Taiwan at the Table: Plan Sequence in Goodbye, South, Goodbye
Early in Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) a film about a luckless band of Taiwanese gangsters,
Hou Hsiao Hsien stages two brilliant scenes centered around a gambling table and a kitchen table
that offer a glimpse at the formal and thematic shifts in the director’s body of work during the 1990s.
Hou’s use of a table as the central axis of a scene is something of a motif in his cinematic body of
work. This mise en scene “tableau” as an element of Hou’s auteurial style is as recognizable for
contemporary viewers as is his use of the long take and the moving camera. The moving camera,
however, is a cinematic feature of Hou’s work that, prior to 1995, was regarded as a radical
departure from the director’s characteristic early style. This earlier style, on view in films such as A
City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster (1993), was characterized by the long take and static
camera work. The stylistic rupture in Hou’s work signaled by the moving camera of the 1990s was
so significant to the director’s style that James Udden devotes an entire chapter in his book, Cinema
Taiwan: Politics, Popularity, and the State of the Arts to discussing it: “This Time He Moves! The
Deeper Significance of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s radical break in Good Men, Good Women.” The
movement of Hou’s previously static camera in his 1995 film Good Men, Good Women marks a
stylistic and thematic shift that would define all his later work and his films made after Good Men,
Good Women, including Goodbye South, Goodbye. 1
In a similar historical shift, after devoting much of the 1980s to exploring Taiwan’s past, in
Goodbye South, Goodbye, Hou turns his camera to the present offering the viewer a portrait of a
1
Here is Udden on the break in “This Time He Moves! The Deeper Significance of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s
radical break in Good Men, Good Women”: “This recent example (Café Lumiere) confirms how Hou’s
1995 work, Good Men, Good Women remains the most radical break of his career. Long the master of the
stationary camera up till then, suddenly in this film Hou’s camera seems unable to keep still…Most
fascinating however, is how some were seemingly disturbed by the deeper implications of this change,
which has persisted ever since, even in Café Lumiere” (183).
contemporary Taiwan under the influence of China and globalization and socially and culturally
adrift—increasingly unmoored from its own traditions. In a film that seamlessly blends the genre of
the gangster film with the representational idiom of the domestic (these are gangsters who eat and
drink just as much or more than the Corleone family), Hou develops an idiomatic post-New Cinema
plan sequence technique (a French term describing a style of long take shooting that features various
different camera movements across a single shot with no edits) that in its combination of the long
take with complicated camera movement, moves him definitively away from his earlier static and
historical, rather than contemporary, commitments.2 Each of these scenes could be interpreted
separately and each could be read for its individual formal or thematic attributes, but a synthetic
reading that focuses on both form and thematic content and on the relationship between the two
segments will allow for an identification of Hou’s development of what James Udden might call a
more indigenous/Taiwanese filmic style. Udden, however, works at the global level of generalized
form and theme to make the claim that Hou’s formal changes reflect the essence of an always
culturally and socially shifting Taiwanese social order: “if anything sums up both the Taiwanese
Experience and Hou’s films, it is sudden, unexpected, and often irreversible change” (199). This
essay will argue, more modestly, that the formal and thematic shifts in Hou’s films reflect a
preoccupation in the 1990s with the nature and problematic of a contemporary Taiwan where, in the
midst of a recession, the desire for financial gain, the magnetic pull of immigration into the diaspora,
and a globalized youth culture are distorting social relations and Taiwanese traditions.
Taiwanese “New Cinema” (also known as “The New Wave Cinema) was an artistic movement of the
1980s that included such practitioners as Hou, Yi Chang, Edward Yang, Te-Chen Tao, and I-Chen Ko. Its
artistic tenets are summarized in the principle of “Asian Minimalism” discussed by Bordwell (Figures
Traced in Light 231). Bordwell characterizes the New Cinema as breaking with formalist conventions: “
Many of the directors had studied abroad, and they tried out some narrative innovations associated with
Bresson, Antonioni, Godard” and others (203). The static long take, realist plots, natural lighting, and
experimentation with sound are all features of the New Cinema.
