The Past — and the Great Hou Hsiao-hsien — Flourish at MOMI


The filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s entrancing Flowers of Shanghai (1998) unfolds in a revolving world. Its action
occurs inside a brothel in the British quarter of late-19th-century Shanghai, where a wealthy young man falls for a “flower girl” despite having spent over two years as the sole customer of another prostitute, who pleads with him to keep supporting her. The camera moves in continuous circles around them and their contemporaries as it absorbs the details of low-lit red-and-gold rooms and invites us to watch men gamble, women plot buying their freedom, and characters’ fates enlace each other’s. Tales of doomed love play out before us in a way that makes the past feel like part of an eternal present.

A new 35mm print of Flowers of Shanghai screens Friday to open the Museum
of the Moving Image’s month-long series spanning the career of the 67-year-old
Taiwanese filmmaker (whose name is
pronounced “Hoe Shauw-shen”). The comprehensive touring retrospective, organized by Richard I. Suchenski, includes celluloid presentations of Hou’s 17 completed fiction features, along with shorts by him, a documentary about him, and four films from other directors that involve him as actor, producer, and screenwriter. Only four of Hou’s directorial efforts have ever received commercial
distribution in the United States; the
series affords New York audiences a rare chance to absorb the work of one of the greatest living filmmakers.

Flowers of Shanghai might initially seem like atypical Hou (who is currently completing his long-considered martial arts epic, The Assassin). The film was made in mainland China by an artist who had spent almost his entire life in Taiwan, with actors speaking scripted period dialogue rather than the contemporary speech that Hou has often asked his performers to improvise. Yet Flowers also continues Hou’s career-long interest in displaying history for public use. He films people in extended shots held from a distance to emphasize our proximity to them. Regardless of the time and place they inhabit, Hou’s characters register as recognizably human, and equally weak, fragile, and flawed.

This retrospective is named after the puppeteer troupe run by the real-life late Taiwanese storyteller Lu Tien-lu in Hou’s film The Puppetmaster (1993, screening Saturday), who articulates a kind of metaphor for Hou’s cinema: “Puppets in performance are like people, so puppet plays are also like life.” Hou seeks to understand human behavior by both making and
observing representations of it; his lead characters are often actors, singers, and writers who transmute their troubles into art. Hou’s uniquely vivid film portrait of the then-85-year-old Lu takes us from the puppetmaster’s 1908 birth under the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (which began in 1895) through to the island’s handover to Chinese authorities at the end of World War II. The film mixes dramatic re-enactments of episodes from Lu’s past (including puppet plays) with present-day moments of the seated old man calmly
recounting the lessons he learned from his experiences, and wishing sympathy for all who took part in them.

Several Hou films assume multiple viewpoints to see the past with greater fairness and clarity. The Puppetmaster forms part of a trilogy of films that aim
to unearth Taiwan’s much-suppressed recent history. Good Men, Good Women (1995, screening September 20) shows a contemporary film actress playing a
Taiwanese woman whose husband was one of thousands murdered during the Nationalist-inflicted “White Terror” against suspected Communists; the older woman’s reality, offered to us in black-and-white scenes, gains immediacy as the actress brings to her role memories of
her own recently murdered beloved. A City of Sadness (1989, screening October 12) examines the years between Taiwan’s liberation from Japan and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s assumption of power in 1949. It does so from the vantage points of three adult Taiwanese brothers, including a deaf-mute photographer who snaps still-lifes of his splintering family.

Hou — himself one of four brothers — was born on the mainland during this period and moved to Taiwan with his family in his infancy. He jovially recalls in Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997, screening Saturday) how he lived as a petty good-for-nothing until military service brought him purpose — not with guns, but with chances to movie-binge during time off duty. He began his directorial
career with broad comedies in the dominant local style until discovering (in tandem with several other young Taiwanese filmmakers, most notably Edward Yang) that his work could grow richer if he brought his personal experiences and those of his screenwriting partners and actors to it.

Hou’s revelation led him to make carefully observed early wonders — including the perfectly formed slice-of-life short film Son’s Big Doll (1983, screening October 5) and the directly autobiographical masterwork A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985, October 3) — in which young people learn their shortcomings through witnessing those of other people. Throughout,
the camera stays at a dispassionate remove, as though studying them as well. Hou has maintained this approach, even when
following strangers in Tokyo (2003’s Café Lumière, screening September 26) and Paris (2007’s The Flight of the Red Balloon, screening September 28). Whether he’s home or abroad, Hou treats filmmaking as a field of discovery for himself and all his collaborators, including eventual viewers.