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No Man an Island The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien

No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:04 GMT from JHU Libraries
Second Edition
“An excellent and groundbreaking volume. This book’s very precise analyses of the films as
well as their context make it the primary source for any scholar working on Hou in English.”
— Chris Berry, King’s College London
“In this first book-length study on Hou Hsiao-hsien James Udden illuminates the most
intriguing yet mystifying filmmaker in world cinema. No Man an Island is without doubt a
major contribution to the fields of Chinese-language cinema and film studies.”
— Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
Cover image: Hou Hsiao-hsien on the set of The Assassin in Inner Mongolia. Courtesy of Spot Films Co. Ltd.
Film Studies / Taiwan Studies
Udden_pb.indd 1
James Udden
Printed and bound in Hong Kong, China
James Udden is professor of cinema and media studies at Gettysburg College.
Second Edition
In this new edition of No Man an Island , James Udden charts a new chapter in the evolving
art of Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose latest film, The Assassin , earned him the Best Director
Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Hou breaks new ground in turning the classic
wuxia genre into a vehicle to express his unique insight into the working of history. The
unconventional approach to conventions is quintessential Hou Hsiao-hsien.
The Cinema of
Hou Hsiao-hsien
Taiwan is a peculiar place resulting in a peculiar cinema, with Hou Hsiao-hsien being its
most remarkable product. Hou’s signature long and static shots almost invite critics to
give auteurist readings of his films, often privileging the analysis of cinematic techniques
at the expense of the context from which Hou emerges. In this pioneering study, James
Udden argues instead that the Taiwanese experience is the key to understanding Hou’s art.
The convoluted history of Taiwan in the last century has often rendered fixed social and
political categories irrelevant. Changing circumstances have forced the people in Taiwan to
be hyperaware of how imaginary identity—above all national identity—is. Hou translates
this larger state of affairs in such masterpieces as City of Sadness , The Puppetmaster ,
and Flowers of Shanghai , which capture and perhaps even embody the elusive, slippery
contours of the collective experience of the islanders. Making extensive uses of Chinese
sources from Taiwan, the author shows how important the local matters for this globally
recognized director.
NO MAN The Cinema of
AN Hou Hsiao-hsien
The Cinema of
Hou Hsiao-hsien
Second Edition
James Udden
26/09/2017 10:28 AM
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:05 GMT from JHU Libraries
Reading No Man an Island
Now is perhaps the most appropriate time and place for me to read No Man
an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, because reading this has been like
receiving Zen enlightenment. In late May of 2015, at an academic conference
in Belgium, I ran into James Udden who gave me a copy of the mainland
Chinese translation of No Man an Island. At the time I was in a dark mood
about working in cinema; even Hou winning of the best director prize at
Cannes a couple of days earlier had not dispelled the feeling of alienation
I was experiencing.
Of the nineteen films made by Hou Hsiao-hsien, I have participated
in fifteen of them as a screenwriter covering over thirty years. Thirty years
equals a generation to me, and thus encompasses life, aging, sickness and
death, success and failure, things that do not last, where even our accomplishments become but ashes once nobody remembers them, as Stefan Zweig
reminds us. The world-weary Ingmar Bergman in his sixties shot Fanny and
Alexander after which he cloistered himself on a small island in the Baltic.
In his eighties he suddenly declared in an interview that he had said goodbye
to “a business akin to a butcher’s shop or a brothel.” For him looking at those
past movies was like how one thinks about a very distanced cousin. He felt
very little for his past work, and to force him to make another would be
most difficult. But what I find curious is what he did with the rest of his life
anyway even if he was so clear on this point. He had been writing scripts for
broadcasting and the stage. In many ways I felt the same while at Cannes.
Just the night before I arrived in Brussels, all the prizewinners at Cannes
were at a beach party. Shu Qi was wearing a champagne-colored gown with
complex gold and silver embroidery, yet her beauty was not the invasive,
nervous kind of a star, but more like a gently, floating apricot blossom.
After the celebration, everyone followed her to meet the media, together
looking like they are in an Impressionist painting. I had a conversation with
Huang Wen-ying, the production designer, about her most recent experience
of working with Martin Scorsese in Taipei for the shooting of Silence. She said
most of crew treated Scorsese like a god, and except for a select few most only
watched him from afar, the complete opposite of how crews in a Taiwanese
production operate. I said nothing. In front of me I could see white yachts
against the azure water of the harbor, while the evening sky was cobalt blue
mixed with a sparrow green, all reflecting the yellow of lights that seemed
like a painting. A Cannes’ evening is always like a painting.
I thought back to 2001, when Edward Yang was on the jury, and he
appeared at the Taiwan Cinema Night event also at a beach. It had been
several years since we had seen each other, and I even had to reintroduce
myself as we shook hands. I was taken aback when he opened his arms for a
hug. That year Hou’s Millennium Mambo and Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is
It There? were both in the competition at Cannes. Yang explained to the rest
of the jury that compared to more advanced film industries, Tu Duu-chih is
basically using stone-age equipment to produce world-class results in these
films. Because of that explanation, Tu Duu-chih received a special prize for
technical achievement. Six years later Edward Yang had passed away, and
that time at Cannes turned out to be our final goodbye.
Now it was the turn of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin at Cannes, the
last Hou film that will ever be shot on film stock, since his next will be done
digitally. Only a few people actually care about the differences between celluloid and digital. Although many can be nostalgic about celluloid, it seems
better to see the best director prize for Hou at Cannes as a final ceremony for
the passing of the celluloid era.
Right after that I went to Brussels. The Royal Belgian Film Archive had
just completed a restoration of Hou’s The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982)
and was about to finish work on The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). A parliamentarian asked the director of the archives why Belgium would restore the films
of a Taiwanese director. The answer can be found in an eye-catching yellowgreen book entitled, Hou Hsiao-hsien: Taiwan Film Panorama. It was published
by the Brussels Cinematek to accompany a retrospective of fifty-two films
from the 1960s to the present, including all of Hou’s works. The main theme
is as follows: “What sort of historical conditions in a particular environment
produced the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien?”
While in Brussels, I did not go anywhere save for the hotel and the
Brussels Cinematek. Otherwise I walked a couple of streets and stole glances
at the windows of restaurants and shops, catching glimpses of exquisitely
handcrafted Belgian chocolates with snow-like sprinkles that appeared
like finely woven lace. There were wallets, bags, and makeup kits made of
yellow silk, all with embroidered poppy flowers to commemorate World
War II. This in turn reminded me that in June Brussels would be celebrating
the 200th anniversary of Waterloo nearby.
When at the Cinematek itself, I felt I was not completely there. I only
firmly remember that next to our hotel sat a man and his dog. I noticed he
was reading, which of course always works on me. Walking by and sheepishly thinking if I would see him again, I left a coin for him and pet his dog.
After dinner, under the late twilight of a Northern European summer, I saw
he was still there and decided not to pass him since I was with others. From
that point on until I left Brussels, I never saw him again. I felt a little ill at
ease and frustrated with myself.
That is how I was when back at my hotel, with James Udden’s book in
my hand. I opened it, and then I finished it.
The introduction, “The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” was like having
the scent of mint awaken me. For once I felt I was not the only one who had to
explain the road less travelled that Hou had happily been taking for some
time. Udden follows David Bordwell by placing Hou’s rarified long-take
style within a larger tradition of mise-en-scène. As opposed to Eisenstein’s
more systematic montage, the use of mise-en-scène though the long take
is more like hidden sounds in the wild as one sees the vastness of the world,
much like a poem by Li Shangyin, “End of the World” (天涯).1
However, Hou is not a lonely solitary figure in this tradition. In
Chapter 5, “Hou in the New Millennium,” Udden chooses three people as
points of comparison: Mizoguchi from Japan, Jancso from Hungary, and
Angelopoulos from Greece. These three long-take masters all use a mobile
camera for a large percentage of the time, seemingly the norm for longtake masters. Udden then adds something in his research that has not been
done before. He produces statistics on average shot lengths with all of Hou’s
films and compares them with these other directors, using the numbers to
reveal Hou’s unique contribution to world cinema. Numbers alone are dead;
what matters is what they help explain: Hou is indeed a long-take director
as expected, but he also displays a frequently static camera all the way up to
The Puppetmaster (1993), the most extreme example of this unusual tendency.
As Udden points out, there are almost no followers of this exceptionally rare
path in the West, but this has now become a pan-Asian style.
In the final analysis artists have a difficult time explaining what stands
out about their art. Ozu’s fixed camera is often said to be the calm perspective of looking at the world while seated on tatami mats. But Ozu himself
downplays this by explaining that the fixed camera was largely due to limitations of the equipment more than anything else. Similarly, Hou Hsiao-hsien
used the fixed camera and the long take as a way of best handling nonprofessional actors — by not disrupting the flow of time or break up the
space so that the actors can relax while being absorbed into the setting. In this
way, using medium shots, long shots, and fixed angles is like approaching a
wild beast carefully so as to not startle, in an attempt to capture something
about them.
Hou himself does not seem very self-aware of how his films became
declared aesthetic works of a generation. While in Belgium, Udden was the
moderator of a question-and-answer session, and he himself asked Hou
about how he handles mise-en-scène. Hou gave a blunt response: “I have no
interest in mise-en-scène.” This is similar to the responses he always gives
in Michael Berry’s long interviews in Chinese:2 the practical realities of filmmaking always trump aesthetics. When advising young people, Hou says
that one should not rely on aesthetic principles to make a film; instead, one
should rely on the reality of what is in front of oneself. Aesthetics is not a
method, but rather something born of a struggle with reality, like an artist
wrestling with an angel for an entire evening.
Udden is not only clear about this point regarding Hou; his periodization
of Hou’s works also differs from most everyone else’s: City of Sadness (1989),
The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women (1995) are not grouped here
as Hou’s “historical trilogy” about Taiwan. Instead, the first two works are
discussed in a single chapter. Udden declares that The Puppetmaster should
be considered one of the most radical depictions of history to ever appear
on the screen. Others concur, such as the Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi
who declares that Hou has “reinvented cinema” with The Puppetmaster,
or J. Hoberman of The Village Voice who declares it to be the “rebirth of
cinema.” At this point, I was reminded of something that Jean-Michel Frodon
once said about how Hou is similar to many of the inventive stylists of the
1920s and 1930s such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dryer, and
the Russians. None was born on longstanding cinematic traditions, unlike
what happened later with the birth of the French New Wave in the late 1950s.
As Udden points out in Chapter 4, “Goodbye to All That: The New
Hou from Good Men, Good Women (1995) to Flowers of Shanghai (1998),” Good
Men, Good Women is a key turning point, since Hou largely abandons the
one thing that had largely defined his aesthetics up to 1993. I almost took
a perverse pleasure in this idea of one destroying’s one own aesthetic tendencies, and even applaud Hou for this. I am irritated by the thought that
once one has accomplished something aesthetically, one should not take a
new path thereafter. Like a detective searching for clues, Udden proceeds to
explain why this occurred with Good Men, Good Women. While interviewing
Chen Huai-en, the cinematographer, he discovers that Chen’s eyesight was
failing, so someone else had to handle the camera. Having made only commercials to that point, that operator was a bit unsteady, and it was simply
decided to exploit the now moving camera rather than forcing him to keep
it still.
This symbolizes a key point about Hou: every limitation that he ever
encounters becomes a basic principle for how he will then shoot a film.
But the greatest limitation of all would have to be Taiwan itself. If there is
anything this book contributes more than any previous study about Hou,
it is how much it focuses on, and analyzes, the Taiwan factor. This book is
about a unique geographical, political, and historical environment. This is
ultimately a story about Taiwan, a story that should be taken more seriously
than it has been.
Every director comes from somewhere, and it would seem a tautology to
say that without Taiwan, there would be no Hou Hsiao-hsien. Then I realized
that far away in Europe, many might not be able to distinguish Taiwan from
Thailand, and Orientalism predominates. Over and over many use notions
about Chinese cultural tradition, Chinese poetry, and Chinese painting to
explain Hou’s aesthetics. But a film festival organizer, Wang Paizhang, once
said: “When many scholars attempt to use Chinese tradition to explain his
films, such explanations lack strength.”
Udden instead uses Taiwan as his strongest suit, asking very different
questions and coming up with very different answers. With a true feeling
for Taiwan, he helps explain Taiwan and unearths how Hou Hsiao-hsien
became what he is today because of Taiwan. Udden has his own special perspective on all of these since his wife is from Tainan, Taiwan. Yet Udden’s
perspective also possesses more distance than others’ such as mine, in which
Taiwan is so mixed that I have no distance at all. This book has given me a
chance to see things in a new light, to be constantly surprised as I read it,
saying repeatedly to myself, “Hmm, so that’s how it really is?”
Chu Tien-wen
February 5, 2016
(Based on Chu’s reading of the simplified Chinese translation by Huang
Wenjie, published by Fudan University Press, this abridged and edited
translation in English was done by James Udden with the assistance of
Shuchen Udden.)
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:05 GMT from JHU Libraries
The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
One of the most remembered adages from Rudyard Kipling is the notion that
East is East, and West is West, and never shall the twain meet. Many today
would prefer to see this oft-quoted phrase as nothing more than a quaint
post-colonial hangover, even believing themselves immune to such blatantly
essentialist, Orientalist terms. But one has to wonder.
Take for example, what many critics have said about the Taiwanese
film director, Hou Hsiao-hsien. Godfrey Cheshire explains Hou’s turning
away from plot and character, and focusing more on objects and settings,
as a return to a long-standing, older tradition in Chinese art and culture.1
Jean-Michel Frodon claims that Hou is proof that there is no Chinese mon­
tage, that here lies a cinematic model which calls into question the system
of Griffith and Eisenstein, instead basing itself on an alternative world view
that treats oppositions (i.e. space/time, reality/representation) in an entirely
different fashion.2 Jacques Pimpaneau says Hou faces the age-old problem of
every Chinese filmmaker: using a medium that is based on Western realism
when the dramatic traditions in China are pretty much the opposite of
realism. Pimpaneau says Hou is not the first to grapple with this issue, but
few have expressed a Chinese cultural view of the world so deeply in film
as he has.3
Such culturally essentialist ideas have crept in even the more nuanced
academic writings on Hou. Even this writer once declared that Hou’s “historical posturing” and “sense of artistic intuition” are both very Chinese.4
Less surprisingly, scholars from mainland China have tried to accentuate how Chinese Hou supposedly is. One writer, Ni Zhen, says this: “Hou
Hsiao-hsien’s systematic and highly stylized cinematic prose expresses very
incisively and vividly the ethical spirit of Confucian culture and the emotional attachment to one’s native land typical of the Orient.”5 Li Tuo sets out
to demonstrate that Hou’s City of Sadness is difficult for people to understand because of its “non-logical editing” that stands apart from hegemonic
Hollywood/Western narrative norms.6 Meng Hungfeng explains Hou’s
long-take/static-camera/distanced-framing style in terms of the Chinese
aesthetic concept of “yi jing” whereby people, objects and settings are
No Man an Island
blended together in a continuous space, thereby preserving the mood and
feelings of a scene in a poetic fashion.7
So what is the problem here, especially when considering that these
comments are not meant to justify the “White Man’s Burden” of imperialism,
but seemingly the opposite? First off, every film director is a problem of sorts.
At the very least is the need to explain why a group of films directed by the
same person display certain regularities, irregularities — or both — across
a directorial career. In the case of the Hou, however, we have not so much a
problem as a misrecognized problem. All can agree that his films are among
the most difficult to grace the planet over the last three decades. Hou’s films
mostly defy those putatively postmodern compromises where the categories of art cinema and popular cinema become increasingly amalgamated,
usually in the name of greater accessibility, or possibly at the behest of some
nebulous “zeitgeist” which nobody can quite define. If anything, Hou’s films
have remained defiantly less accessible, challenging, cryptic, and prone to
such charges as “elitism,” “pretentiousness” and “self-indulgence.”
Where people go astray is that many, especially critics, seem to imply
that this is primarily a problem of culture, and only secondarily of place,
or even history. All Hou requires, it would seem, is personal sensitivity
directly in tune with an inert cultural heritage, as if it could have happened
anywhere: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or maybe even some dingy corner
of some Chinese diaspora locale. In the existing critical literature on Hou,
Taiwan is often treated more as background material, as biographical and
geographical filler. Taiwan becomes almost an accident, if not a matter of
inconvenience. J. Hoberman once noted the implications of this in the 1980s
when writing about a Hou retrospective in New York: “New French or
German directors are taken as a matter of course; one almost has to apologize for introducing a major talent from a backwater like Taiwan.”8 Perhaps
today “backwater” is too strong of word given the long-standing prestige of
Hou and other Taiwanese directors on the world festival scene. Still, Taiwan
itself remains of secondary importance in the minds of many who admire
Hou. Instead, they have often found recourse in a ready-made solution to
the Hou “problem”: traditional Chinese culture.
But how much can culture by itself explain the odd trajectory of Hou’s
entire career, something recognized as being unusual, perhaps even unprecedented? In 1979, Hou was an unknown scriptwriter and assistant director
languishing in the commercial film industry of Taiwan, an industry that, like
the island itself, did not have much of a reputation on the world stage, and
both of which saw a grave crisis looming on the horizon. By stark contrast,
in 1989 Hou was standing at the victor’s podium of the Venice Film Festival,
his hands clasping the prestigious Golden Lion award, solidifying not only
his status as one of the world’s cinematic masters, but also Taiwan’s place
on the map of world cinema even as its commercial sector lay in near ruins.
Introduction: The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
By the end of 1999, despite the increasingly dismal performance of Taiwanese
films at home, Hou had proven himself to be more than a passing phenomenon: an international survey of film organizations listed no less than three
titles of his among the top twenty-five films worldwide for the entire decade
of the 1990s;9 a survey of over fifty critics by The Village Voice declared Hou
the best director of the same decade;10 entire books in French, Japanese, and
Chinese were now published about him; even those who disliked his films
felt compelled to discuss them at length. A Taiwanese scholar, Yeh Yueh-yu,
summarizes Hou’s current status: “By the end of the 20th century, Hou was
rewarded with an unprecedented recognition that no other contemporary
Chinese filmmakers ever enjoyed in the West.”11
With all of these stunning twists and turns in his career, one has to wonder
how much traditional culture can hope to explain it: either this culture is
not so inert given such dramatic changes over three decades, or there are
other factors which have to be accounted for. Then again, it could be both
a dynamic, malleable culture in conjunction with numerous other factors
together created this unique body of films unified by the only thing which
has not changed: the moniker “Hou Hsiao-hsien.” It appears this problem is
not as easily resolved as that.
Not only does culture alone not explain everything about Hou, it also
raises several deeper questions that should cause us to be wary of overreliance on such cultural explanations: the question of underlying motivations, the question of unexamined assumptions, and most all, the question of
Taiwan itself. The latter is particularly important, since without Taiwan there
is no understanding of Hou Hsiao-hsien; without Taiwan there would not
be any Hou Hsiao-hsien to begin with, certainly not as we know him today.
To show why this is the case, let us deal for a moment with each of these
questions, beginning with the motivations behind such claims.
One thing to note right away is that the majority of these views belie
underlying political motivations, albeit not all of the same ilk. In more
than one of the above samples we must wonder whether the focus is even
Chinese culture, let alone Taiwan. Perhaps Chinese culture, just like Hou’s
films, is merely means to other ends, namely to deconstruct the hegemony of
Western cinema, particularly Hollywood. Note how often a grand opposition
is set up between “East” versus “West”: Hou now represents a courageous
Eastern “Other” engaging in a brave defiance towards ubiquitous Western
forms. This is well-worn track in Western scholarship on Asian cinema:
starting with Japan, many attempts have been made to bring cultural issues
to the forefront, the most notable example being Noel Burch’s sometimes
brilliant, but often misguided exploration of Japanese cinema, To a Distant
Observer. The primary goal for Burch, something seen in his scholarship as
a whole, is to pick apart the dominant modes of representation found in
Western cinema. Japanese cinema in turn becomes one tool in this larger
No Man an Island
struggle, but it is not an end in itself, nor is it even necessarily treated as
an object worthy of study on its own. This approach also shares an affinity,
if not origins, with assumptions made about Third Cinema: the notion of a
conscious, even politicized, oppositional stance against colonialism and neocolonialism, of the forceful and conscious preservation of indigenous traditions via cinematic means, and of the putative realization of an alternative
cinematic language that is distinctively, and traditionally, local in origin.12
All of these intellectual tendencies have been perpetuated more or less with
writings on Hou; once again there is an almost predictable search for traces
of an indigenous, “traditional” culture that is assumed to be clearly defined;
once more this is but a radically “Other” cinema set against the predominance of the West.
Chinese scholars, on the other hand, may have different political motives
which, intentionally or not, mesh very well with the official policy of the
Chinese government. More often than not intellectuals in China discussing
Hou promote ideas of “Greater China” and display often uncritical nationalist assumptions. Yeh Yueh-yu recalls a conversation in Beijing with a scholar
who, on the surface at least, espouses the ideas of post-colonialism, and who
has invited the likes of Frederic Jameson and Homi Bhabha to conferences
there. Yet when asked what he thought about the issue of reunification of
Taiwan with China, he politely expressed that this was necessary and inevitable, since this was not a theoretical question, but a political one.13 As this
incident demonstrates, one should not equate any claims of “Chineseness”
with a progressive form of resistance to the West, all pretensions aside. After
all, in recent years the communist government in China has often justified
its undemocratic policies by claiming that Confucianism and democracy
are incompatible, conveniently ignoring evidence all around them suggesting otherwise, including Taiwan. Thus, when Ni Zhen announces that
Hou’s films express a Confucian “spirit,” that statement is not as innocent
as it seems, and in fact carries some troubling political overtones. Even more
important, to simply chalk up Hou to traditional Chinese culture suits the
nationalist project of the PRC quite well, bolstering the often belligerent
claims made by the Chinese government on the island of Taiwan, which it
considers a renegade province. Given how convenient it is for the rest of the
world to simply take the Chinese claim on Taiwan at face value, few will call
these scholars on their assertions.