2
2
David Bordwell discusses Hou’s use of the table in the chapter on the director in Figures
Traced in Light. In asking the question “how to stage, shoot, and cut action taking place around a
dinner table?” Bordwell points out that “Hou’s solution is striking. He arranges his players in
horizontal layers and flanking profiles, making the most important figures centered, frontal and
brightly lit” (Bordwell 186). The style of staging and filming around a table that Bordwell describes
is from one of Hou’s earlier films, City of Sadness (1989), a film that came before Good Men, Good
Women (1995) and hence before what Udden identifies as the director’s break from New Cinema’s
commitment to the static camera and long take style of filmic composition.3 While a dense mise-enscène, layered composition, gradation of emphasis, and the long take continue to characterize the
scene at the gambling table in Goodbye South, Goodbye, Hou further augments this complex staging,
framing and filming by integrating it with a moving camera that travels in complex ways. In short,
Hou begins to work with the plan sequence style, which allows him to achieve a realistic sense of
the lack of movement in the lives of the film’s gangsters. The camera movement, for instance,
contrasts sharply with the failure of the Gao and his fellow gang members to achieve their goals.
Hou’s use of the plan sequence style in shooting scenes centered around a table would continue
beyond Goodbye South, Goodbye into his later films, most notably his 1998 period film, Flowers of
Shanghai, which features a table location as the predominant setting for most of its narrative. In
Figures Traced in Light, Bordwell makes note of Hou’s use of the moving camera to supplement the
staging of characters around a table in a manner that allows the viewer to explore the highly subtle
and formal world the film’s characters occupy:
The habitual play with perspective, the momentary masking and revealing, and the tiny details
blooming and vanishing in seconds—all are here provided not only by figure movement but
3
See James Udden’s “’This Time He Moves! The Deeper Significance of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s radical Break
in Good Men, Good Women,” convincingly argues that it is Good Men, Good Women that definitively
marks the break with Hou’s older aesthetic.
3
also by a camera which quietly and constantly realigns an ensemble of seated characters. The
eating and drinking scenes (there are many) no longer consist of closely stacked lateral planes
but rather circular arrangements captured by a ceaseless rotation” (237).
Justly known for his ability to frame, stage, and compose cinematic tableau around the axis of a
table, Hou makes clear in these scenes how definitively he has shifted away from his earlier
expressive mode defined by the long take twinned with static camera work.4 The plan sequence
style also allows Hou to emphasize a larger spatial arena in the segment and hence to reveal a larger
social and cultural context for the interaction of men around a gambling table, as they play what is
likely the Chinese dominoes game Pai Gow.
The Pai Gow segment is a single scene shot in a plan sequence style that takes place early in
the film, just as the viewers are being introduced to the gangsters and the activities they partake in.
There is no cutting in the scene, instead the action takes place around and is captured by the nearly
constant movement of the camera. The segment begins on a cut and a sound bridge of the noise of a
passing train that carries over from the last shot. The camera starts on an overhead shot of a group
of men standing around a table littered with beer cans and a teapot. The lighting is harsh, localized
around the table, and comes from a hanging fluorescent light. Even though the camera has just cut
to the overhead shot of the table, it immediately begins panning left across the room. The camera
tilts up slightly as it keeps panning left, eventually reaching a card table surrounded by a crowd of
men. From here the camera continues its movement to the left, making a circular motion around half
of the table and tilting downwards, giving the audience a panoramic view of the crowd. When the
camera reaches about halfway across its circular shot of the table, it begins moving up and forward,
towards the single lamp above the table, then it tilts down to focus on the gambling table. It is
4
In Figures Traced in Light, David Bordwell notes that Japanese director Kitano Takeshi “has remarked
that he wishes he could film eating scenes as well as Hou does” (188).
