For three decades, Hou’s work has explored an extraordinary range of artistic propositions: the interactions between individual and collective history, the relationship between China and Taiwan, the link between Time and Space, and the loss of reference points in a world driven by ultra-fast capitalist development, lack of democracy, submission to standardized ways of life, globalization, and new technology. Set in the present and the past, circulating between ages (Good Men, Good Women, 1995; Three Times, 2005) and even into the future (Millennium Mambo, 2001), foreign locations (Café Lumière, 2003; Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007), and dreams, his films constitute a singular universe. This singularity can be described, to a large extent, as the innovative and very personal translation of the canons of traditional Chinese culture into cinematic language. – Jean-Michel Frodon
In effect, Hou’s style—at once intuitive, powerful and contemplative, at a remove from any attempts at seduction, and able to use sheer brute force to head towards the essential and nothing but the essential—boded extremely well for Chinese cinema. Starting from zero, he was able to bring about a veritable revolution in its manner of apprehending and regarding the world, and, overcoming the impasses of classicism and imported modernism, he defined the possibility of a new and original point of view on the contemporary world.
Nothing at the time existed in Chinese cinema that could approach the rough-hewn truth and autobiographical realism of Hou’s early work, which, if we must find a reference point for it, evoked Maurice Pialat’s films. …
There are several important articulations in his work, and in particular his trilogy on memory initiated with A City of Sadness (collective memory), continued with The Puppetmaster (1993, individual memory) and concluded—or rather interrogated once more—with Good Men, Good Women (1995). Good Men, Good Women is entirely constructed around the conflict between the former and the latter, between the memory which constitutes being, which is the very fiber of being, and the memory of the nation, which can only be the object of an intellectual, voluntarist approach, ceaselessly subjected to approximation and doubt. This is political work, if you want, but it can only be envisaged if the question of personal memory, its intimate conflicts and wounds, is first resolved. That pretty much sums up the evolution of Hou’s oeuvre. …
Between the youthful brilliance of his “second debut film” Goodbye South, Goodbye and the vertiginous success of Flowers of Shanghai (1998), where the essence of life itself swirls around among the opium vapors, and where he shows the ungraspable yet inexorable workings of time, Hou has become a universal filmmaker. He is one of the greatest filmmakers working today—in China or elsewhere. When it comes down to it, he was destined to be so from the beginning. – Oliver Assayas, 1998
Beginning as a forerunner of the refreshing, distinctive New Taiwan Cinema, Hou Hsiao-hsien has risen to one of the most critically esteemed filmmakers in the world. The Harvard Film Archive presents all of his feature films, from the earliest low-budget comedies to the New Taiwan filmmakers’ virtual manifesto, The Sandwich Man to his most recent city symphony Flight of the Red Balloon. As a fitting postscript, we are pleased to welcome Hou cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin with his own exquisite Springtime in a Small Town on November 3.
International retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College) in collaboration with Amber Wu (Taipei Cultural Center, NY) and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan). The book Hou Hsiao-hsien (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum and New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) is released in conjunction with this retrospective and is excerpted above.
Special thanks to Scott Lai, Director, and Wen-chang Chen, Deputy Director, TECO Boston.