Aside from these varied motivations for focusing primarily on Chinese
culture are underlying assumptions which extend well beyond whether
or not Hou fits an existing cultural model. Not only do these above mentioned commentators, both East and West, assume that Hou’s films display a
very “Chinese style,” or a very “Chinese view of the world,” they also
implicitly assume that an essential, unified, synchronic idea of what it means
to be very “Chinese” is possible, as if Chinese culture has been passed
Introduction: The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
down through the ages without having to suffer the ravages of history,
as if Chinese philosophy and thought have remained essentially unified and
easily definable, often under the grand rubric of “Confucianism.” Likewise,
there is the assumption that the true Chinese artist values the past and tradition over more individualistic and creative paths in the present. If we ever
hope to come to terms with Hou — most of all, to come to terms with how
he relates to his own culture, including its traditional aspects — then each of
these assumptions should be subjected to scrutiny.
Even the most cursory review of Chinese history suggests a more
dynamic and less easily definable Chinese culture than many will admit.
If one were to periodize this culture — for instance, pre-Han versus postHan, before and after Buddhism’s arrival, or before and after 1919 — one
discovers varying, even contradictory, traditions to choose from. Or suppose
other plausible divisions are made, such as dividing China into Northern
and Southern cultures, or high versus popular cultures, “amateurs” versus
“professionals.” These historical, geographical, and social divisions are all
real and long recognized by the Chinese themselves. But they are all ignored,
sometimes conveniently, when defining Hou as an essentially “Chinese”
Consider as well that Confucianism has adapted itself many times over.
Before the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), when Confucianism became the
ideology of the state, it was but one component in a mélange, contesting with
the Daoists, the Naturalists (philosophers of yin and yang), the Legalists, the
Logicians, the Mohists, the Diplomats, the Agriculturists, and one group
so loose in their thinking that they are simply called the Eclectics (za jia).14
Thereafter Confucianism was forced to reinvent itself to retain its ideological
supremacy. In fact, during the long period between the Han and Sui dynasties (AD 220–589), Confucianism was so beleaguered that it had to contend
with both a strong Daoist revival and the influx of Buddhism.15 During the
Tang dynasty (618–907), considered the most cosmopolitan era in Chinese
history — indeed for most Chinese the pinnacle of Chinese civilization —
Confucianism still had to work side by side with Buddhism, since rituals
from the latter religion were now practiced even in the court.16 Only with
neo-Confucianism, which was consolidated later under the Song (976–1276),
was Confucianism to reign supreme again, a state of affairs that lasted up
until the encroachment of the West centuries later. In short, it would take
Confucianism several centuries to be as dominant as it once had been under
the Han. Moreover, it did so only by deftly co-opting many metaphysical
ideas from both Buddhism and Daoism.17 To put it another way, Confucianism
allowed itself to be impure, contradictory and thus historically useful in different ways during different eras.
China’s art was no less dynamic historically as were its ideological and
religious ideas. In traditional China, the artist was not a special category;
No Man an Island
rather the famous artists/writers were usually part of the educated, bureaucratic elite with a vested interest in the Confucian system, at least when
times were good. However, when one looks at what has been preserved,
even praised, in this putatively monolithic tradition, one finds ample
evidence of other traditions also at work.18 No non-Confucian philosophy
has had greater influence on Chinese poets, painters and calligraphers than
Daoism, even though this is an anarchist philosophy which in its original
form directly opposed Confucianism’s hierarchal ideals. Some of the most
revered artistic figures in Chinese history were heavily imbued with Daoist
ideas. Wang Xizhi (303–361) is considered the greatest practitioner of perhaps
the highest art form in China, calligraphy, and yet his works represented
not only “the aristocratic ideals of spontaneity and relaxed nonchalance”
in vogue at the time, but also carried with them deeper Daoist underpinnings.19 The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were a group of highly
accomplished poets now described as the epitome of the “individualistic
and idiosyncratic artist”20 who had little regard for Confucianism. Equally
idiosyncratic was the notorious Ruan Ji (210–263) who shocked everyone
by crying at the death of an unknown little girl, yet daring to feast on the
day of his mother’s funeral without shedding a tear — yet another affront to
Confucian morality.21 Guo Xi (after 1000–c. 1090), the immensely influential
landscape painter, depicted a vision of a Daoist paradise in his most famous
work, Early Spring.22 Landscapes in general, preeminent in the history of
Chinese painting, often depict hermits who have retreated from society and
are dwarfed by nature, ideas clearly of Daoist import, even if a Confucian
interpretation would be applied to them later on by Confucian scholars.
The diversity of the Chinese artistic tradition can be seen in the
High Tang, most of all in the poets Li Bai (also known as Li Bo, 701–762) and
Du Fu (712–770), two poets who hold the same stature in China as Mozart
and Beethoven hold in the West. Yet the two poets are quite different.23 Du Fu
became one of those models whom later generations would try to follow in
poetry, but he himself was a Confucian original. Li Bai, on the other hand,
was a Daoist bad boy, a failed, drunken bureaucrat whose poetry Li Zehou
describes as “an unpredictable outpouring of emotion in inimitable tones.”24
Even the critical values expressed in the past imply a dynamic rather
than static cultural development. For all of their Confucian certitudes, it is
surprising how often traditional writings on art and literature extolled the
virtues of originality, not the imitation of tradition. One example is the Qing
dynasty scholar, Ye Xie (1627–1703):
Poetry is a “final” art: it must say what no one before has ever said and
bring out what no one before has ever thought out. Only then can it be
“my” poem. If a person thinks it is real mastery to ape the expressions and
gait of others and call this “rules,” then not only will poetry be destroyed,
[a legitimate concept of] rules will also be destroyed. If I have made rules
Introduction: The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
into something posterior, it does not mean that I have abandoned rules;
rather this is the way to preserve rules.25
This was hardly a late development in Chinese history. Centuries earlier
Xie Ho (active c. 500–535?), one of the most important writers on Chinese
painting, says this about a painter named Chang Tse: “His ideas and thoughts
ran riot, and he had to but move his brush to be original. His mind was his
guide, and his views were his own; he was sparing in his adaptations from
others. His versatile ingenuity was inexhaustible.”26 Su Shi (1037–1101) was
one of the greatest painters in the so-called scholar tradition of China, and his
advice was simple: “There is one basic rule in poetry and painting; natural
genius and originality.”27 The concrete results of such theoretical dexterity
over the ages are a range of Chinese painting so varied that one of the most
noted scholars of Chinese art, Craig Clunas, argues convincingly against any
unified notion of “Chinese Painting.”28
The point of this brief historical digression of Chinese thought and art
is simple: to merely say that Hou’s films are very Chinese does not say very
much at all. Of the hundreds and thousands shades and facets this culture
has shown over the centuries, which of these specifically apply in the case of
Hou? Moreover, this question becomes aggravated by the violent and often
cruel twists of Chinese history in the twentieth century. For this is not only
a question of history — of time — but also of place. To wit, not only can we
not escape history, we cannot escape Taiwan, since that is precisely where
Hou grew up, and where he still holds his base of filmmaking operations.
If Chinese culture is going to have any meaning in the case of Hou’s cinema,
it lies in how Chinese culture has played out in Taiwan from roughly 1947
(and earlier, as we shall see) to the present day. And what Chinese culture
means in Taiwan is radically different than what it means in mainland
China, or even Hong Kong, for that matter, so much so that Hou’s films are
inconceivable without the island.
This certainly explains why the critical and academic discourse is so
different in Taiwan. Westerners have encountered Taiwanese views on Hou
mostly through either the writings in English by Peggy Chiao, or through
translated interviews with Hou and his screenwriter, Chu Tien-wen. Hou,
Chu, and Chiao are of recent mainland descent, born of parents who came
over to Taiwan in the mass exodus of 1949. At the same time, however, all
three grew up in Taiwan, a fact which makes them quite ambivalent about
China no matter what cultural affinities the three may feel towards their
looming neighbor. Chiao has on occasion used traditional Chinese culture to
explain Hou.29 Yet Chiao is in an unusual position in Taiwan, often burdened
with the promotion of Taiwanese art films abroad due to her language skills
and her unofficial position as the doyen of Taiwanese cinema. From a sheer
marketing standpoint, it makes more sense for her to dangle such easily
digestible cultural morsels than to equivocate. Moreover, if Chiao really does
No Man an Island
believe in the “Chineseness” of Hou’s style, this is only a partial explanation
at best. She also believes that Hou is a modern director, and she intelligently
refuses any reductive explanations for him.30 Chu Tien-wen seems to deflect
the issue even more, declaring that defining Hou’s style as Chinese is rather
difficult given the complexity and contradictions of Chinese culture itself.31
Hou also displays dexterity when discussing this matter. In the 1997 documentary about him, Hou himself was asked by Olivier Assayas whether he
is a Chinese director or a Taiwanese director, and Hou replied that, while one
cannot deny the cultural aspect of being Chinese, one also cannot deny that
he is a Taiwanese director, not Chinese.32 On another occasion he explained
that his goal was to create an indirect style that would belong to “the East”
without specifying China, Japan, or even Taiwan.33 On the surface Hou
seems to be reverting to some reverse Orientalism like those quoted above:
yet in avoiding any singular, or specific cultural label, Hou was making a
very calculated and intentionally equivocal statement on his part, one that
is quite typical of the Taiwanese in general. Even more significant, for most
scholars and commentators within Taiwan, how Chinese Hou is becomes
a secondary issue, compared to more immediate and often historically
specific issues regarding Taiwan, as we shall see. What is of essence for many
Western and mainland Chinese commentators, is of lesser importance for
Hou and company, and in most of the indigenous literature on him.
To be sure, some academic writers outside of Taiwan have already begun
to take on other avenues of explanation. One key figure in this regards is
Yeh Yueh-yu, a scholar of Taiwanese origin who has also published much in
English on Hou, serving as an important counter-weight to any facile conclusions made about him. In English, the first in-depth source on Hou is a
website devoted to City of Sadness which Yeh co-authored with Abe Mark
Nornes.34 Crucial here is how deeply they try to deal with both text and
context, a project long overdue for Hou. When analyzing Hou’s style,
they implode stereotypes that Hou, like any Asian filmmaker, supposedly
draws from an amorphous “great legacy of Oriental Culture.” This focus on
Taiwanese specifics is more fully developed in a recent, breakthrough book
which Yeh co-authored with Darrell Davis, Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure
Island. In the chapter on Hou, for example, they note how Hou’s shift in his
early career from a commercial director to a festival director reflects a larger
shift in Taiwanese culture away from links with China.35 Others have also
taken more nuanced views. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar have noted how
radically different Hou’s historical sense is in City of Sadness, a subaltern
“historiology” at odds with state-sanctioned historiography found in most
historical films under the direct guidance of both the KMT and the CCP. Yet
they do not simply trace this difference in some cultural return that predates
the modern nation-state, but rather alternative “relations of modernity
and the nation-state.”36 Meanwhile, David Bordwell, in his recent Figures
Introduction: The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
Traced in Light, has situated Hou’s rarefied long-take style in a larger tradition of filmmaking based on mise-en-scène and staging.37 Bordwell does for
Hou what he earlier has done for the Japanese director, Ozu, noting how
blanket cultural explanations are often too facile since they fail to explain
the complexity of the phenomenon before us. Once again, what is at issue
is not culture in general, but the specific accomplishments of Hou and how
to account for them in specific ways. Chinese culture, most of all traditional
culture, is found to be wanting in its explanatory power. As it turns out, this
story — this problem — is far more interesting than that.
The purpose of this monograph is to provide not only an overview of
Hou’s career to the present day, but also to try to explain the myriad reasons
why it turned out the way it has. It does assume some agency on the part
of Hou — a view that is not always accepted in film and cultural studies.
However, it also recognizes that this is a highly circumscribed agency, that
the range of choices Hou faced has always been limited by the particulars of
every historical moment, shaped by the ideological, industrial, and institutional constraints in which he has always operated under. This study does
not just explore how Hou defied the system, or overcame his circumstances
in the traditional auteurist sense, but more importantly how he took advantage of the peculiar opportunities these circumstances provided him. This
study does not deny the impact of Chinese culture, but it does attempt to
contextualize and historicize that culture within modern-day Taiwan. It does
not deny even that this culture is very different from the West in numerous
ways, but it also acknowledges that “different” does not mean “Other,” that
like any human culture, Chinese culture, including its Taiwanese version,
grapples with the same fundamental issues of life, death, family, society —
in other words, like any successful culture it is a malleable means of collective survival. Since Taiwan is so central here, this work relies primarily
on Taiwanese sources in Chinese for the reason that the domestic discourse
on Hou and Taiwanese cinema is little understood outside of Taiwan. Most
importantly, however, this study attempts to show how indispensable
Taiwan is in the career of Hou.
The organization here is straightforward and chronological: each chapter
represents a distinctive stage in Hou’s career, sometimes even representing
radical and unexpected breaks. Chapter 1 is entitled “Hou and the Taiwanese
Experience” and it sets out to explain why this catch-all phrase is central to
understanding Hou and his films. While discussing Hou up to 1982, when
he directed his third commercial feature before joining the Taiwanese New
Cinema, this chapter also explores competing historical “claims” made on
Taiwan (including China’s) going back centuries, followed by an overview
of overall development of Taiwan after 1949 when the island became the last
and permanent base of the KMT. (The era of Japanese colonial rule and the
immediate post-war era are both more fully explained in Chapter 3.) With
No Man an Island
this larger context in mind, this chapter will explore how Taiwanese cinema
became entangled in all of these larger political, economic, and cultural
developments. All of this will provide a revealing background to Hou’s own
very selective thematic choices once he joins the New Cinema, as well as his
aesthetic ones.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of the dramatic changes that occurred
in Taiwan during the 1980s, and how the rise of the Taiwanese New Cinema
was not a coincidence, nor was Hou’s personal rise to the top of that same
movement. It covers everything from Hou’s growing entourage who offered
him invaluable assistance (including his scriptwriter, Chu Tien-wen, who
introduced him to the writings of Shen Congwen) to his own assistance
to others, to his negotiation through the political and economic minefield
of a local film industry always in crisis, to finally his overcoming that constricting environment through his unexpected mastery of the international
festival realm. The chapter at the same time provides an overview of his
New Cinema films starting with The Sandwich Man (1983) and ending with
the flawed Daughter of the Nile (1987), which came out immediately after the
movement was seen to have officially ended, but which nevertheless also
prepared Hou for his next two groundbreaking films.
The third chapter in a sense covers a “peak” in Hou’s career, since the
primary focus is his next two films City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster
(1993), arguably Hou’s greatest masterpieces. First, however, some key historical background is given, since these two films deal with the two most
critical eras of Taiwan’s history which together created the present-day
Taiwan conundrum: the era of Japanese colonial rule (1895 to 1945) and
the immediate “return” of Taiwan to China culminating in the bloody 228
Incident of 1947, the darkest stain of the KMT’s checkered rule over the
island. It will analyze how City of Sadness, which deals with that infamous
incident, became the cultural event in Taiwan’s history which extended well
beyond its winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Particular
attention is paid as to how much the film itself was responsible for the film’s
lasting cultural impact. This chapter then explicates how by comparison
relatively little attention was paid to Hou’s next film, The Puppetmaster, and
yet argue that this work may have surpassed its predecessor both in terms
of its aesthetics and its historical sense. The chapter concludes with the
question as to whether these two historical masterworks represent a type of
history unlike any other, cinematic or otherwise.
Chapter 4 covers a crucial period in Hou’s career where his films change
dramatically in several ways. It begins with how and why Good Men, Good
Women represents a radical break in Hou’s career, and how his next film,
Goodbye South, Goodbye confirmed this break. Yet the bulk of the attention is
placed on his 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai (1998), a work of visual
density and complexity rivaling Mizoguchi. Moreover, since this film is the
Introduction: The Problem of Hou Hsiao-hsien
first work of Hou’s that is not set in Taiwan, and since it takes place in late
nineteenth-century Shanghai, the whole issue of China, and how Hou’s films
deal with this, comes to the fore. More to the point, the question now becomes
as to whether even Hou’s own cinematic style is somehow very “Chinese,”
just as many have suggested, something this analysis casts doubt upon.
Chapter 5 begins with a brief overview of Hou’s career from Millennium
Mambo (2001) to The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), and how these have only
exacerbated the unpredictable twists and turns of his career since 1995. Yet
this chapter will also try to place Hou’s career in a larger, global context.
In the end the argument is that Hou, as unpredictable as he has become, still
deserves a place in film history as one of the world’s great cinematic masters,
largely because he had the good fortune of living in Taiwan at a particular
time in history, and because he has created a new cinematic tradition in Asia
which now has several practitioners throughout the region.
The conclusion for this revised edition focuses primarily on Hou’s
notable return to the international scene in 2015 with The Assassin, a work
that earned Hou the prize for Best Director at Cannes. The Assassin represents
Hou’s foray into the wuxia genre that has become seemingly obligatory for
most Chinese-language auteurs in recent years. Yet Hou’s peculiar take literally turns the wuxia genre on its head. This most recent film seemingly raises
more questions about Hou himself. Yet it confirms three lessons found in
the previous edition of this study: an auteur of Hou’s global stature requires
historical luck, sufficient institutional support, and an enabling entourage.
As unexpected as Hou’s latest work is in many ways, there is nothing in it
that invalidates what has been said in the five chapters of this book.
One final word needs to be said here on the question of uniqueness.
While the pages that follow will argue that Hou’s films are unique because
the circumstances he found himself in are unique, the same could be argued
for any director who has distinguished him or herself. Perhaps the underlying lesson here is that the local matters for any director, no matter how
globally successful they are in the end. Every director has to begin somewhere; no director from the start knocks on the doors of a festival and says
he or she wants in without some sort of resume. In the case of Hou, some
seem puzzled that he is from Taiwan, but this study aims to solve that
particular puzzle, to explore thoroughly how the tortuous path of Hou’s
career only seems strange until one looks carefully at Taiwan itself over
the last three decades, most of all the convoluted, interlocking paths taken
by both Taiwanese cinema and Taiwanese society as a whole. Instead of an
inexplicable puzzle, the story becomes a timely symbiotic dance of various
historical moments, a story replete with specific geopolitical and economic
factors, many of them purely domestic. This is in the end a very Taiwanese
story, one that should be taken more seriously than it has been.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:06 GMT from JHU Libraries
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Taiwan is a peculiar place resulting in a peculiar cinema, with Hou Hsiao-hsien
being its most indelible product. We should be wary of any totalizing terms
to explain this geopolitical and cinematic oddity. Nevertheless, there is one
concept which comes close: the “Taiwanese Experience.” The origins of this
term are murky, but significantly it came into widespread use in the 1980s, and
still retains everyday cachet on the island today. There are volumes devoted
to explaining the term.1 Chen Ruxiu’s important study of the Taiwanese New
Cinema bears the revealing title: Taiwanese New Cinema’s History, Culture
and Experience.2 To the uninitiated it might seem surprising that the terms
“History” and “Culture” are on the same plane as “Experience.” In Taiwan,
however, the last term trumps them all; in Taiwan it is experience alone —
in raw, amorphous and yet undeniably human form — which has superseded
all attempts to forge a fixed national and ethnic identity.
That a fluid, collective experience overrides all fixed categories is not an
intellectual construct in Taiwan, but a fact of daily existence for the average
resident on the island. Benedict Anderson has argued that nationalism
became possible with the intersection of capitalism, print technology and
educational systems together creating a cohesive sense of the “national”
since people now could identify with other large groups they could now
at least imagine.3 Yet most people to a greater or lesser extent believe in the
ontology of these “imagined communities” which underlie their shared
sense of national identity. In Taiwan, however, most people do not. Ongoing
conditions there have forced its denizens to be hyper-aware of how imaginary everything is, how every label appears to be a phantom of sorts. For
decades they were repeatedly told that Taiwan is inseparable from China,
and they are thus Chinese. Today they are now more likely to be told that
they are not Chinese at all, but “Taiwanese.” Both arguments are based on
either culture or ancestry. Yet in her investigation of the Taiwanese identity
problem, Melissa Brown notes that these are not what ultimately unites an
ethnic group or nation. “Rather, identity is formed and solidified on the
basis of common social experience, including economic and political experience.”4 As a result of these experiences, polls consistently show that the
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
vast majority in Taiwan are deeply committed to avoiding all solutions, even
labels — calling themselves both Chinese and Taiwanese, favoring neither
reunification nor independence.5 Of two minds, the Taiwanese as a whole
have doggedly pursued a middling status quo — for perpetuity if at all
possible — as if they are forever holding their cards to their chest, never
laying them down for the world to see, never allowing the hand to be played.
Taiwan is an island based on the ongoing art of collective ambivalence.
Who is to blame for this? Just about everyone: the KMT government
which ruled Taiwan for over a half a century, the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Americans, certainly the mainland
Communists, not to mention indigenous politicians presently calling for
independence. Together all of these parties have made experience itself into
a capricious teacher on Taiwan. Never allowed to exist on its own, this is
an island literally caught in between, always subject to a historical prejudice where Taiwan is nothing more than a strategic, geopolitical tool, a mere
appendage of something purportedly greater. A virtual ice palace created
by the Cold War, Taiwan today somehow has not “melted” into oblivion as
often predicted. Instead it has survived, even thrived, against all odds.
Not coincidently Hou rose to prominence in the 1980s. He translates this
larger state of affairs in indelible cinematic terms which capture, convey,
perhaps even embody, the elusive, slippery contours of that collective experience, with no fixed identities, no rhetorical clarities, no balmy certitudes.