4
during this circular motion sequence of camera movement that some elements of what Bordwell
identifies earlier as Hou’s “table staging” can be discerned: the light above the center of the table
illuminates Gao and his gambling buddies, who seem to be the central point of focus for the
camera’s rotation. We can also see an obvious organization of the crowd around the table: extra
characters are standing at the outside edge of the crowd and half-illuminated due to their far
proximity from the lamp while the inner circle sitting around the table and gambling is mostly
comprised of central characters, who are well lit and therefore distinguishable from the rest of the
crowd. The camera movements also help to direct the viewer towards the characters in the center of
the crowd. While the table continues to serve as the axis for its rotation, the camera gradually moves
in towards the site of the game, which inevitably draws attention to the characters sitting at the table.
From the downward tilt to the table, the camera keeps moving down toward the table to focus
on the gambling and a set of Chinese characters 軍國: Jun Guo, can be seen etched into leather on
the table’s center. These are the characters for the Kuomintang National Army during the 20s to the
1940s. Distracting the viewer for a second is the sudden appearance of a neon green flying toy,
which sails into the frame from the bottom right corner. The toy is picked up by Gao, and the
camera, without stopping its motion, tilts up to get Gao’s reaction to its entry. The camera finally
settles on a medium shot of Gao sitting among the crowd of gamblers: Gao is strongly lit by the
lamp above him and the camera stops its motion for the first time in the sequence to linger on him as
he yells “take it outside!” to Flatty, his apprentice and henchman who has thrown the toy. While the
frame centers on Gao, the other gamblers in the background busy themselves setting up the next
game: without exception their faces are angled downward, towards the table and away from the
frame. This compositional choice gives Gao more emphasis in the frame. As the camera lingers on
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Gao for a little longer, we can hear the sounds of the next game being set up, as well as the same
sound of a train passing that we heard in the previous scene.
As the train sound plays, the camera tilts back to the center of the table. The viewer can see
the gamblers placing their bets, rolling dice, and taking dominoes. The camera then cuts, ending the
segment. The major visual element of the segment, aside perhaps from Gao’s face, is the table’s top.
It carries a strong connection to Taiwan’s past, not only because it is the vehicle for Pai Gow, a
game that has been played since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but also because of its visual
recollection of the dominance of Taiwan by the Kuomintang. The table also organizes men who
seem to come from an older lost “world of competing mad dogs,” gangsters for whom Hou is, by the
1990s, feeling nostalgia.5 In fact, it might be said that the table represents Hou’s commentary of the
1990’s social state of Taiwan: the red color of the table, the characters for the Kuomintang, and the
playing of Pai Gao represent the influence of mainland China and the past. The sudden appearance
of the cheaply manufactured out of place flying toy represents the encroachment of Western and
global markets, while the money being thrown around represents the corruption and fixation on
capital gain that Hou perceives in Taiwanese society.
Hou continues to use the technique of the plan sequence in his next staging of the mise-enscène in a scene around a table when members of the gang eat their lunch. The scene is a nearly
uninterrupted plan sequence: a single cut occurs about halfway through the sequence. The scene
takes place in a run down second story residence, lit brightly by outdoor lighting. The camera cuts
from the previous segment into the second floor residence interior; natural light can be seen coming
in through the windows of a cramped dining room, the camera focuses on a table crammed with
dishes containing meat and a rice cooker filled with rice. A man, Hsi, is sitting slightly off to the left
5
According to Bordwell, the “gangster ingredients that enliven [Hou’s] plots come not from the screen, but
from nostalgia for his shady youth. . . “ (189).
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and talking on the phone presumably to his mother about his family losing the land where his
grandfather was buried on thanks to the debt his cousin created for the family by playing the lottery.
Gao stands behind him, picking rice and meat off of the table.