Film descriptions by Haden Guest, Carson Lund and David Pendleton
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Wang Chi-kuang, Li Shu-tien,
Taiwan 1984, 35mm, color, 100 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
The first of Hou’s so-called coming-of-age trilogy (followed by Dust in the Wind and A Time to Live and a Time to Die) seems at first to be the lighter of his early works, a deliberately minor childhood tale made with child actors and largely adapting their point-of-view. Yet despite its bucolic setting and shimmering images Hou’s story of two young siblings visiting their grandfather in verdant rural Taiwan while their sick mother is hospitalized quickly turns unexpectedly dark by revealing the blunt insensitivity, menace and cruelty of the adult world, a world of deception, sexual promiscuity and irrational fear of the death that the wide-eyed children accept with more grace and understanding than their elders. Often cited as a secret precursor to Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Hou’s little known early work uses its child protagonists as a lens through which to define the detached, understated realism that remains a key to Hou’s cinema. Print courtesy of Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Feng Fei-fei, Kenny Bee, Anthony Chan
Taiwan 1980, 35mm, color, 90 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Hou’s light first feature finds him beginning his career as a director by working in the vein of the romantic comedies so prevalent in Taiwanese cinema at the time. The musical stars two singer-actors (Kenny Bee and Feng Fei-fei) playing a pair of star-crossed lovers who meet in the countryside although Feng is already promised to a serious young man studying abroad. The fact that Bee plays a developer whose sentimental education includes learning to love nature looks forward not only to the environmental messages in The Green, Green Grass of Home but, more broadly, to the importance of landscape in Hou’s work. Print courtesy of Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Doze Niu, To Tsung-hua, Lin Hsiu-ling
Taiwan 1983, 35mm, color, 101 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
Among Hou’s strongest early films, The Boys from Fengkuei offers a portrait of aimless youth as an emblem of eighties Taiwan in transition and moving rapidly towards an uncertain future. Hou’s avid cinephilia imparts the film with a citational over-ripeness: the restless group of boys in the small seaside town recalling Fellini’s I Vitelloni, while their travels to the big glittering city echo Rocco and His Brothers, the same film the boys rush to see in a Taipei art house. Yet the Italian cinema overstated throughout the film is in many ways a distraction from Hou’s clear embrace of the spontaneous male ruffianism of Hawks and Scorsese and the transcendental everyday of Ozu and Malick. For all of its metacinematic charms, Boys from Fengkuei remains a milestone for giving first expression to the elliptical episodic narrative so central to Hou’s mature cinema and pointing towards that evocative sense, redolent throughout his greatest films, of the present moment as perfumed by the past it is about to become, with friendship and happiness and small victories revealed to be fleeting moments always about to be lost. Print courtesy of Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Kenny Bee, Chiang Ling,
Taiwan 1982, 16mm, color, 91 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Hou’s third film is the last with any real link to the Taiwanese love-story genre, made as it is on the eve of the emergence of Taiwan’s New Wave. It is also the most complex and subtle of the three, earning Hou his first Golden Horse nomination (Taiwan’s equivalent of the Academy Awards). “The Green, Green Grass of Home is set wholly in a village, where the up-and-down courtship between two primary-school teachers is overshadowed by the crises in the lives of the townspeople. Blending an episodic romance with children’s family problems and the pollution of the local river, Green, Green Grass compares favorably with Ozu’s lyrical comedies of the 1930s.” (David Bordwell)
Print courtesy of Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Feng Fei-fei, Kenny Bee,
Taiwan 1981, 35mm, color, 90 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Another romantic comedy that reteams the leads from Cute Girl, Hou’s second film raises the stakes for its central couple (melo)dramatically: he is blind, while she is living with her fiancé who also happens to be her boss. Similarly, Hou seems to take more chances formally, as with the opening film-within-the-film. Also pointing the way towards Hou’s later work is the film’s use of children as a foil and mirror to the adults around them. Print courtesy of Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Wang Ching-wen, Hsin Shu-fen,
Taiwan 1986, 35mm, color, 110 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
