Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Good Men, Good Women (Hao nan hao nu)

GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (Hao nan hao nu)      A                    
Taiwan Japan  (108 mi)  1995  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien

I walked out of the theater thinking I could kiss the guy that made this film.  It was an honor to be able to see it, made in the same year as my daughter Eva’s birth – hopefully, an auspicious sign – a brilliant, deeply felt tribute to all those political victims of the 1940’s and 50’s.  What might be propaganda in someone else’s hands is instead one of the most moving and affectionate political films ever seen, with very little actual politics coming into play, instead it pays a loving tribute to those unsung heroes that lived and died in the past, who are all but forgotten now, as a country’s future has been steered into a different direction, resembling the decadence of an American consumer society.  As Taiwan was under Japanese occupation for 51 years up until the end of World War II, a few Taiwanese Socialist freedom fighters in the 1940’s joined the Chinese Mainland Communists who had already been invaded by Japan.  These individuals came under suspicion both by the Chinese Communists, who felt they were Japanese spies, and then later during the anticommunist “White Terror” of the 50’s they were tried by the Taiwanese Nationalist forces, who were themselves forced to retreat in exile to Taiwan in 1949, executing many of them for fighting with the Communists.  Taiwan’s fate as the frontline against Communism was sealed when America sent in the 7th Fleet to protect the Taiwan Straits from the Communist North Koreans during the Korean War in 1950, saving Taiwan from Communism, but also eliminating any real political opposition in the process.  The Taiwanese Nationalists imposed martial law in 1947, which lead to The February 28 Incident of the same year where over 20,000 Taiwanese were massacred by Nationalist troops, who covered up their own malicious acts and continually blamed the Communists for this revolt.  Covering the period of 1949 to the present, this is the third and final film of the Trilogy on 20th century Taiwan, which began with A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989), which covers the end of World War II through the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949, followed by The Puppetmaster (Xi meng ren sheng) (1993), set during the Japanese occupation, covering the years 1909 to 1945, and is based on a novel by Chiang Bi-Yu, who followed her husband to Mainland China to fight the Japanese, only to see him executed later by his own countrymen.  

The editing and visual mastery of this film is stunning, as is the evidence of such formal control by the director himself, whose amazingly personal and complex film structure is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR (1975).  The film movingly opens in black and white as several men and women, with the look of peasants, are walking through the countryside singing songs.  They are a group of socialist-leaning professionals who have left Taiwan to join the anti-Japanese resistance movement on Mainland soil, an act immediately questioned by the Chinese Communist military command, believing they are Japanese spies.  The film then shifts to the present, in color, as an actress, played by Annie Shizuka Inoh, who, herself, has her own flashbacks, is re-enacting the part of Chiang Bi-Yu from the 40’s in a modern day play, so she actually plays triple roles of the present, flashbacks from her life that represent a possible future, and the past.  Living in a darkened apartment where little moves except the fish inside the fish bowls, an apt reference to her own life as well, she receives phone calls from someone who has stolen her own diary, and throughout the film he sends them back to her piece by piece on her fax machine, which leads to one of the more emotionally gripping scenes at the end, recalling to this silent, anonymous caller, who may as well be her own conscious, powerful feelings for her dead lover, where in a haunting confession she reveals the past is never past, but remains strikingly real.   

The film moves back and forth in time from modern day color to this sumptuously beautiful black and white of the past as impressively as any film seen, brilliantly filmed by Chen Huai-en.  The present is represented by garish colors and wild night-club-style fashions, filled with over-indulgent, superficial people who can think only of themselves.  There is an exquisite scene of the girl talking to her gangster boyfriend, Jack Kao, about getting an abortion or having his baby, while she effortlessly puts on her make up in front of a mirror, and little glimpses of light seem to be trying to find their way around this mirror.  No scene in the film provides a better contrast, as the real-life Chiang Bi-Yu is then seen pregnant, working in a labor camp, where she was forced to give up her children to be able to fight for the causes she believed in.  There are extraordinary prison sequences, contrasting images of long, empty corridors to the women huddled together in a tiny cell, only the backs of the guards are seen as they unlock the doors and one by one call out their names, telling them it is time for them to face their judgment.  It’s an unseen, faceless power that has ruthlessly gained control of their lives.  This is contrasted by the hauntingly beautiful music of Chiang Hsiao-Wen that plays during the black and white pastoral sequences, where people can be heard chatting happily among themselves off-screen, or seen working together, eating together, cleaning their rooms, helping one another in such effortless, normal settings, yet it is strikingly poetic in its magical power to remind us of a world that could have been, that never came to be.  This film is really a requiem to a lost freedom movement, to a country’s failure to live up to it’s hopes and aspirations of being a free society, suggesting now they are on a wayward path where their future has been bartered and sold, where instead of fighting for social justice, they are left to squabble over meaningless petty indulgences.  The final sequences of the film are as moving and as heartfelt as anything in the Hou Hsiao-hsien repertoire.


  1. I'm not big on Taiwanese movies. I sort of like YI YI but thought it was no big deal. THE RIVER by Tsai was interesting but not my cup of tea.

    My favorite Asian cinema? As with most people, Japanese cinema of the 50s and 60s. What a sad decline of that once great national cinema.
    I used to like some Mainland China films--especially those in the humanist mold--before Zhang and Chen got into those ridiculous historical and/or kung fu epics.
    As for the more recent films like PLATFORM, I'm generally not a fan of seemingly empty formalist exercises.
    But I did like BEIJING BICYCLE, BLUE KITE(one of the greatest of the 90s), and BLIND MOUNTAIN.
    Hong Kong has been a great innovator in style since the 80s, but most of the movies tend to be fluff. And contrary to cinephile opinion, I think Wong Kar Wai is all style and no substance.

    Korean cinema has been in the news since the late 90s. Never liked Park Chan Wook. Don't even wanna see stuff like THE HOST.
    But I did like FRIEND, TAKE CARE OF MY CAT, POETRY, and A BRAND NEW LIFE. Especially FRIEND, a genuine classic and worthy of comparison with the works of Scorsese(and Kaufman's THE WANDERERS).
    And there's a character in TAKE CARE OF MY CAT whom I can't get out of my mind.

  2. Well - - there's no accounting for taste, as Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien are among my favorite filmmakers, also Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-wai, both of whom love the Douglas Sirk artificial surface color schemes, but both have highly developed interior worlds, for Wong that would include all his films up to In the Mood for Love, with the exception of Fallen Angels, where Happy Together, Chungking Express, and Days of Being Wild are drenched with a sense of loneliness and longing.

    And Platform is hardly an empty formalist exercise, as similar to Hou's historical trilogy, he's documenting how the decade of the 80's entered with unbridled enthusiasm from highly charged, idealistic communist youth who went out into the hinterlands to spread the message that it's a bright and shining new era, where they were all but ignored and returned a decade later humbled and defeated - - so much for radical change in China.

    What about Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, whose tender A Scene at the Sea is the polar opposite of the incendiary yakuza world of Fireworks, where his entire output is noteworthy, or Hirokazu Kore-eda, especially Nobody Knows, where all his films up to Still Walking are excellent.

    And what about Korean director Hong Sang-soon, whose simplicity and frank dialogue are uniquely refreshing?

    You don't seem to like slow and pensive films, which would seem to make you a huge fan of film noir, often action packed, psychological thrillers where things tend to happen in a highly condensed and combustible storyline.