The camera stays fixed on Hsi for about twenty seconds, then pulls back slightly from the table
as if getting ready to accommodate a new element into the frame. The viewer is prepared for the
arrival of Flatty and Pretzel, who come up the stairs in the background. As the two characters
ascend the stairs, the camera pans left to center on them, and as they move forward into the room,
the camera slowly pulls out to incorporate every character into the frame. Flatty is on the right side
of the frame, carrying a baby, while Hsi is talking with Gao and another gangster about his family
problems on the left. Flatty, the baby, and Pretzel begin moving towards the foreground of the
frame, and the camera pans to the right to keep them in the center of the frame: catching a shot of the
three of them standing out on a balcony, framed in natural outdoor light and the background of the
small town. Of particular visual importance is the punk fashion and acid colors worn by the childlike Pretzel. The camera then pans left as it follows Flatty moving back into the room. Flatty turns
back towards the balcony, and the camera starts to move again with him, but there is a moment of
discontinuity in the long take as a short cut interrupts the sequence to record Flatty moving back into
the room. The camera pans left and tilts down to follow him. After the pan, the camera ends up
framing all four gangsters sitting around the table, not moving when Gao’s girlfriend, Ying, enters
the frame from the left and exits it through the foreground to the right, a trajectory of movement that
causes her to momentarily block the gangsters. Curiously, when she moves away from the table, a
new gangster, who previously wasn’t in the scene, can now be seen standing in the background.
Although the shot now seems fixed on the conversation between Hsi and the other gangsters,
we still see Ying, Pretzel, and the baby pass through the front of the frame from the right and exit
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again to the left, and afterwards the camera begins to zoom in on the five gangsters, who are now
arranged symmetrically, two on each side with one in the back, around the table. From the left, the
ever-intrusive flying toy, this time wielded by Pretzel, enters the frame and hits Gao in the leg.
Pretzel also enters from the left to retrieve it, prompting Flatty to move to the foreground to chastise
her. Pretzel seems to be designed to distract the viewer in this scene: her clothing is very bright and
colorful, and she is in constant motion, darting in and out of frame. The camera then pans left to
follow Flatty as he moves left down a hallway with Pretzel following wielding her flying toy like a
weapon; a cut to another sequence ends the scene.
The shifting, panning camera movement of this plan sequence keeps the table from becoming
the visual center of the scene. The table is the site where the men of the older generation discuss the
problem of “ancestral land” and the question of “what is a man?” in a “money mad” society, but it is
obviously the “children” of this family whom the camera is following. The camera movement in the
scene meanders through the visual space, choosing to accommodate the two most “childish”
characters, Pretzel and Flatty, in most of its movement and framing, and eschewing the conversation
between the gangsters in favor wandering about the residence. In the constant straying of the
camera’s focus, Hou also identifies the lack of central focus or direction that the gangsters in the film
experience. Even though the camera constantly strays away from the conversation, discussions of
money, family, and lost ancestral territory can still be clearly heard off frame. Hou supplements the
conversation on displacement by literally displacing the viewer’s perspective away from the actual
conversation itself via the camera’s movements, and the result is that the conversation is deemphasized making it—ironically—even more of an overt commentary on socio-cultural
displacement in Taiwan. The film is ultimately elegiac in tone, bidding a goodbye to a lost
“Southland”—a Taiwan south of Asia and China—that has lost its traditional center in the face of
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the multiple pressures of modernity. Hou’s stylistic shift from a New Cinema static camera and long
take technique to the more motile and complex style of the plan sequence allows him to more
compellingly record the centrifugal flight from the center that characterizes Taiwanese culture in the
1990s from Hou’s directorial perspective.
Works Cited
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Bordwell, David. Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging, University of
California Press/Berkley Los Angeles London, March 2005.
Udden, James “This Time He Moves! The Deeper Significance of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s
Radical Break in Good Men, Good Women.” Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and
the State of the Arts. Ed. Darrel William Davis and Ru-Shou Robert Chen. New York:
Routledge, 2007.
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