A beloved favorite among Hou’s early films, Dust in the Wind is an affecting and poignantly fatalistic story of first love which follows a young couple finishing high school and leaving their remote mining village in search of work and a new life in Taipei. The film’s hypnotic extended opening shot on a train passing through a mountain landscape makes clear the careful formal lyricism—an absolute control of light, shadow and movement—which marks the film as an important milestone in Hou’s oeuvre. At the same time, the train is one of several pointed meta-cinematic references throughout the film (the plein air village screening, the decrepit Taiwan movie house) which reveal Hou’s canny awareness of the role of the New Taiwan cinema in shaping a mythos about Taiwanese history and place. Ironically, Dust in the Wind‘s elegy to waning village life transformed the film’s stunning mountainside setting into a popular tourist attraction and nostalgic pilgrimage site which today attracts streams of visitors from Taipei and abroad.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Song Fang, Juliette Binoche,
France 2007, 35mm, color, 115 min. French and Mandarin with English subtitles
The spirit of Albert Lamorisse's iconic 1956 short film The Red Balloon floats, quite literally, over Hou's first European project as a kind of ruse, a playful act of misdirection meant more as poetic counterpoint to the drama rather than pointed thematic signifier. Where Lamorisse’s anthropomorphized helium sack was a character unto itself as well as a plot catalyst, Hou’s balloon—blown to and fro over Parisian streets—materializes here and there without explanatory context, its existence just a simple fact of life to admire from afar. Herein lies the film’s structural and philosophical backbone: life is a series of chance occurrences carried along by currents outside our control. Within this framework Hou observes the quotidian dramas of an overworked single mother, her son, and his nanny (another of Hou’s filmmaker surrogates). Warmly compassionate even as it practices Zen-like restraint, Flight of the Red Balloon finds Hou’s camera at its most liberated, seemingly unburdened of the traditionally over-determined nature of film production and free to respond to the vagaries of mood, light, and circumstance.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Annie Shizuka Inoh, Jack Kao,
Taiwan/Japan 1995, 35mm, color, 108 min. Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Japanese with English subtitles
Unjustly overshadowed by A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, Good Men, Good Women completes Hou’s trilogy of epics about Taiwanese history in a self-reflexive vein: it is a film about the making of a film about martial law and brutal political repression in the 1950s. Hou alternates between the film’s lead actress and the real personage she is portraying. As the actress sinks deeper into her character, the more unreal and alienating does the world around her seem. The sacrifices of those who resisted martial law are movingly and wrenchingly recounted here, even as Good Men, Good Women asks whether we can honor or even remember history in a world centered on disposability and consumption. New 35mm print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Hitoto Yo, Asano Tadanobu, Hagiwara Masato
Taiwan/Japan 2003, 35mm, color, 103 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Shooting for the first time in Japan on the eve of the centennial of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth, Hou builds in echoes of Tokyo Story (1953) to deliver his own distinct riff on the age-old conflict between tradition and modernity. Taiwanese native Yôko is a Japanese language teacher working in Tokyo while studying the piano works of China-born transnational composer Jiang Wenye, who lived through Taiwan’s colonization by Japan in the 1920s and 30s. In gathering research materials and visiting her estranged parents back home, Yôko’s cyclical trajectory throughout the film from Tokyo to Taipei mirrors that of her research subject, an understated parallel allowing Hou to survey the postcolonial dynamic between Taiwan, China and Japan as well as the changes wrought by a rapidly globalizing Eastern hemisphere. Adopting Ozu’s penchant for low angle domestic observation and interstitial shots of trains, Hou constructs a formal conversation with the Japanese director’s perennial commentary on time’s bittersweet flow, while emphasizing the different worlds existing before their cameras.
Directed by Chen Kun-hou. With Chang Chun-fang, Cui Fusheng,
Taiwan 1983, 35mm, color, 100 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Filmmaker Chen Kun-hou was both colleague and mentor for Hou in the early 1980s. He served as cinematographer for most of Hou’s first features, and Hou in turn co-wrote the screenplay for Growing Up, Chen’s most important contribution to the emergence of the Taiwanese New Wave. Like so much of Hou’s early work, the film is a coming-of-age tale about a boy in 1950s Taiwan. The sentimentality of the plot’s nostalgic appeal is complicated by the film’s careful attention to the tensions between the native Taiwanese and the recently arrived mainlanders. Working on the screenplay with the original novel’s author Chu Tien-wen, Hou began one of the most important artistic partnerships of his career; Chu has contributed to the screenplays of almost all of Hou’s subsequent films.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Yu An-shun, Tien Geng, Mei Fang