At first, Hou focuses exclusively on Taiwan’s experience from the late 1950s
onwards, since he experienced this firsthand. The roots of that strange state
of affairs, however, go back centuries. Nevertheless, Hou’s later career
belies a Wittgenstein-like art of historical selection and omission: instead
of focusing on the standard historical claims made on Taiwan, Hou’s historical films focus mostly on those eras that most complicate these claims.
We shall explore briefly what these “claims” are and how they affect Taiwan
to this day.
Competing Historical “Claims” up to 1949
By virtual default, the strongest claim on Taiwan is China’s. Yet this does
not mean that the Chinese claim on Taiwan is as unequivocal as the current
government of the PRC asserts. China is an especially historically minded
culture which has copiously recorded its own past. Yet in all the profuse
records of China up to the seventeenth century there is no hint of Chinese
designs on Taiwan. By that point China was nearing the end of its second
millennium of recorded imperial history spanning several dynasties. The
earliest Chinese arrivals to Taiwan usually came seasonally and illegally, and
in small numbers. They were far outnumbered by the local aboriginal population at the time. More permanent Chinese settlements only began in earnest
No Man an Island
via the impetus provided by the Dutch colony set up on the island in the seventeenth century.6 Eerily similar to what happened in the twentieth century,
soon unsolicited political events in China spilled over onto the island. As the
Ming dynasty deteriorated, a Ming general (Zheng Chenggung, also known
as “Koxinga”) came over and drove out the Dutch, a feat that today earns
him the title as “the Father of Taiwan.” Yet Zheng’s eyes were set on returning to China, a cause continued by his successors. Only the failure of Zheng’s
son to drive out the Qing dynasty led to the formal annexation of Taiwan by
the Chinese government in 1684, merely for security reasons.7
What follows is the 200-plus-year rule of the island by the last Chinese
dynasty. The Qing treated Taiwan with a great deal of reluctance and ambivalence, finding it more trouble than it was worth. (In fact, initially the Qing
offered the Dutch to buy the island back, which was declined.)8 Seemingly
stuck with Taiwan, the Qing rulers made almost no effort to develop it.
Emigration to Taiwan remained either illegal or greatly restricted for many
of those years, and it seemed as if the most corrupt and inept governors
were sent there. Each governor served short, three-year terms, and none
made Taiwan their home. During these 211 years of Qing rule, the locals —
whether of Chinese descent or the aboriginals — protested against the Qing
government no fewer than seventy-three times, and resorted to violence no
less than sixty other times.9 Taiwan remained a place of unruly character,
attracting Chinese of pioneering stock who desired to escape conditions
in China, most of all the rampant poverty and scarce land in nearby Fujian
province. These independent-minded immigrants in turn were looked down
upon by those who remained in China. Already the economic, social, political
and cultural developments in Taiwan had diverged from China as a whole.
The Qing did nothing to mitigate this; in fact, their policies only widened
this split.10
Even with ten thousand troops on the island,11 evidence of nominal rule,
if not misrule, indicated to foreign colonial powers that China had little effective control over Taiwan. Only in the nineteenth century, when Qing rulers
noticed foreign designs on Taiwan, did they begin to pay the island more
heed. First, the government in Beijing lifted all bans on emigration.12 After a
brief conflict with the French, the Qing government decided to make Taiwan
a full-fledged province in 1885 instead of a mere part of Fujian. For the first
time Taiwan had a competent ruler with foresight named Liu Mingchuan,
who not only established a stable administration, but also began to build
an infrastructure that included railroads and electricity. However, Liu left
in 1891, and inexplicably all of his plans for modernization were dropped.
Taiwan fell once more into a state of gross neglect.13
In 1895, when the Qing dynasty lost a war with the Japanese over
Korea, China’s historical attitude towards Taiwan became clear. The Chinese
government signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki and ceded Taiwan and the
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Pescadores to Japan “in perpetuity.” By all international standards of the
time, this was considered a legal agreement, and even the West recognized
Taiwan as now being a part of Japan.14 That China easily parted with the
island to save itself indicates not a belief that Taiwan was native soil so much
as a burdensome appendage best excised from the mainland body.
Unlike the Qing era, which is conspicuously absent in Hou’s historically
minded oeuvre concerning Taiwan, the Japanese colonial era (1895–1945)
forms at least part of the historical backdrop in the famed historical trilogy
of City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women. Yet in doing
so, Hou is not bolstering a Japanese “counterclaim” to China’s. He very
well could have. Using criteria such as effective rule and development, one
could say the Japanese have a stronger claim on Taiwan than the Chinese.
Even most mainland Chinese at the time seemed to accept that Taiwan was
no longer Chinese soil. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, said that
Taiwan should become an independent nation in the 1920s. Even during
the war with Japan, Chiang Kai-shek in 1938, and the Communists as late
as 1941, all thought it best for Taiwan to become independent of Japan,
not returned to China. It was not the usual dictates of history, culture nor
ancestry which demanded the return of Taiwan to China. It was desperate,
wartime politics.15 Everything changed in 1943 at the Cairo Conference when
the United States offered Taiwan to Chiang Kai-shek to ensure his not suing
for a separate peace with Japan. In retrospect it was a major blunder on the
part of the United States. According to George Kerr, an American observer
at the time who was intimately familiar with Taiwan, the Cairo Declaration
set in train “a long series of events which are now cause for deep regret.”16
One other thing to keep in mind: there was not a strong national identity
among the Taiwanese as one finds among the Koreans during the same time
period when they also suffered under Japanese tutelage. Even in 1945, even
after fifty-one years of Japanese “corruption,” this amorphous identity was
amenable to the idea of becoming Chinese once again — or maybe for the
first time. This was the stated goal of the new rulers, the KMT Nationalists.
Yet in very short order — in a few months, in fact — the actions of the KMT
virtually ensured the opposite of their rhetoric: a new and more permanent
Taiwanese identity was being etched in deep pools of blood. This all came
to a head in the 228 Incident in February of 1947, which will be discussed
in detail in chapter 3. For now suffice it to say that the new Nationalist government behaved even more like a colonizer than its Japanese predecessor,
and with greater brutality resulting in the deaths of thousands. The KMT’s
indecorous, brutal behavior was widely reported in China. Soon 228 would
become a focal point of resistance to the KMT throughout China, accelerating its eventual defeat there which came only two years later.17 Ironically,
the incident literally created a self-made hostile corner in Taiwan which the
KMT would find itself backed into in 1949.
No Man an Island
After all these capricious historical turns, what does this term “Taiwanese”
really mean? It depends. “Taiwan” and “Taiwanese” have been terms of convenience reflecting certain geopolitical realities, but not terms readily embraced
by those who once ruled the island, or those across the straits who desire to
rule it one day. In the murky semantic border between the words “Chinese”
and “Taiwanese” is addled a further, domestic complication, one that is difficult to clarify in English. Ever since the late 1940s, a differentiation is made
by those known as benshengren (“original province people”) and those called
waishengren (“outer province people”). The former are multi-generational
Taiwanese with mainland ancestry but whose roots on the island go back
centuries. Historically this was not a unified group because they included
a significant Hakka minority which has its own dialect and customs, and
which often has come into conflict with the Hoklo majority. The Hoklo are
comprised mostly of Fujianese immigrants who speak the Taiwanese dialect
similar to the Fujianese dialect spoken directly across the Straits of Taiwan.
By contrast, the waishengren are recent arrivals, those mainlanders who came
over after 1945, the majority of whom came in 1949 when the KMT lost
China to the Communists. Roughly speaking, the benshengren make up 85%
of the population on the island today, while the “mainlander” waishengren
comprise close to 14%. The remaining 1% of the current population is mostly
made up of a declining aboriginal population. In ethnic terms, this means
that close to 99% of the population on Taiwan is of Chinese descent, but this
does not make them any more “Chinese” than Canadians of English descent
are “English,” or Mexicans of Spanish descent are “Spanish.” Moreover, with
each passing day it becomes more and more accurate to call all residents on the
island (including waishengren) Taiwanese, not Chinese, given how radically
different the historical experiences on Taiwan have been from mainland China.
In any case, after 1949 both the benshengren and the waishengren on the
island were cut off from China, forced to live together with quietly festering historical wounds which have never completely healed. After initially
trying to justify their actions, for nearly forty years officials simply denied
the massacre in 1947 had ever happened. Yet when Taiwan, with bitter irony,
became the last bastion of the Nationalists, the government was forced to
modify its stance in radical ways if it was to survive. The KMT lacked real
legitimacy after the 228 Incident, a key factor in the reforms it eventually
undertook, resulting in a checkered record like that of the previous Japanese
administration. The Taiwanese benshengren would be at first the recipients of
change, later the beneficiaries of change, and finally the masters of change,
changes which first manifested themselves on the economic front, and eventually bore fruit on both the political and cultural fronts. These created the
Taiwan we know today: an economic dynamo and one of the most democratic “nations” on earth with a vibrant culture to boot, including a particular film director now of world renown.
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Hou and the Post-war Taiwanese Experience
Hou Hsiao-hsien literally enters this picture in 1949. Westerners and mainland
Chinese have their share of mistaken notions about Hou, but the Taiwanese
have their own. Until recent years, the most common local misperception
was that Hou is a benshengren. Hou has cultivated that persona publicly:
he speaks fluent Taiwanese and speaks Mandarin with a heavy Taiwanese
inflection. Furthermore, his films seem to express fully what it means to be
Taiwanese, most of all for benshengren. Thus many in Taiwan are surprised
to discover that Hou is a waishengren who was born in mainland China in
1947, and moved to Taiwan when he was only two years old. Hou’s family is
Hakka, the special peripatetic Chinese minority who were often persecuted
by the Han majority in Taiwan before 1895.18 Still, Hou grew up in southern
Taiwan, mostly among benshengren. Hou’s father died when he was young,
allowing him to wander outside more than was the norm for children of the
time. These self-guided wanderings forced him to use Taiwanese on a daily
basis at a young age, and proved to be definitive influences.
Thus, Hou for much of his life would identify most with the group he
should have had the most tenuous ties with, the benshengren. This indicates
how much his actual experience, not ancestry, nor any fixed cultural ideology,
determines Hou’s identity and world view. Being both Hakka and a waishengren only increased Hou’s sensitivity. Chu Tien-wen, a renowned author and
Hou’s scriptwriter, explains why it was that those of her generation — born
of at least one parent from the mainland, yet growing up in Taiwan — would
be among the leading proponents of the Taiwanese Experience in the cultural
realm. At home they only heard about China which she later found to be
imaginary once she went there. Yet it was the Taiwan before their eyes that
they experienced firsthand, a world entirely different from the hearth-side
stories of the mainland. That diasporic tension, non-existent for multi-generational Taiwanese who take everything around them as a matter of course,
proved to be fertile artistic ground.19
For writers like Chu and filmmakers like Hou, Taiwan would prove to
be a virtually bottomless reservoir of thematic material. But what did Hou
witness and experience? In a word, change: politically, economically, culturally and cinematically. When Hou becomes a director himself in 1980, all of
these changes were either already occurring or about to.
Hou’s Post-war Political Experience
Hou’s father was a low-level bureaucrat who came over to Taiwan to lead
an uneventful existence until his premature death. There is scant evidence
that Hou and his family were ever directly affected by post-war politics.
Still, the political was pervasive in post-war Taiwan, always lurking in the
No Man an Island
background of daily life. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same is true of Hou’s
films, at least those which do make some political references: A Time to Live,
A Time to Die (1985), City of Sadness (1989) and Good Men, Good Women (1995).
Hou has often been criticized for his political ambivalence and evasion. Few
can even locate him on Taiwan’s true political spectrum, which is not “Right
versus Left” (a distinction with little meaning in Taiwan), but “Independence
versus Reunification.” What people fail to realize is how typical Hou’s
politics are in Taiwan. Most residents there hold both politics and politicians
in low esteem, a direct result of a half century of oppressive KMT rule. The
benshengren majority even had a common saying that “getting involved in
politics is like eating dog shit.”20
In hindsight, it seems clear enough that the KMT government could not
have kept this up forever: despite its basic ideological premise as a government of the “Republic of China,” which purportedly represents all of China,
no amount of propaganda could disguise the fact that it ruled only Taiwan
and a few other smaller islands. On the other hand, there was some historical
luck in their favor. When Chiang Kai-shek and what remained of the KMT
retreated to Taiwan in 1949, it seemed on its last legs. The party had lost so
much credibility that it was cut off even from U.S. support. The mainland
Communists had drawn up plans for an imminent invasion of the island to
finish off the Nationalists once and for all. All this changed with the outbreak
of the Korean War in 1950. Two days after it began, the United States sent the
Seventh Fleet to the Straits of Taiwan. The Korean conflict simultaneously
ended plans by the Communists to attack the island.21 Taiwan had once
again undergone another dramatic metamorphosis: it became a KMT-led
fortress on the front lines of the Cold War.
This tense Cold War atmosphere pervaded the 1950s, and reached its
height in August of 1958 with the so-called “Cannon War” with the PRC over
the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, both within eyesight of Fujian province.
Chiang Kai-shek’s hope was to get the United States directly involved in an
attack against mainland China, but the Americans only offered indirect aid
and even tried unsuccessfully to convince the KMT to relinquish control over
the two islands. Finally a compromise between the two distrustful allies was
reached in October: the ROC would no longer attack the PRC in exchange
for continued control over Kinmen and Matsu. The Chinese Communists
protested, but some have speculated that Mao secretly agreed to Nationalist
control over these two islands. Being so close to the mainland, this would
help mitigate any drive towards Taiwanese independence.22 The result is a
stalemate which persists to this day: Kinmen and Matsu remain under the
control of the ROC, not the PRC.
The tense, paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War was well suited for
Chiang’s quest for absolute power over the island. Smaller, local sections of
the party were all inextricable parts of larger sections leading directly to the
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
top — the Central Committee controlled by Chiang himself.23 This reorganization dovetailed with existing laws such as the Mobilization Anti-Rebellion
Law in 1948, and martial law, which was declared in June of 1949 and not
lifted until 1987. The former order greatly increased Chiang’s presidential
powers, allowing him to wipe out dissent of any sort. Along with the martial
law, the 1948 law formed the basis of what would be known as the “White
Terror.” In effect, Taiwan became a police/military state that was centered in
the National Defense Committee (later called the National Security Council),
through which Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, controlled
all vital information and intelligence gathering.24
The Cold War served as a ready-made smoke screen to divert attention away from the possibility of Taiwanese independence. Indeed, the
announced intentions of many KMT policies were to fight communism,
yet the actual targets included groups who advocated independence and
showed no interest in communism whatsoever. Nevertheless, there was local
resistance to the KMT which dates back to 1947, especially among Taiwanese
exiles. Within Taiwan itself resistance developed more slowly. Still, even
in the 1950s there were people who began to question the premise of the
“Republic of China.” The first sign was the journal, Free China, which initially
supported the KMT, but eventually became quite critical of the party and
was consequently shut down.25 During the 1970s, a second wave of opposition arose and gained momentum as the decade progressed. The reason
is clear enough: legitimacy, already a vexing problem for the KMT, only
worsened as the decade wore on. Once the government lost its UN seat in
1972, it was less able to deflect resistance. Moreover, Chiang Kai-shek himself
would die in 1975, by which point effective control had already passed to
Chiang Ching-kuo.
On the surface, the son seemed of the same political ilk as his father.
Chiang Ching-kuo had been a key player on the political scene before
1972, effectively running Taiwan for his father through a number of key
positions, most of all in intelligence gathering and the military. Once he
came to the forefront in the 1970s, he still utilized a centralized system in
a sometimes capricious manner. Chiang Ching-kuo, however, never shared
his father’s obsession with recovering the mainland, a crucial difference.
Instead, he engaged in pragmatic policies that centered on Taiwan, beginning major infrastructure projects that helped to modernize the island. Most
importantly, the younger Chiang began a process of “localization” that
allowed native Taiwanese into the administration, as well as into the party
itself.26 This would have a profound effect on Taiwan in the long run, in part
because it meant the inclusion in 1988 of Chiang’s successor Lee Teng-hui
(Li Denghui), who was a benshengren.
In the new climate of the 1970s was born the “outside-the-party
movement,” (Dang wai). This movement at first consisted of non-KMT
No Man an Island
candidates who ran, and sometimes won, in local elections despite widespread KMT fraud. Once the United States withdrew recognition of the
ROC government in December of 1978, things came to a head a year later in
southern Taiwan. The so-called “Formosa Incident,” sometimes known as
the “Kaohsiung Incident,” was the first major public protest against the KMT
since the 228 Incident of 1947. The leaders of “the party without a name”
staged a mass human rights rally in Kaohsiung on December 10, 1979, the
International Day for Human Rights. When the police in Kaohsiung came
out in force to intimidate the large crowds, the people did not give in, even
breaking through police lines. Upon seeing this, one witness said, “History
has had a new beginning.”27 This opened the floodgates of the 1980s.
Hou was not involved in any of this. During the 1970s Hou was slowly
working his way up in the Taiwanese film industry, showing no evidence
of taking any political sides along the way. There was no indication during
that time that he would take on the roles and issues and controversies he
would eventually become embroiled in. But things change in Taiwan — even
Hou’s and the Post-war Economic Experience
The “Economic Miracle” is undoubtedly the best known aspect of the
Taiwanese Experience abroad, and Hou’s films allude to it on occasion. Even
Hou’s own career partially reflects this. Cinema was one industry which
seemed to miss the Economic Miracle. However, Hou ended up working in
the commercial film industry for over a decade before venturing out in his
own virtual cottage industry. This is quite typical in Taiwan: Hou presently
operates a small-level enterprise creating a product primarily for export,
albeit in his case it is for a niche market, not a mass one.
What is often overlooked is how directly linked the Economic Miracle
is to the 228 Incident. The primary cause of the 1947 uprising, and the subsequent bloodbath, was economic. For as long as it could, the KMT tried
to maintain absolute power in Taiwan, and only slowly relinquished that
power as circumstances dictated. When it comes to economics, however, the
KMT relinquished power almost from the start because it really had no other
choice. For Taiwan this was the second modernization, one that far surpassed
what the Japanese had done. For the KMT, it was their first modernization.
No longer would they be caged in the land-locked, agrarian mentality of
war-torn China. Instead they quickly learned to rely on international trade.
Given how spectacularly this economy performed over the last few
decades, it is easy to forget that the prognosis for Taiwan’s economy was
poor in the 1950s, especially with the sudden influx of 1.5 million people
from the mainland. Taiwan had an unfavorable land-to-population ratio,
minimal capital resources and a discredited leadership, all of which gave
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
the country “basket case” status in the eyes of foreign economists.28 Yet from
such inauspicious beginnings, the island experienced growth records that
are among the highest in human history. The industrial sector grew 12.2% a
year from 1953 to 1964, during which time Taiwan received ample aid from
the United States. After American aid was dropped, Taiwan’s economic
performance spurted ahead. The industrial sector grew at an annual rate of
16.1% from 1965 to 1975.29 The economy as a whole, including the relatively
stagnant agricultural sector, grew on average 10% a year from 1963 to 1980.
Once the economy had fully matured, the island still recorded an annual rate
of growth of 7.5% from 1981 to 1995.30 Of central importance in this picture
is how the populace at large benefited. The average Taiwanese in 1950 had
the personal income of the average mainland Chinese. By the 1980s, the per
capita income in Taiwan was twenty times that of mainland China.31
Several specific policies by the KMT fostered this astronomical growth.
A thoroughgoing land reform turned land capital into business capital,
laying the groundwork for economic development. Local landowners on the
island did not resist, since the 228 Incident was still fresh in their memories.
At the same time, however, the KMT government gave these landless landowners a stake in major government industries, effectively ending a feudal
system by transforming its primary beneficiaries into capitalists.32 Another
key to Taiwan’s economic development was privatization.33 Overall the
government held back publicly owned industries while allowing privately
owned ones to thrive. By 1959, the percentage of industrial enterprises that
were privately run exceeded those run by the government.34 From only 43%
of industrial production being privately owned in 1954, the percentage had
jumped to 80% in 1972, and 90% by the mid-1980s, making Taiwan, by any
standard, one of the most privately owned economies in the world.35 The
economy became highly decentralized, dominated by small- and mediumsized enterprises to an extent not found elsewhere. In 1981, 45% of the manufacturing was done by small- and medium-sized businesses. In the most
successful and dynamic part of Taiwan’s economy, manufacturing for export,
the percentage jumped to 68% of the total.36 Moreover, the main beneficiaries of this policy were the benshengren, not the “elite” of recent mainland
descent. Stringent educational, political and cultural policies notwithstanding, the mainlanders had neither the gall nor the wherewithal to stand in the
way of a hostile majority as they had done in 1947.
The government also steered the economy towards export. Taiwan is
heavily trade-oriented: by the 1980s, exports and imports accounted for
over 85% of its economy, a startling figure when you realize that in Japan
the figure is only 30%.37 Back in the 1950s, the government utilized the socalled “import-substitution policy” common to many newly industrialized
nations. This focused on developing the domestic market through protectionist measures. In Taiwan this policy was unusually successful, largely
No Man an Island
because this was a temporary measure restricted mostly to the capital goods
industry. For consumer goods, unfinished goods and manufacturing as a
whole, almost all the growth came from filling domestic demand and almost
none from import substitution per se. In the Philippines, by contrast, nearly
one quarter to one-third of the growth in all four of these areas was due to
import-substitution, and only 60–70% to filling domestic demand. This in
the long run weakened industries in the Philippines.38 Soon the ROC government steered Taiwan towards an outward-looking economy by encouraging
export over import. In 1959, they abolished a dual currency exchange-rate
system, devalued the currency, reduced tariffs and set up laws, regulations
and tax rates that all encouraged exporting.39 Perhaps no other decision
made by the KMT-led government has so markedly improved the lives of
the Taiwanese.
