flowers,” the filmmaker invents his power out of nothing.
**A 73-year-old man who needs two canes to walk, and whose dimmed vision precludes driving a car, stubbornly pilots his 1966 John Deere lawn mower 240 miles (at 5 mph) across Iowa to visit an estranged brother in Wisconsin. Prince of weirdness David Lynch always was a closet cultural conservative, and his new movie, The Straight Story, is Disney material with a vengeance.
Dramatizing the true story of Alvin Straight, Lynch revels in a premise so shamelessly feel-good and absurdly family-friendly it might embarrass Steven Spielberg or Kevin Costner. The title is, of course, a pun. Lynch begins with a parody of Blue Velvet‘s small-town geekery. But, unlike that masterpiece of ecstatic creepiness, The Straight Story is not about what goes on behind closed doors. Everything is on the surface: “What’s the number for 911!?” someone wants to know, quoting Homer Simpson without credit.
The Straight Story is as American in its wanderlust as Boys Don’t Cry is in its paean to reinvention and Blair Witch is in its fear of the woods. Despite a few peculiar details (a biddy-filled tour bus, a scene underscored by the piercing squeal of a hacksaw cutting metal pipe, the repeated insistence that Wisconsin is a “real party state”), the movie is unpretentiously straightforward. Wrinkled within his wrinkles, Richard Farnsworth is enormously sympathetic in the title role—it’s heart-stopping to watch the flicker of adrenaline-fueled panic crease his face as the lawn mower’s brakes fail on a downhill grade. Sissy Spacek gives a pitch-perfect performance as his peculiarly disabled daughter.
Lynch treats this geriatric road movie as a biblical parable—a tale from the Book of Dutch. As summer turns to fall, Alvin encounters a pregnant runaway, a hysterical woman who claims to have run over 14 deer, a teenage bicycle tour, and a pair of squabbling twins. These opportunities for him to dispense his homely wisdom are overemphasized, replete with reverential reaction shots, even when they’re meant to be funny. Lynch tips his hand when Alvin goes for a beer with another geezer and, with a ’40s ballad playing prominently in the background, they swap references to their World War II traumas. Even so, thanks to the evident decrepitude of the actors, the scene has an old-western pathos.
Sunny as The Straight Story appears, Lynch is still defamiliarizing the normal. Perhaps the clearest indication that Straight lives in a paradise is the absence of authority figures. No cop appears to question his vehicle, and even though he spends an evening in a church graveyard, roasting wieners with a friendly priest, the concept of God is never mentioned.