Taiwan 1985, 35mm, color, 136 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Based upon the story of his own family’s relocation from mainland China to Taiwan, Hou’s most openly autobiographical film is also his first to embrace the kind of formal rigor that will define his best known mature work. A Time to Live and a Time to Die makes clear Hou’s debt to Ozu in its use of the architectural space of the modest family home to define the stated rules and violated hierarchies that the young Hou rebelled against. At the same time the film’s use of counterpointal music and an abrupt voiceover, spoken by Hou himself, signals the detached narration which gives A Time to Live and a Time to Die an abstracted, sculptural quality deliberately at odds with the film’s understated performances and minor stories—offering a subtle statement about the strange ways history monumentalizes the past. Yet, despite the film’s seeming detached matter-of-factness about time, death and loss (stated so bluntly in the title and in a clinical close-up of a blood stained tatami mat), the distance described by Hou’s controlled camera and detached narration is an emotional and metaphysical distance—the space of memory and regret.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Li Tien-lu, Lim Giong, Vicky Wei
Taiwan/France 1993, 35mm, color, 142 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
With its radical admixture of documentary and fiction The Puppetmaster announced an important new direction in Hou’s brilliant and career-long struggle to chronicle modern Taiwanese history through the distorting lenses of individual and collective memory. Towards this goal Hou cast famed octogenarian puppeteer Li Tien-lu (seen earlier as an actor in Dust in the Wind) as the star and narrator of his own story—with Hou’s film following and often gently contradicting Li’s meandering telling of life in Taiwan during the long period under Japanese colonial rule. Intercutting between sequence of Li the storyteller often looking directly at the camera, and Hou’s own restaging of Li’s story, The Puppetmaster beautifully meditates on the limits of cinema to capture the texture and voice of individual as opposed to official history. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Li Tien-lu, Chen Sung-yung, Jack Kao
Taiwan 1989, 35mm, color, 158 min. Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese and Japanese with English subtitles
Hou’s epic film focuses on the complex history of 20th-century Taiwan during the turbulent period in Taiwanese history between the fall of the Japanese Empire in 1945 and the establishment of martial law in 1949. Hou fashioned a national saga out of the events leading to the now infamous “February 28 Incident,” a massacre of thousands of Taiwanese civilians by Nationalist soldiers in 1947. Revolving around the fates of four brothers whose lives embody the major forces at work on the island, A City of Sadness unfolds a complex and engaging narrative contrasting the oldest brother, a bar owner eager to profit from the postwar economic boom and the youngest, a deaf-mute photographer with ties to the leftist resistance to the Kuomintang. Despite its broad canvas, the film remains intimately focused on daily life, with the major historical events taking place primarily off-screen. A City of Sadness remains one of Hou’s most formally inventive films, utilizing text onscreen, voiceover and a variety of languages. Made in the wake of the lifting of martial law on the island, A City of Sadness is both an important act of remembrance and a landmark of world cinema. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Tuan Chun-hao
Taiwan/France 2001, 35mm, color, 119 min. Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles
Hou’s first film of the current century is a dazzling, small-scale sketch that arguably takes his and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin’s established minimalism to a new peak of sensual indulgence. The collaboration came a year after Ping-Bin’s work on In the Mood for Love and shares that film’s pervasive sense of metropolitan melancholy and romantic disaffection, albeit expressed in Hou's distinctly relaxed, ambling register. Immersed largely within the dim glow of Taipei nightlife and featuring a sobering late-stage shift to a snowy Japanese countryside, Millennium Mambo takes on the form of a series of imperfectly recalled memories from the vantage point of ten years by a drifting young woman reflecting on her failed relationships with go-nowhere men. Less a narrative than a loose template within which to place a ravishing Qi Shu amidst swirls of hazy neon, Hou’s film is a beautifully sustained mood piece that represents a gentle precursor to the urban ennui of Three Times’ final chapter. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wan Jen and Tseng Chuang-hsiang. With Chen Po-Cheng, Yang Li-Yin
Taiwan 1983, 35mm, color, 100 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