In short, while denied a political stake for decades, the Taiwanese benshengren were already given a strong stake in the economy even at the height
of the Cold War. The Taiwanese majority took advantage of this economic
leeway to the fullest, even to the point of flouting its often poorly enforced
legal boundaries. As a result, Taiwan has been much like an underground
economy that operates above ground. The government did retain strict
control in banking, and getting a loan was difficult for the average Taiwanese.
To get around this, the Taiwanese set up thousands of ad hoc private credit
associations (biaohui) to raise their own capital, a remarkably risky venture
that pays off handsomely if all the members in any one group are trustworthy.40 Many businesses would openly operate without licenses, and most
would keep two account books, one for themselves, and a diminutive version
for tax collectors. The population in general tends to under-report its income
to the government, making the true per capita income hard to measure.
By the 1980s, wealth in Taiwan was to be found everywhere, largely the result
of both hard work and disdain for government interference. The KMT-led
government observed this collective civil disobedience, and understood that
its only choice was mostly to look the other way. Meanwhile Hou and others
of the New Cinema in the 1980s, when this Economic Miracle was now an
established fact, began to explore what this all meant for the people actually
living on the island. Their answers reveal a great deal of ambivalence.
Hou and the Slow Thaw of Taiwan’s Post-war Culture
If Hou Hsiao-hsien’s links with both post-war politics and economics are
more indirect, the same cannot be said for post-war culture, where Hou
becomes a central figure. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind
with Taiwan is economics, followed perhaps by politics. By contrast, culture
in Taiwan is usually an afterthought, and even then it is often dismissed
as being either nonexistent or nothing more than a Chinese derivative.
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
However, for those already aware of the film festival scene in the last two
decades, the opposite is true: when they think of Taiwan, they are likely to
think of Hou first, plus others such as Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang.
What they often miss is how inextricably linked Hou the cultural phenomenon is to these larger political and economic forces within Taiwan.
Since 1949, Taiwanese culture has been caught between these political
and economic forces described above. Taiwan’s culture began as a centripetal force under the tight control of the KMT government, only to eventually become a centrifugal force which now plays unofficial diplomatic roles
denied to the government itself. In addition, the unsettled nature of the
Taiwanese situation has made Taiwanese culture even more dynamic and
inventive. Hou is not the only evidence of that, but he is one of the best.
Once again, this cultural dynamic originated in some of the most inauspicious conditions imaginable. Among the émigrés to Taiwan in 1949 were
some of China’s best and brightest, many who came not out of loyalty
toward the KMT as out of fear of the Communists. A motley group, circumstances forced them to live and raise their children on the island, only slowly
realizing there was no going back. Still, for quite some time there were strict
limits as to what they could express about this strange, new world. By dint
of a government monopoly over culture, education and the media, there
was a concerted effort to foist a Chinese identity on the local population
and suppress anything distinctively Taiwanese.41 The prevailing feeling at
the time was that the KMT’s loss on the mainland was due to a failure of
propaganda, not policy. In Taiwan, the party was not about to make the same
mistake again. Culture was a key component in what the KMT saw as a fight
to the death.
Government control pervaded all cultural areas, but it was particularly
stringent in the education of young people. “The Three Principles of the
People,” the official ideology of the state, permeated every area of academic
life. A key organization was a China Youth Anti-Communist Salvation League
started in 1952. This organization established political activities and military
training for young people.42 Designed to focus attention on the “communist
bandits” a mere hundred miles away, it was also part of a large-scale effort to
eradicate anything specifically “Taiwanese.” Other educational policies were
at the forefront of this tacit strategy as well: starting in 1951, all classes had
to be taught in Mandarin, and native Taiwanese children were punished by
harsh fines every time they spoke a word of the Taiwanese dialect in the
classroom.43 Such practices survived up to the 1970s. (Hou’s own fluency
in the Taiwanese dialect came not from the classroom, but from the streets.)
The government also provided direct guidance over literature and
cinema. In 1950, the China Association for Literature and the Arts was set
up with ten members, one of whose responsibility was to oversee film.
This resulted in heavily propagandistic art imbued with anti-communist
No Man an Island
themes while extolling the virtues of Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the
People.”44 The stranglehold was further tightened in 1954 when this association announced a government policy called “The Cultural Cleansing
Movement.” This campaign had the expressed goal of ridding the culture
of all “Red” (communistic), “Black” (pessimistic views of the underside
of society) and “Yellow” (licentious, pornographic) elements. The three
undesirable “colors” in turn formed the sweeping basis for all subsequent
government censorship which was taken over by the all-important GIO
(Government Information Office) in 1955.45 In 1960, the tenth anniversary of
the supreme cultural body from which the GIO took its cues reiterated these
anti-“Red,” “Black” and “Yellow” principles.46
Still, this was authoritarian control, not totalitarian. Cracks began to
appear early on in various cultural arenas, and eventually in cinema as
well. Despite such stringent government controls, even in the early years
there were real debates over issues relevant to Taiwan, so long as they fell
short of openly espousing Leftist ideas or Taiwanese independence. There
were debates between “East” versus “West,” “indigenous culture” versus
“modern culture.” A common theme in such debates was the relation of
Chinese culture with modernization, most of all dealing with the relevance
of Confucianism in the modern world. Many intellectuals in Taiwan became
interested in what they called “Modern neo-Confucianism.” The point of
agreement for these intellectuals was that Confucianism would have to be
remade for modern times, and to do so required drawing from other traditions, including Buddhism and Western philosophy. Of particular importance in this regards was Mo Zongsan who tried to find a link between
Confucianism and the ethics of Kant.47 Many others, however, envisioned a
very different type of modernization, one that had little room for tradition
altogether. The modern Confucians found themselves at odds with the Free
China group and the growing popularity of existentialism in Taiwan, most of
all the ideas of Sartre.48
Before the 1980s, the true cultural vanguard in Taiwan was undoubtedly
literature, something best seen in the bitter disputes between two significant
movements: the Modernists (Xiandai wenxue) versus the so-called Nativists
(Xiangtu wenxue). When restricted to philosophers and other scholars, the
above mentioned debates seemingly stuck to the divide of East versus West.
Once the debates spilled over into literature, however, other messages began
to creep in almost imperceptibly, including early suggestions of a peculiarly
Taiwanese political spectrum which now openly dominates the island today.
This began with the advent of the Modernist literary movement in
the 1960s, directly linked to the rising popularity of Sartre at the time.49
The Modernist movement in Taiwan stood apart from all previous literature movements in Chinese history. By delving into psychological and
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
philosophical issues, they steered clear of the primary obsession of modern
Chinese literature during most of the twentieth century: national destiny.
The Modernists instead emphasized artistry and refinement, and resisted
any prevailing political, moral or aesthetic prescriptions.50 Compared to
Western Modernists, the Taiwanese counterparts were much more conservative; at the same time, however, they wrote about a collapse of Confucian
ideals, and castigated the prevailing culture of the time.51 At the center of
this movement in the 1960s was the journal, Wen Xing. Initially Wen Xing
focused on literature and the arts, but in the early 1960s, after the fall of Free
China, it joined the debate between tradition and Westernization/modernization. The writers at Wen Xing clearly sided with the latter camp, above all,
the writer, Li Ao. As a result, the journal became more and more subject to
attacks from the conservative ruling elite.52
In the 1970s, however, the primary opponents of the Modernists were
no longer the conservative elite, but from another literary movement that
had also had its roots in certain writers from the 1960s: the Nativists. With
the emergence of the Nativists, the division between tradition versus modernization and/or Westernization became more complicated, even muddled,
since they set themselves against both the Modernists and the conservative
ruling elite. The Nativists even saw the Modernists and the ruling elite in
league in their joint eagerness (at least in the Nativists’ eyes) to emigrate
at the first sign of crisis in Taiwan, of which there were many in the 1970s
starting with the loss of the UN seat, thereby abandoning the common folk
on the island. The Nativists also reacted aesthetically: in diametric opposition to the Westernized hermeticism of the Modernists, the Nativists brought
to the fore a new ethnic consciousness reflecting a new generation that had
grown up in Taiwan.53 The typical Nativist aesthetic strategy was a socially
engaged realism, not aesthetic experimentation, and their avowed goal was
to convey the details of everyday life in Taiwan as it really was.54 In 1977,
the underlying rhetoric behind this movement came to the fore in a heated
debate that occurred in a number of journals, and at a now famous conference called to discuss the movement. The upshot of this is what is now
known as the “Nativist controversy.”
The Nativists started with an anti-Western premise, seemingly joining
on one side of the East/West divide. Initially they asked why science books
in Taiwan were often in English, not Chinese.55 From there their concerns
centered on a Taiwan they perceived as a victim of a parasitic economic
system that left the island dependent, not independent.56 Some writers
depicted the underlying conflict as being between Chinese culture and what
they called a “Japanese/Western commercial culture.”57 The numerous 1970s
setbacks on the international stage led others to call for the Taiwanese to
look to themselves, and no longer to the West.58 Indeed there was a sense of
No Man an Island
anxiety and a thinly veiled urgency to their words. Says one writer: “There
will never be an international morality; one has to struggle for one’s own
survival, using the most realistic means possible.”59
But there was more than an anti-Western stance. While opponents of the
time attacked the Nativist movement either on literary or anti-communist
grounds, none of them clarified the movement’s defining term. Translated
literally, xiangtu means “native soil.” But which native soil does this refer to?
One writer broaches the question as follows: “Our native soil is good; add to
our sense of the native soil; allow us to recognize our native soil; be proud of
our native soil. This will make us not easily tempted by things foreign, or be
polluted by foreign culture.” Nevertheless, when he asks whether this native
soil is China or Taiwan, he never answers one way or another.60 In hindsight,
that was the central question. Later many declared that the ultimate criterion
used by the Nativists was how much their literature exhibited a “Taiwanese
consciousness.”61 At the time, however, the Nativists as a whole were evasive
on the issue of Taiwan versus China, perhaps because this was still a taboo
subject: some of those identified as Nativists favored a “Greater China” idea;
others implicitly favored Taiwan instead of China.62 Where various people
stood on this all-important question was not clarified until the “Formosa
Incident” of 1979 brought this issue of Taiwan versus China to the fore. After
1979, as both the cultural and political climate began to open up, many of
the old divisions quickly became irrelevant, most of all the division between
East versus West. Taiwan was now the cultural centerpiece.
Still, all of these debates were intellectual debates, not popular ones.
That they were even allowed to occur was largely because they had little
encroachment in the lives of the average resident on the island. What was
happening with the populace at large? Perhaps the best way to answer this
is to look at how popular religion has developed in Taiwan. During the first
two decades after 1949, the numbers of Christians increased steadily in
Taiwan. Hou’s own mother became a Christian after the death of his father,
and she had a Christian burial, as seen in A Time to Live, A Time to Die. There
was a large number of Christians in the ruling classes, and the KMT government in the 1960s and 1970s brought in famous evangelists and broadcast
their religious rallies on local television.63 Still, the Christian Church in Taiwan
was on both ends of the political spectrum. The largest protestant denomination in Taiwan, the Presbyterians, has played a key role in the Taiwanese
Independence Movement, basing their challenge to the KMT on the example
of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.64 Yet given the average Taiwanese’s
distrust of politics, the number of Christians in Taiwan has declined, proportionally speaking, starting as early as 1965.65 By stark contrast, the number of
Buddhists and Daoists has exponentially exploded since that time. In 1960,
there were just over 800 temples registered as Buddhist in Taiwan; by 1989
there were over 4,000. In 1960, there were close to 3,000 Daoist temples;
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
by 1989 there were nearly 8,000.66 (This trend has not abated since: in the mid1980s there were 800,000 declared Buddhists, whereas by the year 2000 the
number had exceeded 5,000,000.)67 There appears to be a direct link between
increasing wealth for the average Taiwanese and an increasing support of
indigenous religions: often a steep rise in new temples follows an increase in
average income by two or three years.68 Once again, this is in stark contrast
to mainland China — in fact, it is currently the exact opposite.69 By this
religious standard, the putatively more Westernized island is in fact more
“native” — more “Chinese” even — than the behemoth across the straits. Yet
these trends among the general population mesh seamlessly with their rapid
modernization and adaptation of many Western practices as well.
There is one other aspect of Taiwanese culture worth noting. Whether
under the Japanese or at the height of the KMT’s control, Taiwan has always
needed to reach out to the world to survive. Today, however, the unsettled
political status of Taiwan has dried up the normal avenues of diplomacy.
This gives new meaning, even urgency, to cultural outreach and exchange,
or what would be better termed as “cultural diplomacy.” In this regards film
has come to the forefront, with Hou the leading cinematic ambassador of
Taiwan. But the real pioneer in this regards is the Cloud Gate Dance Company,
founded in 1973 by Lin Huaimin. Cloud Gate was the first modern dance
company in Asia. Every year the company puts out a new performance, and
they range from specific themes like Chinese emigrants to Taiwan (Legacy in
1978), to famous works in Chinese tradition (Nine Songs and Bamboo Dream
in 2001), to works that exist in a purely abstract realm (Moonwater in 1999).
Lin does draw from traditional elements, most of all Daoism and Buddhism.
Yet its mélange of audacious acrobatics coupled with Cloud Gate’s signature
movements of almost ghost-like calm, all accompanied by the music ranging
from Bach to Arvo Part, speak to something much greater than the sum of
its component parts of East and West.70 Such performances have proven to
be an exportable commodity, making Lin the first Taiwanese artist of international standing, but not the last. As a native benshengren, Lin Huaimin’s
domestic cultural impact has been stupendous. As a teacher he had students
like Peggy Chiao, who would later become one of the leading figures on the
Taiwanese film scene. Chiao avers that it was Lin that got her generation
(including waishengren such as herself) to think about having a distinctive
culture of their own. This idea filtered down into many other cultural realms,
including cinema.71
Hou in the Taiwanese Film Industry
So where was Hou all this time? Not at the barricades or the front lines. Not
even at the roundtables of debate. Instead Hou was largely insulated from
many of these larger societal trends in a carefully sequestered world. In 1973,
No Man an Island
only one year after the ROC lost its UN seat, he joined the Taiwanese commercial film industry, and began what first promised to be an unremarkable
career in an unremarkable cinema. A mere decade-plus later, Hou became
Taiwan’s leading cultural ambassador abroad. This only makes sense after
understanding the transformations of Taiwanese cinema which went hand
in hand with larger transformations in Taiwan. Taiwan’s cinema has not
simply reflected and/or refracted these historical oddities discussed above;
it has also played contrary roles in abetting them. In the past, cinema served
as a tool for a historical and political whitewash. Then suddenly it came to
play the opposite role in revealing long suppressed realities, not just on the
screens on the island, but more importantly in the world at large. Hou in
particular played a key role in this historical unearthing.
Still, the film industry Hou joined in 1973 was then ill-equipped for such
a task. Cinema anywhere is a conspicuous and pervasive entity, an artistic
medium requiring a high level of institutional support whether private or
public, or both. As a result, it cannot avoid circumspection from society at
large. Certainly, Taiwanese cinema could hardly have hoped to steer clear of
these political, economic and cultural forces shaping the island over the last
few decades. Yet despite the dramatic changes in Taiwanese cinema during
the course of Hou’s career, the one constant is that the Taiwanese government, whether old or new, set policies that benefited others cinemas — most
of all Hong Kong and Hollywood — at the expense of local production.
Ironically, this would also be to Hou’s personal benefit.
A bona fide commercial film industry in Taiwan took a long time to
develop. Despite Japan’s record as one of the greatest national cinemas in
history, despite the thoroughness of Japan’s modernization program which
transformed the island’s infrastructure, medicine, agriculture and culture,
and as much as the island provided a wide variety of potential settings for
filming, Taiwan did not become a production base for Japanese cinema as
had occurred in Manchuria after 1931. Instead, Taiwan remained primarily
a market for Japanese films. By 1935, forty-eight theaters exclusively showed
films, thirty-one of which would survive until 1945.72 There was no real
development of cinema between 1945 and 1949, given the tumultuous conditions. Therefore, the true history of Taiwanese cinema begins in 1949 when
Taiwan becomes the KMT’s last theater of political operations. Still, it developed at a snail’s pace. Even when the government would try to nourish the
film industry with one hand, it would be strangling it with the other.
By stark contrast, Hong Kong was developing a viable and eventually
powerful commercial cinema, a fact which has goaded many in Taiwanese
film circles who often say, “If Hong Kong can do it, why not Taiwan?” After
all, for a relatively small island, Taiwan has varied scenery with spectacular
mountains, bountiful forests, beautiful coastlines, and even large plains on
the western side of the island — all favorable conditions for filmmaking.
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Taiwan also has four times the population of the British colony. Once again,
the answer is that the initial political and economic conditions, even up to
the mid-1960s, were not conducive to developing a thriving film industry.73
With the fall of China in 1949, only 5% of the Shanghai film community
moved to Taiwan, while many times that number moved to the greater
freedoms beckoning in Hong Kong. Furthermore, those who did relocate to
Taiwan in 1949 were mostly in the Agricultural Education Film Company,
a government-run studio that mainly engaged in documentary and propaganda work. This meant the arrival of a certain amount of equipment and
technical personnel, but almost no creative talent to speak of.74 It is not
hard to see why any Chinese filmmaker, producer or star not directly connected to the KMT government would either stay in Shanghai, or move to
the stable and free environment of Hong Kong. In 1949, Taiwan held no
prospects for long-term stability; even the KMT saw the island as merely a
temporary base from which they were to one day retake the mainland.
For the first fifteen years, Taiwanese cinema remained more of an itinerant roadshow than a real film industry. The ROC government was more
concerned with avoiding a repeat of the scenario of the Shanghai film world
in the 1930s — when the Left gained ascendancy over the Right. Thus, unlike
the colonial government in Hong Kong, the KMT favored strict control of
whatever film “industry” existed, starting with oversight from the China
Association for Literature and the Arts set up in 1950. The KMT government
directly supervised every private film company and film organization in
Taiwan. Any head of a public organization pertaining to film in Taiwan was
invariably a member of the party. The constant prescriptions from the GIO
dictated a strong anti-communist stance, plus the anti-“Red,” “Black” and
“Yellow” principles.
The crux of the matter was that film was not afforded the same respect as
other industries. The film industry was declared a “special” industry and was
squeezed for all it could yield. Never exceeding 30% anywhere else, in Taiwan
entertainment taxes ran up to 60%. Stamp taxes on film tickets were eleven
times higher than those in any other industry. More importantly, customs
duties on imported film equipment, whether for production or exhibition,
were all counted as “luxury items” and thus exceeded that of other industries by over 50%.75 This latter policy was to have a profound effect on the
industry in the long run, most of all because it forced producers in Taiwan to
cut corners with film stock. Moreover, it would affect even the leading studio,
the Central Motion Picture Company (hereafter the CMPC), which was
formed in 1954 by combining the existing Agricultural Education Film Studio
and the Taiwan Film Company (Tai ying), a holdover from the Japanese era.76
Not surprisingly, the CMPC was under the direct control of the KMT party.
As a result of tight governmental control, many documentaries and propaganda shorts were made, but almost no fictional features. Those that were
No Man an Island
produced were primarily for propaganda, not entertainment nor cultural
enlightenment. The few features made in the 1950s were all box-office disasters. Audiences were unmoved by their stereotypical characters, clumsy
avoidance of official taboos and crude production values. The first featurelength film, Waking from a Nightmare, was made using only 40,000 feet of
expired Japanese stock leading to a fogging effect.77 The second feature from
the Agricultural Education Studio was Together Forever, an overt attempt at
exorcizing the ghosts of the 228 Incident by presenting all rifts between benshengren and the newly arrived mainlanders as being Communist-inspired.78
Sometimes the results were almost comical. One Taiwanese-language film
from the 1960s involved a postal worker who at a key moment in the plot lost
some mail. This, however, was cut out by government censors since it would
supposedly harm the image of postal workers. This excision, however, left
the film virtually incomprehensible.79 A 1959 propaganda film, General of the
Flying Tigers, spared no expense in depicting the training of Air Force pilots
at the local Air Force Academy. Yet given the military’s requirement that no
planes could be shown having any problems or accidents, and no lives could
be lost in the film’s plot, the finished film lacked dramatic tension, losing
its propaganda potential as well.80 So extreme were government strictures
that its own propaganda films were not allowed to show communist flags
or insignias, nor even images of Mao.81 Government policies also hurt any
potential audience outside of Taiwan: the distribution rights for Waking from
a Nightmare could not be sold in Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong because
of its overt anti-“Communist bandit” themes. All three territories had relations with the mainland to consider.82
With production crippled, the growing number of Taiwanese theaters
needed to be filled by somebody’s products. Of the 600 to 700 films that
could be screened annually, there were only two or three locally produced
works in Mandarin available.83 In Hong Kong, the commercial film industry
was unfettered by such political and economic constraints and from the start
its films were inundating Taiwan’s screens. Between 1950 and 1954, a total
of 662 Mandarin-language features were shown on the island’s screens:
most came from Hong Kong, a handful was older works from Shanghai
and a mere thirteen were from Taiwan itself.84 The ROC government did
use access to its lucrative market as leverage, exerting some influence over
Hong Kong cinema through the Hong Kong and Kowloon Cinema and
Theatrical General Association (also known as the “Freedom Association”)
starting in 1953. This ensured that Hong Kong’s films were politically palatable for the Taiwanese market.85 Yet Hong Kong in turn was able to extract
advantages from the Nationalist government. Most crucial was in 1956 when
Hong Kong’s Mandarin-language films were exempted from the existing
quota system and reclassified as guopian (literally “national films”). In effect,
Hong Kong’s Mandarin-language films were now classified as a part of
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
domestic production, giving their films unlimited access to the Taiwanese
market. This policy further consolidated Hong Kong’s domination of the
Taiwanese market.86 As Lu Feiyi aptly summarizes, “No matter what is
the cause and what is the effect, what is certain is that the government,
in trying to win over the Hong Kong industry, gave Hong Kong films
unlimited access to the Taiwanese market. Hong Kong, seeing this opportunity, maximized its own production with Taiwan in mind, and this had a
profound effect on the Taiwanese industry itself.”87
Other policies further abetted this situation. A key member of the
Freedom Association, Huang Zhuohan, negotiated with the ROC government about the unreasonable customs duties on film stock and equipment.
