Saturday, November 23, 2013

HHH – A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien

aka:  Cinéma, de Notre Temps – TV series
France  Taiwan  (91 mi)  1997  d:  Olivier Assayas

France is known for its Cinéma de Notre Temps television interview series of famous directors, where for decades they’ve been following various filmmakers, including the groundbreaking Jacques Rivette interview with legendary French director Jean Renoir, while one of the best ever American interviews is with a young John Cassavetes as he’s filming Faces (1968), an interview that’s included in the Criterion Collection edition of his 5-films.  What’s unique here is that the interviewer is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, who is obviously as fascinated by what Hou Hsiao-hsien contributed to the Taiwanese New Wave in the 80’s and 90’s, which are still in full swing at the time this film is being made, along with Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, Chen Kuo-fu, and screenwriters Wu Nien-jen, and novelist Chu Tien-wen, where Chu, often interviewed alongside the director, collaborated on all of Hou’s screenplays for over twenty years.  Filmed in the late 1990’s, this serves as a time capsule into the still young life of the Taiwanese director.  At 50 years of age, he’s in fine form throughout, often seen chewing gum and recalling what a recalcitrant child he was, often getting himself into trouble by hanging out with the street gangs, but he matured after entering the army and performing his military service, where he decided he was interested in film, something he attributes to his childhood vantage point spending time in trees, which both stimulated and altered his spatial conception.   After directing a couple of successful comedies starring pop stars, he collaborated with two other directors on THE SANDWICH MAN (1983), generally regarded as the first film of the Taiwanese New Wave, where the intent was to alter the uninspired direction of the nation’s old-fashioned cinema, making it connect more with real life people and their situations.  But it was Hou’s THE BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983), the only film of Hou to use Western classical music, a remarkable story of the director’s own awkwardly troubled adolescence, where he is searching for a distinctly Chinese way of telling the story, the first to display what has become the traditional Hou style, minimalist dramas with extended long takes and a fixed-camera angle that heightens the sense of real time. 

His next series of films, his coming-of age trilogy, each written by a different screenwriter reflecting an autobiographical segment based upon their own lives, was highly successful, especially the one written by Hou, A TIME TO LIVE, A TIME TO DIE (1985), which Wu Nien-jen is heard calling the greatest Taiwanese film ever made, the story of his family’s move from mainland China to Taiwan, thinking it would only be temporary before they moved back, as his elderly grandmother thought the mainland was just around the corner, where they often went searching for the (non-existent) dead ancestor’s graves.  While a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, Assayas was one of the first to recognize Hou’s profound talent, meeting him for a Cahiers article in 1984, having a marked influence on his own work, so in this film he follows Hou around various locations in Taiwan, meeting in Taipei before returning to the provincial town of Fengshan where Hou grew up under the nickname Aha, recognizing a few old friends, reminiscing about how they used to be street punks and raise hell on these same streets, causing quite a commotion when he arrives with a French filmmaker’s camera following his every move, becoming something of a cause célèbre.  Assayas remains behind the camera for the most part, though occasionally we see an interpreter in his ear, but the television interview format is to observe and listen to the filmmaker, as Hou shows us the modest teahouse where he writes his screenplays, while also showing  various set locations that he used, including an old abandoned gold mine where the accompanying structures remain largely intact, preserving its original look.  For Hou, who filmed historical dramas, he was looking for sites that maintained their original look, where in outlying rural areas, people still live and dress much the same way as they did 50 years ago.  In something of a surprise, especially considering how lyrical and gently flowing his films are, Hou has something of a swagger to him, where in his youth he wanted to be a pop star before becoming a filmmaker, but developed stage fright onstage, and he also felt he was too short. 

One of the more interesting interviews was with Chen-Kuo-fu, director of THE PERSONALS (1998), but he originally worked as a film critic, and he gives an excellent appraisal of the untapped inspiration and furious energy on display at the dawn of the Taiwanese New Wave era, where everyone often met to share ideas, recalling how they’d all gather at Edward Yang’s home, an old Japanese structure, where they fed off each others rampant enthusiasm, where they all loved what they were doing.  It’s quite apparent he misses those days, that they were the best years of his life, which wonderfully comments upon an era that spawned a rebirth in Taiwanese cinema.  While Assayas doesn’t get into it, Hou remains something of an enigma.  While his films are acclaimed abroad, he has not received an enthusiastic reception at home, where theaters continue to screen primarily American films.  While Hou had a hand in actually shaping the history of his country, coming after the lifting of restrictions in 1987 imposed by martial law, which had remained in effect since 1947, making what are arguably his greatest films, a history trilogy beginning with A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989), a powerful film that traces Taiwan’s history from the Japanese defeat in World War II through the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949.  The film had a major impact in Taiwan, as certain previously forbidden subjects were touched upon, very carefully Hou explains, and objectively, not criticizing anyone, followed by The Puppetmaster (Xi meng ren sheng) (1993), that examines life under the Japanese occupation covering the years 1909 to 1945, while the third, Good Men, Good Women (Hao nan hao nu) (1995), covering the period of 1949 to the present, tells the story of a small band of communist intellectuals that travel to mainland China to help fight the Japanese, only to see their leader executed later by his own countrymen.  What was never discussed was the relationship between the mainland Chinese filmmakers and the Taiwanese Chinese, once the doors opened, as these are collectively some of the best and brightest directors working anywhere in the world today, where one is curious how they felt about each other.     

Assayas describes Hou’s personality, “His manner of slipping from grown-up rationality to childish laughter is intact, as is his way of moving between intellectuals and small-time Mafiosi’s in a sort of studied uncertainty, hazy with grass, alcohol, or bin-lan (a plant-based kind of speed).  But here where only instinct matters, theory and philosophy assume a growing importance; and it isn’t simply a matter of a notion about perception—generally interesting only to filmmakers—but also the classical Chinese tradition, with the gravity and intensity peculiar to autodidacts.”  We see some of that personality emerge as he questions a local teahouse proprietor whether the watermelon seeds used for tea are fresh, then proceeds to display a ritualistic method of preparing tea, first pouring it into tiny teacups, then one by one pouring that tea over the teapot, creating a pool of tea underneath that continually gets recycled in this manner.  When Hou lets loose with a few friends in a karaoke house, he’s not kidding, as he takes this endeavor quite seriously, where he happily wails away singing old popular ballads that have a way of unleashing his soul.        

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