In 1982, the omnibus film In Our Time announced the emergence of a young generation of Taiwanese filmmakers who were not interested in working within the tradition of sentimental genre films produced by the island’s studio system. The following year, The Sandwich Man, another omnibus film,made the same point even more emphatically by focusing on the lives of Taiwan’s working poor—comprised of three episodes adapted from stories by Huang Chungming, whose fiction was in the Seventies one of the first articulations of a contemporary Taiwanese culture distinct from mainland China. Hou’s opening episode sets a tone of closely observed everyday existence. The film’s impact—including its explicit protest of US and Japanese influence on Taiwan—was so profound that pressure by conservative forces to have the film re-edited was successfully resisted. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Jack Kao, Lim Giong, Hsu Kuei-ying
Taiwan/Japan 1996, 35mm, color, 112 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
Packed with shots from the perspectives of moving vehicles, Goodbye South, Goodbye is one of Hou’s most mobile films, but as its nose-diving final image would imply, it’s about a world that goes nowhere fast. Hijacking the classically pulpy narrative template of a group of criminals trying to go straight if only to leech it of sensational drama, the film offers the mundane goings-on and aimless busywork of Hsi and his close-knit gang of money hustlers. Counterintuitive as this narrative emphasis may seem, Hou’s approach is germane to the larger sense of inertia in his native Taiwan, a nation groping for an autonomous identity while trying desperately to keep up with a technologically advancing world. In spite of its lack of incident, Goodbye South, Goodbye is a dynamic piece of filmmaking that takes Hou’s durational exercises to new heights of expressiveness, each lengthy sequence shot seemingly more dimensionally complex than the last. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Mei Fang
Taiwan/France 2005, 35mm, color, 130 min. Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles
“If anything sums up both the Taiwanese Experience and Hou’s films, it is sudden, unexpected, and often irreversible changes,” writes film scholar James Udden, a characterization that might have provided the structural basis for Three Times, Hou’s tripartite narrative of missed connections across the ages. Chen Chang and Qi Shu play fated lovers weaving through a compendium of milieus familiar to Hou: a 1965 urban pool hall straight out of The Boys from Fengkuei, a 1911 Chinese brothel reminiscent of those in Flowers of Shanghai, and Taipei nightlife circa 2005, an echo of Millenium Mambo. Titling his chapters “A Time for Love,” “A Time for Freedom,” and “A Time for Youth,” Hou sets himself up for charges of schematism only to undercut any on-the-nose implications with his typical unassuming direction, submerging characters into larger sociopolitical networks to which they are inevitably bound for better or worse. Three Times is Hou’s most accessible, stylistically varied effort—the 1911 portion plays out as a silent film with intertitles—but its divided structure is not without a degree of rigor: temporal leaps occur without apparent warning and without narrative closure, an elliptical strategy that lends an inconclusive air of melancholy. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Yang Lin, Jack Kao, Yang Fan
Taiwan 1987, 35mm, color, 93 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
The little-seen Daughter of the Nile was made at a pivotal point in Hou’s career, between finishing his early coming-of-age films (with Dust in the Wind) and embarking on his great historical trilogy with A City of Sadness. In fact, this filmforms a perfect bridge between these two periods, since its portrait of a young woman struggling to keep her family together brings contemporary Taipei to the fore for the first time in Hou’s work. Daughter of the Nile presents Taiwan’s capital as a fractured, rapidly changing metropolis whose disorientations confuse and unsettle the film’s young protagonists, and it is this disorientation that underpins the search for a historical perspective in Hou’s subsequent work. Print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Tony Leung, Hada Michiko,
Taiwan/Japan 1998, 35mm, color, 113 min. Shanghainese and Cantonese with English subtitles
Set in the chic brothels of turn-of-the-19th-century Qing Dynasty, Flowers of Shanghai revolves around a bold Brechtian formal gimmick: every shot equals one scene, and every scene ends with a molasses-like dip to black—calling attention to the viewer’s temporal and cultural distance from the events. A Mizoguchian melodrama in which the malaise of geishadom is a given rather than an end result, the film—which takes place entirely in the kerosene-lit interiors of the flower houses—scrupulously observes daily dramas between clients, courtesans and their managers in a viscous succession of scene fragments, each shot a moving oil painting willed to life out of darkness. At the center is Tony Leung’s Shakespearean anti-hero whose tragic narrative of lovesick self-absorption and opium ingestion crawls along lugubriously to Yoshihiro Hanno and Du-Che Tu’s dirge-like score. Atmospherically palpable even as it emanates a spectral glow, Hou’s vision of the past reflects back obliquely on the qualities that define his contemporary work: people hopelessly detached from a larger context while engaging in meaningless games of chance and quibbling endlessly over monetary exchanges. New 35mm print courtesy of the Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College