This led to new laws relaxing customs duties on imported film supplies for
those companies associated with the Freedom Association in Hong Kong.88
Any member of the association was allowed to import film stock and
equipment into Taiwan for a six-month period, duty-free. While this was
designed to encourage Hong Kong film production in Taiwan itself, early
on filmmakers would submit a script for a two-hour picture, make only an
eighty-minute film, and sell the remaining stock on the local black market.
So widespread was this practice that in 1958 the GIO ended the duty-free
policy for imported film stock, retaining it for film equipment alone.89
Unexpectedly, the new policies yielded not more Mandarin films made in
Taiwan, but instead the first major wave of films produced in the Taiwanese
dialect. Although the government at this time hoped to supplant Taiwanese
with Mandarin, its primary means of doing so was the education system, not
cinema. The KMT had no problem in the meantime with Taiwanese-language
films so long as they carried the correct propaganda messages, or at least did
not run counter to the official line. Local producers in Taiwan could now
get film stock from Hong Kong sources, thus bypassing exorbitant import
duties. Between 1955 and 1959, a total of 178 Taiwanese-language films were
made in Taiwan, more than three times those made in Mandarin.90
One should not construe this as the beginning of a bona fide private
industry, however. In fact, the object was not regular studio production so
much as short-term speculation and exploitation by fly-by-night operators.
The numbers may be somewhat impressive, but the films for the most part
were not. Given that film stock remained a precious commodity, producers used as little as possible. Some simply dumped film stock on the black
market, making the actual creation of films of secondary concern.91 The
director of the first Taiwanese dialect film in 1956, He Jiming, did everything in his power to not have any outtakes. He rehearsed several times
before shooting, and utilized the seven-to-eight feet of leader in every reel
for empty transitional shots in the finished film. In the end he used only
9,500 feet of stock with almost no outtakes.92 One of the most well-known
directors of these Taiwanese-language films was Xin Qi, who has over
No Man an Island
ninety films in the local dialect to his credit. According to Xin, the determining factors were the high cost of film stock and lack of time: “The film we
used for Taiwanese-language movies in those days was generally imported,
or bought on the black market. One movie required 800 shots on average.
With the high cost of film, we could not afford to waste it. Also, we were
making so many movies — around 100 a year — that the time spent filming
each was very short, about two or three days per movie.”93 Even when more
upscale Mandarin-language production emerged in the next decade, there
would still be echoes of these same corner-cutting production practices.
There is no denying that the 1960s saw the beginning of a more bona fide
film industry in Taiwan. Nevertheless, the 1950s laid the groundwork for all
that followed, even the New Cinema in the 1980s. As shoddy as the production system was, Taiwanese-dialect films became a training ground for later
industry talent such as Li Xing, who became the godfather of Taiwanese film
directors. In the 1950s, the only healthy economic players in the local film
industry were distributors such as the CMPC and the privately run Union
(Lian bang). Distributors would eventually decide the long-term fate of the
local film industry even in the 1980s. Government policies, Hong Kong’s
early ascendancy in the local market, lagging indigenous film production,
issues surrounding film stock and the burgeoning power of local distributors — for all the changes that Taiwanese cinema would undergo starting
in the 1960s, this same phalanx of issues would remain pertinent when Hou
and the New Cinema began in the early 1980s. Indeed, the New Cinema
might never have been born without these preconditions.
In 1963, the face of Taiwanese cinema was altered dramatically due to
a confluence of events both within Taiwan and without. The “without,”
once again, was Hong Kong. In that year, Love Eterne was released by the
Shaw Brothers studio. A Mandarin-language opera film of a type known as
huangmeidiao (Yellow Plum Opera), this film achieved monumental success
at the time in Taiwan, and has retained cult status ever since. It played for
a record 186 days in Taipei and took in more than NT$8 million at the box
office, beating all existing records. (Its achievement was not surpassed
until Jackie Chan’s Project A [1983].) Hong Kongers began to call Taipei
“a Crazy Man’s City” as a result.94 Love Eterne’s economic impact on Taiwan
was long-lasting. It highlighted the true importance of the Taiwanese market
for Hong Kong. It also led many theaters in Taiwan to break their contracts
with American companies and begin showing Mandarin films instead.95
Furthermore, it jump-started a full-fledged private film industry when the
director of the film, Li Hanxiang (also known as Li Han-hsiang), suddenly
moved to Taiwan, bringing with him technical and artistic talent plus big
plans. Li was already the best-known Shaw Brothers director at the time,
specializing in period films. Having already directed a large number of boxoffice hits for the studio, Li felt he was not being sufficiently rewarded for
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Love Eterne’s stupendous success. The rival Cathay Group saw its chance
to lure Li away. However, since Li was still under contractual obligations
with Shaw Brothers, he could not work directly for Cathay’s MP & GI studio
without legal complications. Thus, Cathay, via Union in Taiwan, put up the
funding for a major new studio based in Taiwan, and Goulian, or the Grand
Motion Picture Studio, was born. Its head was Li Hanxiang himself.96
The result was a film company of a size never before seen in Taiwan.
Although it only made twenty films over a five-year period, Grand singlehandedly raised production standards to new levels, developed personnel, established a star system, helped build better distribution abroad and
encouraged other companies to set up similar studio facilities. It also created
several film classics.97 Indeed, it might have been the beginning of a film
industry that could have overtaken Hong Kong’s, or at least been its equal.
The chief financial backer was the Malaysian Chinese Loke Wan-tho, head
of MP & GI. Loke apparently had plans of investing US$5 million in the
Taiwanese film industry until he died in a plane crash which many have
since claimed altered the course of Taiwanese film history. Huang Zhuohan
says: “If it were not for this crash, Taiwan’s Mandarin filmmaking would
have entered a golden age and have risen to international standards. Instead,
Hong Kong rose up alone.”98
Without its chief backer, Li was now left to his own devices and the
Grand studio soon came to resemble United Artists in the 1920s, where the
artists in charge lacked financial discipline. There is no better example of
Li’s wastefulness than his 1965 production, The Beauty of Beauties, a historical
costume picture of such extravagance that it took Li a year and three months
to make, and devoured a NT$23 million budget. The numbers on this film are
staggering: 42 sets, 6,000 costumes, 30,000 props, 8,000 horses, 120,000 extras
(provided by the military), 334 working days, 800 chariots and 120,000 feet
of film stock. It was the local box-office champ of 1965, yet it only made back
about NT$5 million in its first run, since tickets were still quite cheap.99 The
Grand Motion Picture Studio never recovered from this financial blow. Still,
a bona fide private industry in Mandarin filmmaking was sparked by all
this activity. Union, the distributor of films from Grand, began producing
films itself, starting with King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn.100 The coup of enticing
King Hu to Taiwan would eventually result in his 1970 classic, Touch of Zen,
the only Chinese-language film to make a mark on the highest arenas of the
international film festival scene before the 1980s.
But nagging questions emerge: is this truly a chapter in Taiwanese film
history, or merely an extension of Hong Kong’s? The simple fact is that the
private film industry in Taiwan almost from the start became entangled with
Hong Kong’s. Huang Zhuohan, for example, straddled both places throughout his career. He established The First Film Company (Diyi) in Hong Kong,
but had the production wing set up in Taiwan to make swordplay films
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starting in 1967.101 So intertwined were the finances, talent pools and political connections (even government-run studios engaged in numerous coproductions with Hong Kong companies), that it is often impossible to make
a distinction between a truly “Hong Kong” film and a truly “Taiwanese”
film during the 1960s and 1970s. That all of them were classified as guopian
naturally did not help, and Western observers were confused, too.102 Even to
this day Taiwan and Hong Kong do not see eye to eye on this issue. Every
history of Taiwanese cinema in Taiwan will mention the made-in-Taiwan
classics of this era — The Winter (1967), Touch of Zen (1970), and Four Moods
(1970) — and speak of them as Taiwanese films. At the same time, however,
Stephen Teo’s history of Hong Kong cinema discusses all three films as if
they were Hong Kong productions, which is the common view there. Teo
discusses Li Hanxiang, Loke and Grand as part of Hong Kong’s cinematic
history as well.103 Touch of Zen, given its success at Cannes in 1975 with its
special technical award, is particularly contentious.
To find truly “Taiwanese” films distinctive from Hong Kong, we mostly
have to look at the government-run studios which also changed dramatically
during this same period. In 1963, Henry Kong was chosen from the GIO as
the new head of the CMPC. Kong’s unexpectedly visionary tenure lasted
nine and a half years, during which time he upgraded the studio’s management structures, production facilities and theatrical chains. As a result
of these changes, the CMPC became one of the leaders in the Taiwanese
film industry. In 1963, Kong also saw a privately made, low-budget, half
Mandarin, half Taiwanese-language film, Our Neighbor, directed by Li Xing.
This inspired Gong to hire Li to direct a new type of policy film which
would be called “Healthy Realism.” The films in this trend were not numerically significant, but the three most significant works — Oyster Girl (1963),
Beautiful Duckling (1965) (figure 1) and The Road (1967) — obtained box-office
Figure 1
Images from Beautiful Duckling (1965) being screened outdoors in Hou’s Dust in the
Wind (1986).
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
success on a scale no previous government-made film had achieved.104 On the
one hand, Healthy Realist films continued the government’s propaganda
needs: their tenor reminds one more of Soviet socialist realism than Italian
neo-realism, which Kong claimed was the model. These films were all
shot only in Mandarin. They all presented a highly sanitized version of
Taiwanese reality. Finally, they were heavily moralistic in tone, upholding
traditional moral values while extolling government-led progress. Yet the
Healthy Realist films were quite different from the propaganda films of
the 1950s as they did deal with the common people in the countryside and
their everyday concerns. There was a deeper implication to these films as
well. The indigenous development of Taiwan was now a worthy topic in
government-inspired pictures. For the first time, in other words, Mandarin
films acknowledged Taiwan — or at least an idealized version of Taiwan.
No longer were they mere purveyors of shrill anti-communist diatribes with
messages of retaking the mainland.
With the CMPC, Grand and Union leading the way, the number of indigenously made Mandarin-language films in Taiwan increased twenty-fold
over the decade of the 1960s. In the year 1960, only five Mandarin-language
films were made in Taiwan. In 1964, there were twenty-two. By 1969, there
were eighty-nine. The year 1969 was also the first year that their numbers
surpassed the cheaply made counterparts in the Taiwanese dialect. By 1971,
the numbers for Taiwanese-made Mandarin-language films had exceeded
a hundred.
The rise of this film industry in the 1960s became part of the informal
education of Hou Hsiao-hsien, who largely grew up in that decade. Yet this
was not the education one would expect of a director known for making
some of the most challenging narrative films in the world. Hou was not the
most industrious student, often due to a lack of interest on his part. He did,
however, educate himself in the available popular culture of the time. As Hou
himself puts it, he rented and read every swordplay novel he could find,
and when he could find no more, he read detective novels, popular adaptations of classic novels, translations of Western novels and even Qiong Yao
novels when all else had been exhausted.105 (In A Time to Live, A Time to Die
he is even seen reading racy material in the privacy of the family commode.)
Hou also had a voracious appetite for films early on, often sneaking into
theaters (something seen in The Boys from Fengkuei), or gluing together old,
torn ticket stubs found on the ground outside. He never saw as many films
as when he was in the military, however, since his particular tour of duty
(as an MP) left Hou with a lot of free time, and he would sometimes see up
to four films in a single day.106 Once Hou was discharged from the military,
he then went to the National Academy of the Arts to study film. While
attending the Art Academy in the late 1960s, he received minimal technical training due to limited facilities. Directing classes were basically courses
No Man an Island
on theatrical directing and nothing more.107 But at least he saw more films,
although less than one would expect at a “film school.”
Most of the films Hou saw were either from Hollywood or Hong Kong.
The only film he has ever mentioned from this time was a British film he
saw while in the service around 1967, the name of which in English is uncertain.108 This obscure film got Hou more seriously interested in cinema, but
according to him, it did not help him understand the medium any better.109
When attending the Art Academy, Hou recalls his surprise when a teacher
analyzed the visual motifs of a lesser work from Elia Kazan called The
Arrangement.110 Thereafter, he says, he began to look at films differently, but
still not as what one would expect. He remained steeped in popular culture,
and remained ignorant of cinema in its more artistic and cultural manifestations. Only when he was about to become a director himself in the late
1970s did he finally begin to see more works from outside of Hollywood or
Hong Kong. Once again, however, this was to minimal effect. When he saw
Antonioni and other more experimental films, he could not really appreciate
any of them.111 Hou even claims that he fell asleep while watching Fellini
during his early days as a commercial director.112
In truth, the real film education of Hou was not an education, but an
apprenticeship which began the day he joined the film industry. Although
it was not immediately evident, the best days of the commercial industry
were already behind it by 1973, and a period of slow decline was already
in progress. The signs were already there by the beginning of the 1970s
with Grand no longer on the scene. Union would soon cease its production arm in 1974, leaving the CMPC as the only steady producer of feature
films in Mandarin. Starting in 1973, Taiwan-based Mandarin films slipped to
between forty-five and sixty-six per year until 1977, while Taiwanese dialect
films had disappeared altogether. Meanwhile, Hong Kong was still producing three times as many feature films as Taiwan was.113 Taiwan discovered
it could not match the budgets, quality and marketing of Hong Kong, especially now that Bruce Lee had come onto the scene. Furthermore, the ROC
government once again had made it much cheaper for Hong Kong companies to acquire and process film stock than it had for indigenous production
Generic classifications clarify this widening gulf. Hong Kong made
many more actions films than Taiwan (or anyone for that matter). In Taiwan
these were considered more expensive to produce as well as morally
dubious by conservative elites. Lu Feiyi notes how over a third of the films
made in Taiwan were instead classified as wenyi pictures.115 Wenyi has been
translated as “romance” or “literary films,” and sometimes seems to include
any kind of drama. Still, it is significant that Taiwan made a large number of
wenyi films since they were much cheaper to produce than action pictures.116
Nobody better personified this trend than the prolific director, Liu Jiachang,
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
who made nearly thirty films during the 1970s, including eight for the
CMPC studio. Liu’s films tended to be quickly and crudely shot, and very
stereotypical in their characterizations. Yet he transformed the wenyi genre
by including many musical numbers, making these films even somewhat
Central to the Taiwanese commercial industry was a sub-category of
wenyi films that were known as simply “Qiong Yao films,” named after the
author of the romance novels on which most of these were based. The trend
seems to have begun with two successful Li Xing films made at the CMPC in
the mid-1960s.118 By 1983, a total of forty-nine films were based on a Qiong
Yao novel, and there were several Qiong Yao clones as well. Qiong Yao even
set up her own production company in 1976, making, of course, only Qiong
Yao films.119 Easily exportable to markets such as Singapore or Malaysia,
these films are considered by many today grotesquely escapist. Healthy
Realism made at least a failed attempt to deal with the realities of life in
Taiwan; Qiong Yao films made no attempt whatsoever. If these films are to
be believed, then everybody in Taiwan lived in spacious mountain retreats
in Yangming Shan (a playground of the very rich in Taipei), everybody spent
their time in Western-style living rooms, dining rooms and coffee shops,
everybody aspired to be married in a Christian church, and everybody
was so Westernized that the only trace of native culture was the occasional
appearance of chopsticks, which in itself seems to be nothing more than an
oversight by the continuity person. Brigitte Lin, who became a major star in
Qiong Yao films before she defected to Hong Kong, bluntly said that these
films were powerful precisely because they served as necessary illusions in
a time when life was hard. In other words, they reflected not the realities of
Taiwan, but an alternate universe everybody desired to escape to.120
Yet another factor increased the economic pressures faced by the
Taiwanese film industry over the 1970s. The diplomatic setbacks of the
decade once more accented the importance of propaganda for the government. These political crises resulted in big-budgeted propaganda features
sponsored by two successive heads of the CMPC during the decade,
Mei Changling and Ming Ji. The father of Healthy Realism, Henry Kong, was
replaced by a new head of the CMPC, Mei Changling. Mei promptly steered
the party-run studio onto this path of expensive film projects.121 This included
a wave of virulent anti-Japanese films that came out after Japan broke ties
with the ROC in 1972. The definitive work was Victory, released in 1975. This
film became number one at the box office and won best picture at the Golden
Horse Awards, Taiwan’s version of the Oscars. Its success was largely due
to its open promotion by Chiang Ching-kuo himself.122 (In a sense this film
was Taiwan’s equivalent to the mainland’s The Red Detachment of Women.)
Victory exemplifies the government’s hope to tap into popular culture for
political ends. Its director, the never-sleeping Liu Jiachang, brought his
No Man an Island
pop proclivities to the aid of government propaganda. The film starred not
only the godfather of Taiwanese policy films, Ke Junxiong, but also a very
young Sylvia Chang (Zhang Aijia). Liu’s main song “Mei Hua” (also the title
of the film in Chinese) became a major hit both in Taiwan and mainland
China. The song could be sung at any time in the plot, most tellingly by a
young Taiwanese boy who witnesses his father being harshly mistreated by
the Japanese during World War II. “Chinese kids never cry,” the father —
shackled, beaten, bloodied, patriotic — admonishes his son. “I’m sorry,” the
tearful son replies. His father then suggests, ”Sorry? Then just sing!” By a
miraculous glossolalia only possible under propagandistic expediency, the
Taiwanese break out in song in perfect Mandarin, showing their undying
aspiration to be Chinese by singing praises of China’s national flower.
This tendency towards big-budgeted propaganda films reached its
zenith after the loss of U.S. recognition and the Formosa Incident in late
1979. A number of films reflected fears of Taiwanese Independence, most of
all a trio of films called “searching for roots” (Xun gen). The 1979 example
of this trend, The Source, spends most of its energy on a nineteenth-century
attempt at oil exploration in Taiwan (combined with a few carefully interspersed shots of the bubbly, bosomy persona of the wife of a Texan who is
helping them). Yet the key message is a flashback at the beginning when the
protagonist as a young boy first arrives in Taiwan: standing on the shore,
he is reminded by his father that they came from China and they are there
in Taiwan to help expand the frontiers of the great Chinese race. Other films
were clearly government responses to the loss of U.S. recognition. Li Xing
got into the act with his star-studded Land of the Brave (1981), which he
made at the CMPC studio. This has an opening documentary-like montage
showing on-the-street reactions to the American withdrawal, culminating in
a staged sequence where locals glare at a young curly-haired, blond male
walking happily with two nubile local women. He sees their reactions and
pulls out a sign that says, in Chinese, “I am Australian!” The theme song of
this film, “We Are Descendants of the Dragon,” became an officially sponsored rallying cry across the island, and once again, it was even popular in
mainland China. The most notoriously expensive of these films, however,
was The Battle for the Republic of China (1981). This film featured hyperbolic
heroism, a large number of extras, some kung-fu by Ti Lung and a fire at the
climax that rivals the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Most audiences saw films such as this for free at public showings in schools or clubs;
few, however, would think of paying to see them. As a result, such films were
now putting even the CMPC deep in the red. Moreover, some have argued
that the anti-communist/anti-Japanese genres had exhausted themselves by
this point, calling into question such exorbitant financial outlays. From both
a propagandistic and economic standpoint, such films faced rapidly diminishing returns.123
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
It seems strange, if not impossible, that this is where Hou really learned
the craft of filmmaking. It is even more mind-boggling that the lessons Hou
learned in this land of low-budgeted Qiong Yao films, saccharine music, and
hyperbolic and over-priced propaganda would have a lasting impact on his
career, evidence of which is still visible in even his most recent films. Yet this
is the case.
The long take is arguably the most definitive feature of Hou’s aesthetic.
This is not, however, something he would have just learned from his early
commercial days; rather, it is something he developed over time. The mean
average shot length (ASL) for Taiwanese films from this period shows some
differences from elsewhere, but not significant ones. The films sampled from
the 1960s average out to around 10 seconds per shot. Using Barry Salt’s extensive analysis of ASL’s in other countries as a benchmark, Taiwanese films
during this period were generally cut slower than American films, but were
quite close to the mean in Europe.124 In the Taiwanese films sampled from
1970 to 1977, the average shot length has come down to around 8 seconds
per shot, thus coinciding with a trend towards faster cutting lengths elsewhere.125 For the period 1978 to 1982, the ASL of the films remained almost
identical at exactly 8 seconds per shot.
These averages do seem to reflect where directors first learned their
craft. Even when operating in Taiwan, the two famed Hong Kong émigrés
into the Taiwanese industry — Li Hanxiang and King Hu — cut their films
more rapidly than their Taiwanese counterparts. For example, Li’s Beauty
of Beauties comes in at 7 seconds per shot, while King Hu’s Touch of Zen is
around 5 seconds. Li Hanxiang’s 1967 classic, The Winter, is a dramatic film
in the vein of Taiwanese “Healthy Realism,” yet the mean shot length was
under 7 seconds. Two of the most prominent Taiwanese directors, Li Xing
and Bai Jingrui, tended to use longer takes on average. Two of Li’s works
have an ASL of 12 seconds, seven are between 10 and 11.5 seconds, and four
are between 9 and 10 seconds per shot. Bai Jingrui is even more consistent:
of the six films of his sampled, five were between 9 to 10.5 seconds, and
the only real change was The Coldest Winter in Peking, which had an ASL
of 11.5 seconds per shot. In 1970, all four of these directors collaborated to
co-direct Four Moods in a last-ditch effort to revive the Grand Motion Picture
Company. The longest ASL’s among these four chapters belonged to the
two Taiwanese directors, with Bai leading the way with over 10 seconds,
and Li Xing coming in second at around 8 seconds per shot. The chapters by
King Hu and Li Hanxiang, on the other hand, both came in under 6 seconds
per shot.
This sampling from the 1960s to the early 1980s reveals an editingbased commercial cinema whose films were cut just a little slower than
Hollywood’s, and much slower than Hong Kong’s. The Taiwanese commercial film industry was following worldwide trends in commercial
No Man an Island
filmmaking, yet always seemed to be “dragging its feet” in a sense. It was
not a long-take cinema in search of its own style. It was instead a more
functional editing practice based on economic expediency. Hou’s pursuit of
the long take, then, results from his trying to overcome the strictures of this
Of course, Hou later distinguishes himself in other ways as well, and
these were also affected by the negative lessons learned in this film industry.
In terms of lighting and shot composition, few have ever matched Hou in
complexity and density, if not sheer beauty. This seems even more surprising considering Hou’s origins in the commercial film industry in Taiwan.
There, both lighting and shot composition betrayed a decidedly low-budget
In the heyday of the commercial film industry, the lighting is remarkably uniform and functional, as opposed to expressive or artistic. These films
were shot in an anamorphic format on color film stock, so a lot of light was
needed, just as was the case for many Hollywood films a decade before. Yet
there was little effort to shape or sculpt the lighting, or to soften it. Certainly
little was done to explore shadows and darkness as was being done at
the same time by The Godfather’s Gordon Willis who has been called the
“Prince of Darkness.” These films would normally utilize flat lighting with
hard-edged shadows cast by actors and inanimate objects alike, resulting
in harsh lighting designs overall. One example is The Ripening, from 1970.
In one scene the female protagonist enters her bedroom and walks over to
a corner. When she nears the corner, her body casts hard-edged shadows
on both walls (figure 2). Not only is there no clear motivation for the two
light sources coming from two directions, the clearly defined shadows also
exemplify a hard lighting design with no diffusion used. Since lighting is
Figure 2
Hard, unmotivated lighting on both walls in The Ripening (1970).
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
so time-consuming to begin with, and little time was available for these lowbudgeted films, this comes as little surprise, especially since it was common
in Hong Kong as well.
To compensate, directors in Taiwan resorted to a set of visual gimmicks,
some of which apparently have Hong Kong origins. Consider the overuse of
quick zooms. A 1980 Taiwanese-made kung fu film, The Orientation, features
long stretches where nearly every shot contains a quick zoom. Zooms are not
unusual in kung fu films, but zooms dominate Taiwanese non–martial arts
films as well, whether one of the so-called “student films” by Lin Chingjie
(i.e. A Student’s Love [1981]), a military propaganda film (Teacher of Great
Soldiers [1978]) or a dramatic love story such as Goodbye, My Love (1970, dir.
Bai Jingrui). Often the purpose of these zooms is to punctuate key dramatic
moments so that they cannot be missed by audiences. In Bai’s Love in a Cabin
(1974), for example, a series of quick zooms is used on both a father figure
and the female star (Zhen Zhen) at the very moment he implores her to
not date his son any more. In general, one would be hard-pressed to find
a Taiwan-made film from this era that does not include at least a few quick
zooms. Even Li Xing, known for his relative restraint, employs them for
affective emphasis. In Beautiful Duckling, a rapid zoom-in occurs at the key
moment an adopted daughter grabs her father and says she is still his real
daughter. In Rhythm of the Wave (1974), a quick zoom leads to a flashback to
emphasize a woman’s shameful past as a show girl. In Story of a Small Town,
zooms stress a budding romance.
Another visual gimmick, however, seems to distinguish the Taiwanese
even from Hong Kong. The wide anamorphic formats meant a much shallower depth-of-field. Rather than avoiding this, Taiwanese directors often
flaunted this by including in the extreme foreground out-of-focus objects
such as lamps, lights, vases, plants or tree branches. Sometimes these blurred
objects would even partially obscure the view of the actor(s) in the midground area. Examples of this practice are too numerous to count. A 1980
film, Taipei, My Love, includes a banquet scene where the lights are made to
streak to an extreme in order to emphasize the romantic ambience. In the
same year, Love Comes from the Sea includes a dancing scene where lights
in the extreme foreground are out of focus. Qiong Yao films in particular
display this tendency, most of all in the romantic scenes. In the 1977 Cloud
of Romance, for example, Brigitte Lin first declares her love for Chin Han in
a coffee shop, with the foreground accented by the shining brass of table
lamps, all blurred for a “romantic” effect. In Love in a Cabin this practice
becomes “polymorphously perverse”: there are a plethora of objects ranging
from neon lights, grates, fountains, candles and hanging beads, out of focus
in the extreme foreground. A dance scene involving the star-crossed lovers in
the namesake cabin features blurred-out candles in the extreme foreground
that take up more space on the screen than the actors, nearly blocking the
No Man an Island
Figure 3
Gimmicky, shallow depth of field in
Love in a Cabin (1974).
audience’s view of them (figure 3). The motivations for this widespread
practice were also primarily economic: anamorphic formats resulted in wide
compositions begging to be filled. Blurred objects in the foreground was a
much cheaper and less time-consuming way to “beautify” or enhance the
images than using expensive and time-consuming lighting of high quality,
or more carefully wrought compositions and staging.
One other practice, however, best exemplifies what working in this
industry meant for a director, one which in particular frustrated Hou. The
Li Xing film, The Heart with a Million Knots (1973), is Hou’s first screen credit
as he is listed as the continuity person. One scene illustrates a method of
scene breakdown which epitomizes the Taiwanese film industry at this time.
This takes place in a dining room. During dinner, a live-in nurse tries to
convince her elder patient that his son is very filial, not disobedient as he
believes. Despite having twenty-one shots, and despite so many of them
being tied up with shot/reverse shots, only seven shots are from a repeated
camera set-up used earlier in this scene. Whenever a new shot is “wide” —
meaning farther away and often showing multiple characters — it is always
from an entirely new angle than the previous wide shot, somewhere else
around this same dinner table.
This is unlike Hollywood where it has been common practice to shoot a
master shot of a scene. This entails shooting the scene in its entirety from a
wide angle that captures all of the action. Often several takes of this master
shot are completed to ensure there is always one good take to use. After a
master shot is done, the camera is then moved to several other places for all
the cut-ins, close-ups, reactions shots, detail shots and so forth, a practice
commonly known as “coverage.” The key is that, no matter what other shots
are used in the final edit, there is always a master shot to fall back on which
can be used for any re-establishing shot at any point in the scene. In Taiwan,
however, there was never a master shot of an entire scene to begin with. For
this reason, whenever there is a return to a wider shot, the crew could just as
easily make it from a new camera set-up as from the original position since
the two takes were being filmed independently in the first place. This would
ensure some visual variety in the finished product as well. Furthermore, the
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
lighting was so uniform that there appears to have been little, if any, tweaking
of the lighting from one camera set-up to the next as would be the case in
Hollywood, where directors of photography are notorious for “cheating” for
each particular placement. This, in effect, would make a Hollywood director
less inclined to use more set-ups, but poses no hindrance to Taiwanese directors who were satisfied with purely functional, flat lighting designs.
Once again, this shows the impact that Hong Kong had on the Taiwanese
film industry. In Hong Kong they also did minimal tweaking of the lighting
from shot to shot, and were just as apt to put the camera in just about every
conceivable location in any one scene. David Bordwell has called this the
“segment shooting” method of Hong Kong, where scenes are done from shot
to shot from a variety of angles, and then edited together afterwards into a
single scene without recourse to a master shot. The result is a wider variety
of camera set-ups than is the norm in Hollywood where there is more of a
tendency to return to the master shot during editing.126 Why Hong Kong shot
differently from Hollywood is clear: this was the most efficient way to create
dynamic action scenes in a labor-intensive industry. In Taiwan, however,
often this was being done for non-action scenes. Clearly demands for frugality with film stock determined why there was no master shot: it was just too
expensive. In Taiwan, every effort was made to keep the shooting ratios to a
bare minimum. 4-to-1 was considered extravagant, 3-to-1 to 2-to-1 was the
norm. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was getting even lower yet. Hou
himself was taught by another producer-director, Guo Qingjiang, how to get
the shooting ratio under 2-to-1. He says that in one film (which he did not
specify) he was able to get 11,000 feet of stock for the finished film out of a
paltry 18,000 feet of exposed stock — a shooting ratio of 1.6-to-1.127 Indeed,
the ideal in this industry would have been a perfect 1-to-1 shooting ratio.
What you would see is what they shot — and not a second more!
This ubiquitous modus operandi did not mean longer average shot
lengths for these films as one might expect. In the early 1980s, for example,
three films from Guo Qingjiang — according to Hou, the master of the low
shooting ratio — had an ASL ranging from 5 to 7 seconds. However, given
there was so little for the editor to work with, it is easy to see why these
films for the most part were quite stilted in their pacing, or rough around
the edges. One could find an occasional Taiwanese-produced film that was
edited as quickly as early 1980s hits from Hong Kong like Aces Go Places
(1982) and All the Wrong Clues (for the Right Solution) (1982), both of which
average around 5 seconds per shot. But one cannot find any Taiwanese counterparts that are edited quite as crisply and dynamically. This was simply
because Taiwanese producers did not have the luxury to leave much of
anything on the editing room floor since no film stock could be wasted. It
was precisely such hidebound methods which made Taiwanese-produced
films so vulnerable to Hong Kong by the early 1980s.
No Man an Island
What this meant for these films went well beyond simply their rhythm
or pacing. Having their best moments left on the editing room floor was the
least of an actor’s concern in Taiwan. In fact, it was no small miracle if any of
their best moments got recorded on film in the first place. According to Hou
himself, who had ample experience with this practice, whenever closer shots
were done for one character, the actor would not be talking to the other actor,
but always to the clenched fist of the assistant director standing in front of
him or her.128 They never did a scene from beginning to end in a master shot;
they only did this a shot at a time, with no real flow. Theoretically, what
appeared in the finished product could very well be the only moments
captured on film to begin with, although inevitable mistakes still would bring
the shooting ratio to higher than one-to-one. Stopping and starting, halting
in mid-emotion and emoting to clenched fists all stopped performances cold.
Even Li Xing rarely got memorable performances, which is not surprising
given the shooting methods employed: the piecemeal practice of shooting
one line at a time leaves a sense that his films are but overwrought nodes of
melodrama strung together on a perfunctory narrative chain. Perhaps as a
means of disguising all this, Li Xing and others always had a steady supply
of tears on hand. Beautiful Duckling ends with a young hooligan crying alone
on the streets, realizing the error of his ways; The Road ends with a father
full of tears of paternal pride for his filial and successful son. An archetypal
ending in a Li Xing film (The Sun Rises and Sets, He Never Gives Up, My Native
Land) is a bawling family surrounding a dying father as he delivers the requisite last words in between measured last breaths. The facile recourse to
tears was not made by Li alone. Perhaps no cinema anywhere has had so
many films end in a blubbering vale of tears.
In 1973, Hou started as a continuity person, but soon became an assistant director, and finally a screenwriter, first writing three works with his
closest associate during the bulk of the 1970s, the director Lai Chengying.
In Taiwan, directors rarely did the actual directing; it was the assistant directors who actually faced the day-to-day problems on the set, and they were in
charge of keeping film stock use to a bare minimum. Hou is listed as the
assistant director for at least eleven films in the 1970s, and that experience
drove home for him the limitations of current filmmaking practices. All of
these practices mentioned earlier — functional editing, functional lighting,
compositional gimmicks, minimal shooting ratios, start and stop performances — Hou would one day reject, but not on day one, nor even on day
ten. Indeed, for years Hou would bear some personal responsibility for perpetuating these practices. (It was his livelihood after all.) Yet as strange as it
may seem, his experience with these practices would have a profound and
lasting impact on him even after he would no longer rely on this industry
for work. He would learn many things from this largely negative experience, but two invaluable lessons stand out: the importance of lighting and
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
the importance of performance, two areas today that form the cornerstones
of his own aesthetic.
A key moment occurs when Hou scripted Li Xing’s Good Morning Taipei
(1980). The cinematographer was Chen Kunhou. Thereafter Chen and Hou
formed a directing/writing/cinematography team. In the years before joining
the New Cinema (1980–1982), the pair completed seven films together, with
Chen officially directing four and Hou officially directing three (Cute Girl
[1980], Cheerful Wind [1981] and The Green, Green Grass of Home [1982]). Hou
was always the screenwriter, and Chen always the cinematographer, yet so
close was their working relationship that critics at the time saw these films
as co-directed projects. Therefore, unlike most New Cinema directors, Hou
and Chen brought with them a wealth of experience from the commercial
film industry. Chen and Hou shared ideas about reforming the production
practices in the Taiwanese film industry which led to their reputations as
mavericks. Some of their reforms would eventually have a direct impact on
the New Cinema, most of all their collaborative relationship. They were the
first to begin solving what they saw as inter-related problems: the paucity
of film stock and the staleness of performances. In their first joint project,
the Chen-directed Riding a Wave (1980), they reportedly used a “whopping”
35,000 feet of film stock at a time when nobody would dare go over 30,000.129
For Hou’s The Green, Green Grass of Home, they used between 40,000 to
50,000 feet of film stock, which was considered wasteful.130 In time, this quest
for higher shooting ratios became a joint crusade among New Cinema directors. Hou and Chen, however, had already pushed the envelope before the
New Cinema existed.
Even the long take, which today most defines Hou, has direct links to his
early experiences in the industry. Hou initially was not pursuing long takes
as a conscious aesthetic strategy. They were a by-product of his quest for
better performances. As an assistant director, Hou knew that existing practices needed to be changed. Nevertheless, he was bound to those methods in
that position. Once he became a director himself, he began with the “novel”
idea that a director should actually direct on the set. Then he began to experiment with various ways of tweaking performances. Since neither Chen nor
Hou had yet heard of any master-shot system, they found that performances
in the existing segment-shooting method would be better served if each shot
was longer to begin with. On occasion, relatively long takes seemed to Hou a
practical way to give his actors more breathing room to perform. This was the
very humble beginnings of one of the greatest long-take stylists in world history.
The early films bear this out. By the standards of the industry at the time,
Chen was a long-take director, and Hou was even more so. For the twentyfive films sampled between 1980 and 1982, the average shot length comes out
at 8.3 seconds per shot. However, Chen’s 1982 film Six Is Company averages
10.3 seconds per shot, while Hou’s Cute Girl is at 11.3 seconds, Cheerful Wind
No Man an Island
at 12.7 seconds and The Green, Green Grass of Home at 11.3 again.131 During
this same three-year period, only Li Xing’s My Native Land and Bai Jingrui’s
The Coldest Winter in Peking showed similar figures.
The style of these early works reveal the haphazard probes of a young
director still searching for a new aesthetic within existing conditions. All
three works were shot in the anamorphic format; all include a large number of
zooms. In Cheerful Wind the two lovers (played by Kenny B and Feng Feifei)
are out in a field in a single take of two minutes in length: the shot begins
as a long shot and then zooms out to an even more distanced shot to show
terraced fields and mountains behind them. By contrast, a restaurant scene
of the Feng Feifei character talking with her aunt in Cute Girl suggests things
to come: also around two minutes in length, this time the camera does not
move at all. These examples notwithstanding, Hou was not yet consciously
pursuing a long-take aesthetic. According to him, he would still shoot from
other angles, but when a particular take was good from a wider angle,
he saw no reason to use other shots from other set-ups. This would gradually become a habit.132
This quest for better performances did not just affect how Hou shot
scenes, it eventually had an impact on how he scripted and structured his
films. After all, in his early days as a commercial director Hou still faced one
nearly insurmountable obstacle: stars — or as Hou describes them, popular
singers who could not act. These singer-actor wannabes were so image-conscious that Hou could do very little with them.
In his third commercial film, The Green, Green Grass of Home, however,
Hou would have a major breakthrough with the children who perform with
ease and aplomb. The most notable moment is when a young boy gets upset
at his father for killing his pet owl. The composition in this fifty-five-second
shot is quite striking, using strong staging in depth, with the father in the
foreground while the young boy moves diagonally in the distance, kicking
vegetables and yelling in a convincing fit of anger (figure 4). These child
performances got Hou notice among critics for the first time. One described
this film as a “warm tender depiction of the world of children done in a quiet
way to appeal to the emotions, making the film refreshing and elegant and
not at all following recent trends.”133 Hou says that he found it easy to direct
children. He would never tell them when they made a mistake, but would
always pretend that something was wrong with the lights, or that some crew
member was at fault. (The crew members, in turn, all understood what Hou
was after and would feign guilt.) The result was usually that the child actor
would be even better on the second or third take.134 The most important
development was not the notoriety, however, but a new modus operandi
Hou has refined to the present day: improvisation. Hou would only tell these
children the situation and would otherwise let them improvise the actual
lines of dialogue, something he could never do with stars such as Kenny B or
Hou and the Taiwanese Experience
Figure 4
Hou’s complex staging in depth in The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982).
Feng Feifei.135 This method of directing, initially reserved only for children in
The Green, Green Grass of Home, is today Hou’s method with every actor: Hou
usually provides situations, moods and a sense of the atmosphere — but no
precise lines of dialogue or strict blocking instructions.136
Given their innovations within the commercial cinema, it is easy to see
why Hou and Chen Kunhou would be such a good match for the budding
New Cinema movement. The Green, Green Grass of Home would prove to be
their ticket in. Zhan Hongzhi, who would become one of Hou’s closest collaborators, says that film was one of the sources of the New Cinema because
of its ground-breaking, free-flowing narrative.137 Edmond Wong claims that
the success of this film encouraged the CMPC to try its new low-budget/
more-artistic-freedom approach with In Our Times.138 Before long, Hou and
Chen would be called the “spiritual leaders” of the New Cinema.139 Within
this movement, Hou would forge a whole new set of relationships, some of
which remain crucial for him to this day. What is so shocking about Hou’s
background is the dearth of outside influences, showing how thoroughly
home-grown he is. Unlike other members of the New Cinema movement,
he never went to a film school abroad, and he was woefully ignorant of many
trends in world cinema, including those many mistakenly have thought
influenced him. Nowhere is this more clear than in the early comparisons
often made between Hou and Ozu: contrary to what was already commonly
assumed, Hou claims that he did not even see an Ozu film until after he had
shot A Time to Live, A Time to Die.140 And yet Hou, not these Western-trained
filmmakers, not even Edward Yang, would end up being the true center of
the New Cinema. His films would come to define the movement. Ultimately,
this is because Hou had one thing more than any other: experience in every
sense of the term. He had not only firsthand experience with a Taiwan which
No Man an Island
was changing before his eyes; he also had that day-to-day experience in
the grind of the Taiwanese film industry. Together these gave birth to his
illustrious career. Yet Hou could not do this without a lot of luck and help.
He needed both friends and institutions to come to his aid. Fortunately,
he became a director at just the right time: everything — Taiwanese society
and Taiwanese cinema — would change even more dramatically in the
1980s. By the end of the decade both the man and the island were nothing
like their 1980 selves. Sometimes timing is everything.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:06 GMT from JHU Libraries
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
After completing a chapter of The Sandwich Man in 1983, Hou Hsiao-hsien
directed four feature-length works: The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), A Summer
at Grandpa’s (1984), A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind
(1986). Collectively these films can be seen as the definitive works of the
Taiwanese New Cinema before its semi-official end in early 1987, the year
of his next film, Daughter of the Nile. In contrast with his later films, the first
five each seem like deliberate steps, each adding yet another key piece to
the larger aesthetic puzzle that is Hou Hsiao-hsien. Daughter seemed a step
back in some ways, yet it prepared Hou for his two historical masterworks,
City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster (1993). The Hou Hsiao-hsien
of 1980 and the Hou Hsiao-hsien of 1989 do not even seem like the same
person. Then again, Taiwanese cinema of 1989 would have been inconceivable in 1980. Yeh Yueh-yu and Darrell Davis describe this as the time when
authorship first triumphed over “the authority of genre, stars and studio
politics,” and when Taiwanese cinema began to diverge from its former
“patrimony” under strict KMT control.1 Hou and others made these films in
an unpredictable climate which changed dramatically on three fronts in the
1980s: in Taiwanese society as a whole, in its film culture and finally in a film
industry caught in a prolonged crisis. Take away any of these three and it is
unlikely that Hou could have accomplished what he did. Indeed, the New
Cinema would likely never have gotten off the ground.
Taiwan in the 1980s
The Formosa Incident at the end of 1979 launched the decade of the 1980s, the
Taiwanese equivalent of the 1960s elsewhere. Despite control of the media,
all of the political fictions imposed for three decades by the KMT on Taiwan
were rapidly losing force. Even the repression following the Kaohsiung
Incident helped the dangwai movement by politicizing more people than
ever before.2 The Chinese edition of George Kerr’s long-banned classic on
the 228 Incident, Formosa Betrayed, was published in 1984 and sold openly
on street corners despite being illegal. Every action of the KMT received
No Man an Island
greater scrutiny from abroad. Chiang Ching-kuo may have wanted to retain
power for as long as possible, but soon more major embarrassments emerged
for the Nationalists. The most important of these was the “Jiangnan Incident”
of 1984, when a biographer of Chiang Kai-shek was found murdered in
the United States. The FBI determined that the ROC’s secret police was
involved, including possibly one of Chiang’s own sons. According to some,
this incident, which was reported on CBS’s 60 Minutes, shook Chiang to the
core, and was the true precipitator of the general openness and burgeoning
democracy that soon followed.3
Meanwhile, all the myriad elements of the dangwai finally came together
in September of 1986 to form a bona fide opposition party, the Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP). Ironically, the official founding was held at the
Grand Hotel, long a pet project of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Since martial
law was still in place, at least on paper, this was technically an illegal action.
Yet Chiang Ching-kuo’s response was to not harass.4 Then in July of 1987,
thirty-eight years of martial law, a world’s record to this day, was lifted.5
There were other signs of changes afoot. Chiang Ching-kuo announced
that his successor would not be from the Chiang family. A few months
before he passed away he also significantly declared, “I am Taiwanese.”6
This statement was not a repudiation of his roots on mainland China, but it
was Chiang’s acknowledgement that half of his life had been spent on the
island. For this he is fondly remembered by many in Taiwan today, unlike his
father. Furthermore, it signaled a phenomenon that by the 1980s became an
ineluctable force: the KMT was being conquered from within, by Taiwan itself.
As both the cultural and political climate began to open up, many of the
old divisions became irrelevant, most of all the grand divide of “East versus
West.” The scholar Li Minghui sums up this new cultural dexterity: “For most
intellectuals at the present time the issue is no longer whether tradition and
the modern, Nativism and westernization, are able to mix or not, but how
to blend them properly.”7 In political literature there were numerous shades
during the 1980s: leftists like Chen Yingzhen who favored China; rightists
also favoring China; political skeptics like Huang Fan; post-Nativists; and
those who openly advocated political independence for Taiwan. Of these
groups perhaps the most similar to the New Cinema were the post-Nativists,
given their attempt to combine modernist experimentation with realistic
subject matter.8 Before long feminist literature, gay literature and aboriginal
literature also appeared, signs of a new experience in Taiwan that is not so
much postmodern as it is post-colonial, according to one view, since all of
these followed the lifting of martial law.9 The decade of the 1980s has been
described as the “Defeat of the Father” in popular culture.10 Novel musical
forms emerged, most of all by Luo Dayu, a new voice of the young, and
more significantly, a voice that no longer imitated Western popular musical
norms, nor did it look to China either.11 This was all modern and indigenous.
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
A thaw was afoot in China as well. Lacking political wherewithal, Taiwan
has used both economics and culture to engage with its “enemy.” In the 1980s
ROC relatives could go and visit relatives on the mainland for the first time.
Taiwanese businessmen also found a way in, despite the illegality of direct
investment. From 1978 to 1988, the amount of Taiwanese money funneled
into China via Hong Kong increased by fifty-seven times, going from an initially “paltry” figure of US$47 million to US$2.7 billion.12 Starting with the
mass popularity of the Taiwanese singer, Teresa Teng, eventually two-thirds
of popular music in China originated from Taiwan.13 In short, politically the
Taiwanese have taken a wait-and-see stance towards China; economically
and culturally, they have taken the initiative.
Taiwanese Film Culture
By the 1980s, Taiwan also had a film culture, which would be crucial for
Hou’s survival during the decade. The first seeds were planted by marginalized film journals in the 1960s and 1970s which echoed the literary debates of
their time. If cinema had a counterpart to the Modernist literary movement
in Taiwan, it was mostly found in the journal Theatre. The primary purpose
of the journal was to introduce films from abroad, especially those from
Europe, with the apparent intention of starting a similar film movement in
Taiwan. Although there were only nine issues in total, Theatre apparently
had an impact on many intellectuals and provided a new perspective on the
medium itself.14 Starting in December of 1971, Influence took up the torch of
Theatre. Yet Influence also expressed hope for artistic films that would “grow
in the local soil,” a clear indication of a more Nativist bent. In its second
issue from 1972, there is discussion about Chinese films that included Huang
Chunming, an important Nativist writer who would eventually play a
major role in the early days of the New Cinema.15 The discussants expressed
concern over local audiences; as a Nativist, Huang felt these audiences
should not be blamed for this sorry state of affairs in Taiwanese cinema.
Furthermore, he warned against catering to foreign tastes: “Why do we need
to have foreigners with their noses in the air tell us what is good? Art must
grow from the soil itself.”16
The writers at Influence held high standards and applied them even to
the most accomplished director in this era, Li Xing. Writers from Influence
gathered to discuss one of Li’s most significant films in the 1970s, Execution
in Autumn (1972), in front of Li himself. Dan Hanchang called this one of the
best films to come out of Hong Kong and Taiwan in years, yet he berated Li
for his spurious characterization and his leaning towards romanticism over
realism. (Li responded that he will try to improve.)17 Years later, Li’s 1979
Story of a Small Town was lambasted by this review: “the most striking aspect
of this film is that somehow it got out and filmed in real settings and yet
No Man an Island
managed to have nothing to do with real problems, resulting instead in one
scene after another of a family melodrama.”18 In general, the view at Influence
was that the Taiwanese film industry was thriving in numbers yet blind to
its own decline. Says one, “isn’t it painful to see that the greatest accomplishment of Taiwan and Hong Kong Mandarin films over the last twenty years is
to create an idiotic audience and film workers who look up at the sky while
sitting in a well?”19
Film culture in Taiwan found a more permanent home in 1978 when the
government established the Film Library, now the National Film Archive
(Chinese Taipei Film Archive). From 1978 to 1982, the library fostered
an intellectual and artistic climate which would bolster the New Cinema.
Edmond Wong credits the open atmosphere to the first head of the archive,
Xu Ligong, a KMT bureaucrat with no film background, but with a magnanimous willingness to listen to young people. In such an environment, Wong
and others were emboldened enough by 1982 to hold informal showings of
the works of Theo Angelopoulos, even though it was still risky, politically
speaking, to show works from a left-leaning director.20 Youngsters such as
Wong, Peggy Chiao, Yang Shiqi and other critics would later become defenders of the New Cinema. Today the film archive remains the most important
film institution on the island, providing educational programs, a reading
library, a video collection, the journal Film Appreciation and their annual
yearbooks. (One will note how much this study depends on such sources.)
If the Film Archive was the headquarters of this new film culture, certain
newspapers were the literal front lines. The most important was The United
Daily News, which in 1981 began to publish a special section called “Cinema
Plaza.” This was led by Peggy Chiao, undeniably the most important film
critic in Taiwan. As editor in the early 1980s, Chiao was also nurturing a
group of young critics that reminds one of Bazin at Cahiers du Cinéma. She
allowed these young writers to voice their opinions, but she did not quite
sanction their merciless and uncompromising tone as they lashed out at
the crude, hackneyed fare that was still the norm in Taiwan. This caused a
sustained, disgruntled reaction from the film industry (especially from the
distributors), and from this point on the lines were drawn for the battle that
would rage when the New Cinema films proved themselves to not be the
saviors of the industry that many had hoped.21 Other papers would join in
these debates as well which before long would center on Hou.
Chiao became a mentor of sorts for Hou. Educated in the West, fluent in
English, she began as a critic, but eventually became the leading promoter
of Taiwanese films in the international film scene, not to mention becoming
a producer as well. Chiao met Hou in 1982 when she interviewed him about
The Green, Green Grass of Home. Her initial impression was that of an arrogant
young man who thought it beneath him to answer any questions. Only
later did she realize that Hou had never been asked such questions before,
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
and had no idea how to answer them.22 Thereafter Chiao offered valuable
intellectual assistance to Hou when needed, introducing him to films she
felt he needed to see, and even filmmakers when they both visited film
festivals abroad.
A Film Industry in Crisis
Sheer numbers often tell an incomplete truth. From a total of 49 films made
in the year 1977, the number of Mandarin-language features produced in
Taiwan jumped to 95 in 1978. The numbers increased with each succeeding
year — 120 in 1979, 133 in 1980, 138 in 1981 and 144 in 1982. Only thereafter did the total plummet to a “mere” 78 features in 1983.23 This, however,
only camouflaged a crisis long in the making. Although the number of
multiplexes increased in 1979,24 and more production companies emerged,25
there was no innovation, no long-term investment in local production. There
were still the same cheap films made aside from the occasional big-budgeted
works sponsored by the government itself. Audiences, especially those in
overseas Chinese markets, grew weary. As Lu Feiyi describes it, “What had
originally been a ready escape from reality now became the thing the audiences wanted to escape.”26 And escape from the theaters they did, in the area
where quantity mattered most. In 1981, there were 251 million movie tickets
sold in Taiwan; in 1982, there were only 192 million. In 1983, sales dwindled
to a mere 135 million tickets.27
These numbers only confirmed the worries of those who closely
observed the film industry during the 1970s and early 1980s. Especially
goading to Taiwanese intellectuals was the critical success of the Hong Kong
New Wave. Xiao Ye says the threat of Hong Kong’s New Wave began during
the second half of 1980 as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui and others began to trounce
locally made films at Taiwan’s own film awards, the Golden Horse, exposing
the outmoded ways of the CMPC in particular.28 Meanwhile, after a long
interregnum, the PRC was once again making films such as Xie Jin’s The
Legend of Tianyuan Mountain (1981) and showing them abroad. In July of
1980, one Taiwanese paper expressed concern that films from the PRC could
be shown in the same overseas markets Taiwan was starting to lose. There
was also alarm that China now owned four theaters in Hong Kong.29
Less visible to the public eye was the financial crisis brewing even in
the party-run CMPC (noted in the previous chapter). Clearly the powers
that be realized a crisis was afoot. In 1978 James Soong became head
of the Government Information Office. Soong recognized right away that
the government was stifling the film industry. He reformed the Golden
Horse Awards, making them more like the Oscars and less the predictable
platform for government propaganda it had been since 1962. More importantly, by 1982 he had ended the GIO’s review of scripts: now they looked
No Man an Island
only at finished films.30 Yet Soong was not concerned only with the government’s attitude towards the film industry, he was also concerned with the
image of the industry itself. Soong’s vexation, unprecedented for a head of
the GIO, became well-known after a famous open letter to the industry in
June of 1981. According to Soong, the government had now opened things
up and loosened control in order to give producers breathing room, but the
industry had not taken advantage. Instead, there was the usual short-sightedness looking for quick returns at the expense of long-term investment.
More importantly, film was to be of artistic and cultural significance and able
to perform not just domestically, but also on the international stage.31 This
marked a new direction and status for cinema. Soong’s three principles —
professionalism, artistry and internationalism32 — were now given official
The new head of the CMPC, Ming Ji, took this sanction seriously. He also
apparently liked dinosaurs. Because of the severe financial crisis looming
for the CMPC, Ming Ji announced a new “Low Budget/Low Risk” policy in
1982. However, he was at first uncertain as to how to implement this policy,
and even contemplated making an anthology film about dinosaurs after
seeing a public display about them on the CMPC lot. Young Turks within
the CMPC, especially the writers Xiao Ye and Wu Nien-jen, saw their chance.
Solicited for advice, Xiao Ye offered another suggestion: why not let four
young directors, each freshly returned from film schools abroad, have their
own chapter in an anthology film? After all, this would really save money.33
Ming Ji agreed. Soon thereafter the portmanteau film, In Our Times, was
released in August of 1982. Xiao Ye suggests this was all the result of sheer
luck: “I have asked myself what if at that time the CMPC had not had the
dinosaur exhibit . . . and company management had not been tolerant of a
few youngsters with no experience in commercial cinema, allowing them
to work — how long would the New Cinema have had to wait?”34 In truth,
however, Ming Ji was responding to economic pressures and calls for reform
from his superiors. In any case, this was the humble economic beginnings of
the Taiwanese New Cinema, the unexpected child born of decades of government strangulation coupled with the commercial prowess of the Hong Kong
film industry.
Nobody expected much from these films. Private producers viewed the
CMPC’s new policy as tentative since the studio was investing less than a
quarter on these compared to its big war pictures.35 Soon, however, many
came to an opposite and equally mistaken conclusion: this new trend just
might salvage the floundering industry. In Our Times, marketed as the first
art film ever in Taiwan, did well at the box office simply as a novelty. The
key breakthrough was Growing Up (1983). Based on a short story by a young
writer named Chu Tien-wen, Hou, and Chen Kunhou not only wanted to
buy the film rights to the story, they also asked Chu to work on the script.
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
According to Chu, the script she wrote for Growing Up was a disaster. But
the finished film, directed by Chen and scripted by Hou and Chu, was an
unexpected success at the box office, and led many in the private industry
to believe that “nativist” films (as they called them) were now the way to
go. Soon the controversy surrounding the next portmanteau film, The
Sandwich Man, yielded yet another box-office success for a New Cinema
film. Thereafter the movement took off in production numbers, but not in
box-office returns. The distributors gave these films “dead runs” they would
never give to other films. When a rare New Cinema film did succeed despite
such handicaps (such as with Growing Up), it was usually because there was
no other new competition.36 Add novelty and some controversy, and these
works became unexpected successes, but not saviors of a film industry.
Hou already had three films under his belt before all this, all of which
did well at the box office when most films did not. Had the commercial film
industry remained relatively healthy in Taiwan, Hou would have likely
enjoyed a long career as a successful commercial director who made interesting, quirky and yet mostly conventional films. Hou did not need the CMPC
so much as the CMPC needed him. Still, he signed on with the second portmanteau work to come from the studio, named after the chapter he directed.
That choice changed his life, and it changed Taiwanese cinema.
The Sandwich Man (also known as The Son’s Big Doll) (1983)
Two things to keep in mind about the first official New Cinema film directed
by Hou Hsiao-hsien: James Soong had lifted the censorship of scripts the
year before, but not the GIO’s right to review finished films; moreover,
in 1983 martial law was still in effect in Taiwan, even if it was starting to
totter. This made for an uncertain climate: how open was this system really?
The uncertainties came to a head with the first cinematic litmus test, the
portmanteau film, The Sandwich Man. In retrospect, this film seems an exceptionally bold move, especially for one produced by Sunny Pictures, a production subsidiary of the CMPC. All three chapters are based on the stories
of the famed Nativist writer, Huang Chunming, a major reason why people
often associate the New Cinema with Nativism. Merely basing a film on
Huang’s stories was bound to elicit strong reactions.
Hou was the known entity of the three directors, so his is the eponymous
opening chapter. The controversy raged around the third chapter directed
by Wan Ren and entitled “The Taste of Apples.” This became known as the
“Apple Peeling Incident.” Before the release of the film, rumors circulated
that Wan Ren’s section gave a less than favorable depiction of everyday
reality in Taiwan. The sources for these rumors were the conservative
members of the Film Critics Association, rumors powerful enough to get
the CMPC to initially exercise some self-censorship. This excision might have
No Man an Island
occurred in secret had it not been leaked by Yang Shiqi at The United Daily
News and further fueled by others like Peggy Chiao.37 Together, these young
critics gave a black eye to both the government and the Critics Association,
and the controversy, now surprisingly being played out openly in the daily
newspapers, not only got the film released, uncut, it also made The Sandwich
Man a box-office success. Edmond Wong says that the eventual 1989 release
of Hou’s City of Sadness, unaltered, was the upshot of the Apple Incident
six years before.38 Peggy Chiao, on the other hand, feels that the impact of
one incident like this can be easily over-estimated — things were changing
regardless.39 The incident did bring to the forefront reformist elements
who were more open-minded, more aware of public opinion, and most
of all, more aware of how Taiwan’s isolation on the world stage made its
cultural products even more important.40 Hou himself escaped this incident
unscathed, and now had more room to breathe, at least politically speaking.
He also had a group of young critics who would defend him in the media,
if the need should arise. Soon enough it did.
One might question how “new” Hou’s chapter is. One of the hallmarks
of the New Cinema is its collective focus on the Taiwanese Experience,
a political statement without being directly political. In a sense Hou was
already attempting this within generic boundaries in his commercial trilogy.
All three of those films dealt with the countryside often in contrast to the city,
a theme he develops further in the New Cinema. Stylistically, Hou already
had displayed, on occasion, slightly longer takes than his peers for the sake
of better performances. Moreover, his chapter here was the most muted of
the three in terms of possible political overtones, even if it does have an
ambivalent ending encapsulated in a freeze-frame. So was Hou’s first official
entry in the New Cinema a breakthrough?
One key breakthrough was language. The hoary national imaginary
proffered by the KMT establishment held up linguistic unity as a cornerstone. There were barely disguised hopes for the slow death of the
Taiwanese dialect, a death which never came. (Today even most waisheng­
ren have learned a certain amount of Taiwanese.) Taiwanese had sporadically graced Hou’s commercial trilogy, but Mandarin was still the lingua
franca, even in the scenes in the countryside. In The Sandwich Man, for the
first time Hou displays an obsession with linguistic exactness in any situation, no matter how polyglottal the results, no matter how at odds with the
official government policy at the time. Huang Ren argues that the real bone
of contention by those criticizing the film in 1983 was that the CMPC was
producing a film using mostly the Taiwanese dialect, which was seen as a
step backwards in terms of the official ideology.41 Yet only Hou’s chapter is
done almost exclusively in the Taiwanese dialect, which is justified given the
story’s rural backdrop. Wan Ren’s chapter, by contrast, carries a mishmash
of English, Mandarin and Taiwanese which is no less accurate given the
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
type of characters involved (American soldiers, American nurses, waishenren
soliders and a benshengren working class family who have moved to Taipei
in search of better opportunities). Hou’s chapter probably “escaped” censure
since the conservative forces picked on an easier target: only Hou was an
established name with a proven box-office record at a time when good box
office was difficult to come by. Wan Ren was a virtual unknown.
Compared to his later work, Hou’s depiction of the Taiwanese Experience
here seems simple and straightforward. Nevertheless, a few shots are harbingers of things to come: a seemingly superfluous shot of a man fanning
himself in an inactive rickshaw, another man drinking a glass of tea, students
silently reading while standing, a train being loaded with mail bags while an
engineer peers out, an argument over an accident which the sandwich man
will report later to his wife, unaware that she saw it as well while furtively
following him. Already Hou was padding this simple story with superfluous moments, only they are anything but — instead they comprise the fabric
of everyday life that will give his films their rich, subtle flavor. Moreover,
there are already glimpses of the dense mise-en-scène that will become one
of the hallmarks of Hou’s later works. When the sandwich man appears at
the church as free flour is being doled out, he comes through a gate in the
back, visible between a man and a woman handling a bag of flour closer
to the camera. Later, he wanders off in the distance along the empty train
tracks, proof that Hou already is able to exploit compositional diagonals
created by the arrangement of everyday objects. Hou is not yet the mise-enscène master he would later become, but he is no longer a novice either.
Before this film, Hou’s average shot lengths were not much longer
than that of one of his mentors, Li Xing, always ranging between 11 and
13 seconds per shot. In The Sandwich Man, by contrast, the average shot now
lasts just over 16 seconds. As humble and insignificant as these figures seem
compared to what Hou will do later in his career, this was the first time Hou
began to distinguish himself from his peers in terms of shot length, even his
closest collaborator at the time, Chen Kunhou.
The upshot of all this is a more consistently serious tenor of simple
survival. Although there are humorous moments, even scatological references, this consistency of tone most separates this film from Hou’s commercial trilogy. In those films there is an uneven mixture which includes
the maudlin demands of romance and the downright silly, something not
unusual for Taiwanese cinema at the time. Now Hou is an unexpected
master at a measured tone for an entire work, albeit one of shorter length.
The Sandwich Man is one of the least remembered steps in Hou’s career, since
the film itself has always been eclipsed by the controversy. Yet a step less
remembered does not make it a step any less necessary. Hou’s next step
taken, however, is for many much harder to forget, most of all for Hou
No Man an Island
The Boys from Fengkuei (also known as All the Youthful Days)
In Hou’s office at Sinomovie, there hangs a poster of The Boys from Fengkuei,
his personal favorite. Yet it is hard to know if it is the film or the moment
which most pleases him. This film is significant since it caught the eyes of
people outside of Taiwan. In 1984, Olivier Assayas from Cahiers du Cinéma
was on assignment in Hong Kong. There he met the Taiwanese critic,
Chen Guofu, who encouraged Assayas to take a side-trip to Taiwan and
check out new developments in Taiwanese cinema. Assayas was impressed
by what he saw, but he was most impressed by The Boys from Fengkuei. Back
in France he began to tell everyone about Hou’s latest film. By the end of the
year, Cahiers had an edition that focused on the New Cinema in Taiwan. Ever
since then, France has been a major market for Hou and other Taiwanese
directors.42 Yet for Hou himself the making of this film appears to have been
the most endearing memory of his entire career. According to him, there
was a “feeling of balance” between “knowing” and “not knowing.” Before
this film Hou did not really know what he was doing; after this film he at
times became “too clear about what he was doing.”43
Either way, Hou was now part of a new youthful movement within an
existing film industry. During these halcyon days the members of the New
Cinema willingly cooperated with each other. Hou had a reputation for
being magnanimous with his own time and support. He fulfilled a lifetime
dream to be an actor with the lead role in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1984).
He was also one of the writers for Wan Ren’s Ah Fei (1983). Edward Yang
returned the favor by helping Hou with the musical selections for his early
New Cinema films, and by playing a small role as the father in A Summer
at Grandpa’s.
Yet from the beginning Hou stood out in contradictory ways. Yang
and others had gone to film school abroad. Hou had not. Young writers
such as Xiao Ye and Wu Nien-jen, maverick critics such as Peggy Chiao,
Edmond Wong and Chen Guofu, and new filmmakers such as Edward Yang
and Wan Ren, often congregated to discuss cinema. Hou was often intimidated by these “strange” ideas being tossed about. Yang’s and Wan’s discussions of the “master shot,” something never done in Taiwan, left a particular
impression. Hou decided to try this “novel” idea himself. According to him,
over time he would come to realize that the master shot was in some cases
sufficient, yet another key precipitant for his burgeoning long-take style.44
These discussions also made Hou aware of numerous trends in world
cinema he had known very little about. Hou consistently mentions Godard’s
Breathless and Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex as being eye-opening experiences at the
time.45 Given that the latter was introduced to him by Yang, Hou seemed
less like a leader than a student in dire need of a remedial film education.
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
Yet while others had concepts and principles, Hou had ample experience.
He also seemed to possess something else, which one member of this group
Chu Tien-wen had already worked with Hou on the script for Growing
Up, based on her own short story. Now she was working with Hou again on
The Boys from Fengkuei. From this point forward she will be the most important
collaborator to work with Hou. Chu and Hou usually bounce ideas off each
other and jot down any notes needed. Once shooting is about to commence,
Chu gathers these notes and writes out a semblance of a script. Only the
technical crew, however, receives this version of the script to help with preproduction planning. Hou himself never uses a script while shooting, nor
do the actors, who are asked to improvise according to the general scenario
Hou provides them on the set.46 (As we have seen, this originates from his
days as a commercial director.) Hou openly wonders in interviews what his
films would have been like without Chu. (He even jokes that he is certain
that were it not for her, he would have made a lot more money.)47 Yeh and
Davis note the deeper significance of the autobiographical/biographical
elements which come out of this collaboration, where “private selfhood” is
“entwined within the social and cultural history of post-war Taiwan,” thus
severing these works from the film traditions of Shanghai and Hong Kong.48
Still, nothing rivals Chu’s sudden afterthought of lending Hou a book
during the making of The Boys from Fengkuei. Witnessing Hou seemingly
out of place in these informal gatherings of the New Cinema group, Chu
was reminded of a famous Chinese writer from the early twentieth century,
Shen Congwen, who had faced a similar situation when he came from the
countryside to the city. Seeing the parallels, she decided to give Hou a copy
of Shen’s autobiography. Chu only intended to encourage Hou as she feared
that he would become overwhelmed by these intellectual discussions, losing
sight of his true uniqueness. She never expected that one book would change
everything.49 Why was Shen so important? Yeh and Davis have already
explained this in detail in their study of Taiwanese directors.50 Nevertheless,
there is a need to explore briefly a number of uncanny similarities between
Shen and Hou. Shen, like Hou, is not easy to classify. David Wang notes that
in the 1930s Shen was considered a “lyrical stylist, a vanguard regionalist and
a political conservative.” Yet these terms are misleading, according to him,
since they “tend to simplify, if not obliterate, the liberal and even avant-garde
sides of Shen Congwen’s character and writing.”51 Jeff Kinkley explains that
Shen Congwen also had a great deal of ambivalence about Chinese tradition.
Shen himself loved the Chuangzi as literature, yet he deplored Daoism as a
tradition as much as he deplored any tradition.52 Shen as a child also loved
to go outside and roam that world. He was “sensitive and curious about this
world around him, and his eye for detail is part of his artistic genius.”53 Then
there is Shen’s style, idiosyncratic and unprecedented in his own culture:
No Man an Island
“throughout the 1920s, the unorthodox syntax of his long sentences was
itself sufficient to keep his prose in a state of rebellion against all of China’s
literary traditions.”54 His works of the 1930s tend to create “plotless, still
landscapes of vivid sensory impressions.”55 Like Hou, what Shen loved most
of all was a particular place. Shen tended to see West Hunan as an earlier,
vital, more primitive China that existed before the Han became decadent,
and he “grapples most profoundly with the meaning of his personal past
and his people’s history.”56 Replace “West Hunan” with “Taiwan” and we
have a concise description of Hou’s underlying vision.
What Hou learned most from Shen’s autobiography, however, was a new
way of viewing the world. At one point in his autobiography, Shen explains:
I am also this sort who leans towards the phenomenal and has little interest
in understanding the reasons behind them . . . What I will never tire of is
“observing” everything . . . When I am close to life my feeling is that of an
artist, not that of a moralist.57
Hou explains this as follows:
After reading [Shen’s autobiography] my feelings and field of vision
became quite broad. What I really sensed from him is a non-judgmental
perspective. It is not sorrowful, and yet it possesses a deeper sense of
sadness. Shen Congwen does not look at people and human affairs from a
particular point of view and criticize. Everything human, all that life and all
that death, becomes quite normal under his pen, and all are simply things
under the sun.58
Hou here captures a key aspect of Shen’s writing: whether the events
depicted are “significant” or “pedestrian,” Shen never sermonizes, nor
casts judgment, nor restricts them to the requisite moral tones demanded
of the Chinese intellectual of his day. Instead, he often becomes lost in the
rhapsodic details of life, such as a store with its “frozen candies and red
candies,” its “large and small sesame pancakes,” its “hibiscus cakes and
walnut cakes,” its “huge ceramic jugs with golden characters that say either
‘fortune’ or ‘life.’”59 Shen does not steer clear from the ravages of history so
much as he puts them on the same plane as everyday life and then refusing
judgment, at least in the traditional sense of the term. For example, in Shen’s
autobiography, he describes quite frankly horrific events he witnessed
when quite young (i.e. many of the massacres following the fall of the Qing
dynasty). Yet he would not try to explain these atrocities, leaving these events
in an uncomfortably raw form. Whenever such “significant” events are
depicted, they are almost invariably followed by yet more detailed descriptions of everyday life that serve no larger, metaphoric economy, but gain
equal stature by their sheer weight. David Wang describes this tendency as
follows: “Major and negative forces that make history, such as war, violence,
and death, are self-consciously repressed as extraneous to the main narrative; instead, marginal and aleatory incidents . . . become crucial.”60
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
Of course, Hou works in a different medium, yet The Boys from Fengkuei
shows the direct influence of Shen Congwen, an effect that would persist
in his subsequent works. Enamored of what he saw as Shen’s distanced,
detached perspective, Hou literally tried to capture that same feeling on
film by constantly requesting that the camera be moved further and further
back.61 Of the three hundred plus shots in this film, no less than one fifth of
them have an extreme long shot as the primary shot scale. Almost another
fifth are roughly a long shot. Taken together, this means that, in almost 40%
of the shots in the film, the figures are full-framed (meaning characters are
visible from head to toe). Often the human figures are dwarfed by their surroundings to the point where their facial expressions have to be guessed at.
Since a good forty minutes of this film take place on Penghu islands, with
its open land and seascapes that remind one of Ireland, this is not entirely
unexpected. But even in the densely packed urban jungle of Kaohsiung, Hou
found ways to hold his distance, most of all by using the open courtyard
of an apartment complex where most of the major characters lived. Often
shooting from the second level, across the way, snippets of a young, troubled
relationship are framed in an understated manner due to this distance.
In short, Shen’s perspective, as Hou saw it, gets a literal translation in the
distanced framing in Boys.
The summary of the storyline suggests nothing remarkable. A group of
young boys living on the island group of Penghu are at a crossroads between
youth and adulthood, wondering what to do with their time as they wait
to be drafted. They decide to move to the port city of Kaohsiung and get
jobs in the now bustling export economy. There A-ching meets his neighbor,
Hsiao-hsiang, and he secretly falls in love with her without ever saying so,
not even to his friends. In any case, she appears to still be in love with A-ho
despite his shady dealings at the factory where they all work, and despite
his being forced to go to sea after getting in trouble with the law. Only at
the very end does Hsiao-hsiang reveal that she no longer wants to have
anything to do with A-ho. However, rather than falling into the arms of her
secret admirer, she unexpectedly leaves for Taipei. End of story.
The entire film hangs on this skeletal thread of a narrative. Yet it is all
the “excess” material, and how it is handled via long takes and a distanced
camera, which makes this a remarkable work. There are several narrative
subplots that never amount to much of anything in the traditional sense of
the term: the fights with a rival “gang” on Penghu, the flirtations of the four
with Yang Chin-hua, A-ching’s ambivalent relationship with his own family
members, the long-term effects of his father’s death on him, the unexplained
reasons for Hsiao-hsiang’s arrival in Kaohsiung, his friend (“A-jung”)’s sister
and “brother-in-law,” and the loss of NT$1,000 for a fake movie theater. Even
the main narrative thread remains open-ended. Despite all of the attention
A-ching has paid to her, and despite the time they spend together, we, like
No Man an Island
him, are clueless as to her deepest thoughts and feelings. A late montage
sequence (using Vivaldi) implies that she is warming up to him, even visibly
enjoying a game with a billiard ball and a coin. However, immediately after
this she is dolefully standing on the wharf, apparently in tears and inconsolable, not even by food. We assume she misses A-ho despite everything that
has happened, only to find out in the end that things are hardly that simple:
she is leaving him instead. A-ching, like us, misreads everything. Should he
have expressed his own feelings for her? Would she have requited? We will
never know.
As audience members we are subjected to the limited perspective of the
characters themselves — we only grasp fragments of life, lingering oddments
of a much vaster world nobody can grasp in total. No doubt many will be
frustrated by this denial of omniscience that most popular films deliver to a
great degree. But a film like this is not about knowing, it is about experiencing. Willingly forgo knowledge and closure, and the world suddenly opens
up. It breathes. It lives. When taken from this perspective, the film becomes
a dreamlike flow of memories — indelible, vivid moments such as when
four free-spirited boys wrestle on the beach, or when they dance in front of
Yang Chin-hua in the front of the glowing backdrop of crashing waves.
While episodic, The Boys from Fengkuei is not simply a random collection of episodes, but has a deeper structure underlying it. First, there is an
overall trajectory to the film, albeit not a traditional “character arc.” Not only
does the film progress from the open countryside to the crowded city, the
funeral in Penghu notwithstanding, but its characters evolve from a youthful
lightness of being to a growing awareness of burgeoning adulthood. The
namesake “boys” are adrift in a transitional period just before the dreaded
but unavoidable draft, a vaguely defined temporal cusp lodged between
adolescence and adulthood. During this period they start to become aware
of both the world and themselves, but are not yet fully aware. In this sense
the film serves as an almost uncanny, unconscious metaphor for the process
Hou was himself undergoing as a director while making it.
Then there is the sandwiching effect of the opening shots during the
credits and the closing shots of the market in Kaohsiung. Hou begins the
film with a flow of images of life in Fengkuei with an equal focus on both
the denizens and the surroundings. Only three of the first eight shots are
in the pool hall where the eponymous boys are simply enjoying billiards.
Yet the framing of even these three does not really focus on them except
for brief moments, and the surroundings and peripheral characters take on
equal importance. Outside, the five additional shots show a bus stop, a bus
arriving in the distance, boats lazily floating on the sea, a child strolling up an
empty street and a neighborhood dispute in the distance involving a motorcycle. Only the ninth shot reveals who the “boys” actually are. The ending of
the film reverses this. After Hsiao-hsiang has left for Taipei, A-ching goes to
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
the market where the others are selling tapes before going back to report for
the draft. A-ching suddenly decides to hawk their wares from a stool. For the
last six shots of the film, only his voice is heard, and we see six documentarylike images of people in the market, apparently all going on with their lives,
all oblivious to his calls. Even A-ching’s voice slowly fades away, blending
back into that larger world, taken over by the music. (Bach’s “Air,” appropriately enough.) In other words, at the beginning they emerged from that
world, and in the end they simply flow back into it. These last shots imply
that there are a thousand experiences like this, each typical, and yet each
unique, each equally worthy of representing the “Taiwanese Experience,”
the unstated project at hand. The result is one of the most moving endings
in Hou’s career.
Finally, there is a clear strategy to structure both the main narrative
and all the “needless” subplots around sudden, unexpected changes which
neither the characters nor the viewers are quite prepared for. The Boys from
Fengkuei is the first Hou film where eating scenes take on a prominent role
as disguised nodal points for such irruptions. Early on, the four boys and
Yang Chin-hua gather around to innocently enjoy a meal of chicken they
managed to slaughter. For the first minute of this long take, they make small
talk, engage in drinking games and act in a generally carefree manner. Then
the father of one of the boys enters and suddenly beats his son without
explanation. As it turns out, this was punishment for the earlier beating of
a rival, which now has been brought up to the police. Other eating scenes
similarly extract unexpected undertones from the mundane surface. When
Hsiao-hsiang and the boys eat together, she suddenly becomes sullen and
walks off when innocently asked why she came to Kaohsiung in the first
place. After his father’s funeral, A-ching’s sister suggests that he stay in
Fengkuei — and thus out of trouble. A-ching seems to not react until he
unexpectedly smashes his rice bowl and storms out.
These other tendencies provide some perspective on the pronounced
distancing and how it makes this film feel different from the norm. During
key moments in the narrative, there is just as likely to be a plethora of long
shots and extreme long shots in lieu of the expected closer shots that would
normally guide an audience. One of the most memorable shots in the apartment courtyard is seen through an opening in the vines in the foreground,
where A-ching apparently is washing some clothes. A perfectly still, extreme
long shot is equally divided by the ground level and the balcony where his
neighbors live. The male, Huang Chin-ho, is about to leave for work casually
on a Vespa motorcycle down below, still oblivious to how his own indiscretions on the job could get him fired or even arrested. Hsiao-hsiang, who had
just tried to warn him of this, emerges from the apartment above to throw
down a booklet of some sorts. However, even after he leaves on his motorcycle through the door in the far distance, she continues to stand there rigidly
No Man an Island
Figure 5
Seeing life from a Shen-like distance in the courtyard in The Boys from Fengkuei (1983).
(figure 5). Here Hou offers only subtle suggestions: her posture suggests her
unease, whereas A-ho’s nonchalance reveals his indifference to her warnings
about stealing from his job, an indifference that will eventually destroy their
relationship. This example shows how Hou can now get by with the bare
minimum to communicate the situation without the usual recourse to cut-ins
and close-ups that would have made this all palpably obvious. The master
shot suffices after all. Yet he also presents a deeper philosophical message of
a larger world engulfing these human actions with its own rhythm, and its
own cool indifference.
Nevertheless, there is clearly one thing Hou is not yet conscious of: stillness. The Boys from Fengkuei is certainly another advance in Hou’s mastery
of the long take: now the average shot length is nearly 19 seconds per shot
rather than the “mere” 16 seconds in The Sandwich Man. Given its unusual
distancing, one might expect a higher percentage of perfectly still shots. This,
however, is not quite the case: 30% of the shots in this film still have overt
camera movements, while another 15% contain at least a slight reframing
or two. While these figures seem low, they are nothing compared to what
Hou will do in subsequent films. Hou does use a lot of pans, a modicum of
tilts, and by my count, close to twenty zooms. (Even stranger yet, by Hou
standards, are stretches of elliptical editing used when they chase the chicken,
or wait for the correct bus in Kaohsiung.) Yet somehow this odd mixture is
not so odd, and all blends together quite well with the indelible compositions of unforgettable landscapes. In the context of the film as a whole, these
camera movements are almost like unforced breaths, done without calculation or reason — a part of the rhythm of life itself.
Ultimately, all of these traits operate in tandem to convey an attitude
towards his subject matter that is undeniably Hou Hsiao-hsien. Hou’s
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
depiction of Taiwan is unvarnished to an unprecedented degree in Taiwanese
cinema up to that time. Consider Hou’s characters in this film: boys who
fight at the drop of the hat and yet who are squeamish about slaughtering a
chicken; younger boys who gamble only to get cheated by older boys; adults
who not only gamble, but also scheme, even with “false” widescreens; an
imbecilic father incapacitated; a mother who impulsively throws a knife at
her son and then immediately apologizes; older sisters who either do not
understand or do not properly guide; multiple shades of relationships, all
ill-defined, such as Chin-ho and Hsiao-hsiang, or A-jung’s “unregistered”
brother-in-law, gleefully played by Hou himself. Hou does not take pride
in their flaws, or offer any moral judgment whatsoever of these people or
actions. They simply are what they are. Almost as if Shen Congwen was now
his co-pilot, hereafter Hou never completely loses this Shen-like view of the
world. Then again, never again does he express it quite as freely as he does
in The Boys from Fengkuei. Sooner or later, one does become aware, not only
of the world, but of one’s portrayal of it. When that happens, the moment of
making a film like Boys also passes into the private yet treasured recesses
of memory.
A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984)
By the time A Summer at Grandpa’s came out, it had company. The CMPC had
distributed most of the New Cinema films, but produced far fewer, although
they did encourage co-productions, even with Hong Kong.62 (That Day,
on the Beach (dir. Edward Yang, 1983), for example, was a joint production
between the CMPC and Cinema City.) The majority of the films in 1983–1984
were made by private companies: Montage Films produced Wang Tong’s
A Flower in the Rainy Night (1983); Gao Shi is listed as the company for Old
Mo’s Second Spring (1984); Jade Love (1984) has Tian Xia as its production
company; and Woman of Wrath (1984) lists Tang Chen as its sole producer.63
That most of these “independent” productions occur in the first two years of
the movement shows how much gaining a degree of independence was one
of the primary goals of the New Cinema. That the CMPC shouldered more
and more of the production responsibilities during 1985 and 1986 belies how
difficult it was to pull off economic independence in the Taiwanese film
industry. From the start, the New Cinema was caught between a political
rock and an economic hard place.
Hou’s early career reflected these frustrated aspirations. The key person
during the 1980s was Zhang Huakun, a producer since the early 1970s who
knew Hou and Chen Kunhou from almost the beginning. Zhang became
Hou’s producer with The Green, Green Grass of Home in 1982. At the end of
that year he, along with Hou, Chen and Xu Shuzhen, formed a new production company called Wannianqing, which has been called the first truly
No Man an Island
independent production company in Taiwan.64 Of course, “independent” is a
slippery term anywhere, often qualified by the harsh reality of film distribution. Wannianqing still had to operate within the existing system, investing
their own funds, and yet needing outside distribution contracts. This they
did for Hou’s The Boys from Fengkuei and A Summer at Grandpa’s, plus other
famed New Cinema works such as Ah Fei (1983) and Taipei Story (1985). Since
none of these films were box-office hits, thereafter Zhang and company
were forced to rely on the CMPC to invest directly in their films and to accept
the CMPC label. Yet even then, the pressures on Hou would only intensify,
as we shall see.
In A Summer at Grandpa’s, Hou already seems more self-aware than in
The Boys from Fengkuei. Boys is based mostly on his own experiences. Now
this story of a young boy and younger sister’s memorable summer at their
grandfather’s house/clinic in rural Taiwan is based on Chu Tien-wen’s childhood memories of a summer in exactly the same location. The film serves
as further evidence of Chu’s impact on Hou. One Taiwanese scholar notes
that Chu’s narration is somewhat “disorderly” since it is “essay-like,” with
unexpected complications, obstacles and difficulties.65 “Essay-like” seems
a particularly apt description here: the structure of A Summer at Grandpa’s
overall seems almost like a series of memorable incidents that would fill a
“What I Did Last Summer” essay on the first day of a composition class.
Only there is nothing child-like about this cinematic “essay” no matter how
vividly it captures the feelings of childhood. Rather, it reflects the adult transformations of such memories by expert and talented hands, showing not
childhood as it “really is,” but how it lingers in one’s memories as an adult,
colored by the subtle nuances of time and experience. These transformations
make what could have been just a simple children’s story into a deeper and
more sophisticated work, once again with multiple hidden layers of feeling.
At first glance A Summer at Grandpa’s seems the inverse of The Boys from
Fengkuei: instead of going from the country to the city, this film goes from
the city to the country, and stays there. In truth, however, the two films share
some similar structural qualities. As with the previous film, here a narrative
spine provides an overall trajectory of awareness on the part of its protagonists: the entire summer passes under the shadow of a mother’s illness back
in the city. In this case, however, this “core” narrative thread is not merely
gossamer, it is practically invisible. After the second scene in the hospital,
the mother is never seen again. Instead, a series of narrative episodes are
interspaced with sudden letters or phone calls from the city updating them
on her condition. Still, whatever her physical state is at any time seems to
affect the entire tenor of the everyday happenings in the countryside. For the
first forty-plus minutes of the film, for example, there does not seem to be
much to worry about, and the mother is not mentioned for nearly a half an
hour. During this is one of the funniest episodes in any Hou film: the boys
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
go swimming naked in a shallow river, while Ting-ting watches. Tung-tung
makes her leave. She does, but not before defiantly tossing their clothes into
the river downstream. When they are frightened out of the water by floating
cow manure, they realize that floating cow-shit is the least of their problems.
The next shot is back in the village. An extreme long shot shows the boys
sneaking back into town, and only slowly does the viewer register that they
have only large green leaves to cover their privates. One boy scampers off
to the right and off-screen. Then suddenly he sheepishly reemerges as an
embodied, scolding motherly voice rings out: “Where are your clothes?!”
Hou’s long take at an extreme distance can accomplish many different
effects, including humor.
At around forty-four minutes into the film, however, more news arrives
from Taipei: their mother’s condition is more serious than they had thought.
Right after this, Tung-tung has a series of not-so-pleasant encounters, each
of which makes him more aware that this pristine world is not so pristine
after all: he sees a robbery of two truck drivers; he is at the pool hall while his
uncle and girlfriend make love in an adjacent room; then he sees the injured
truck driver with his bloodied skull at the clinic, and finally he witnesses
his grandfather banish his uncle since he has gotten his girlfriend pregnant
out of wedlock. It does not seem to let up thereafter: before long Ting-ting
is almost run over by a train were it not for the intervention by Han-tzu, the
crazy woman they all belittled. Then Tung-tung has to turn in his own uncle
for sheltering two criminals even though this feels like a betrayal on his part.
Instead of a carefree summer, this becomes an unending litany of life lessons
for a young boy. He has gone from simply being, to being painfully aware.
Yet the style reveals why A Summer at Grandpa’s is yet another major step
forward in Hou’s career and not just more of the same. In this case, duration
is not an indicator. The average shot length for the film as a whole is nearly
identical to that of The Boys from Fengkuei — in fact it is even slightly lower
at around 18.5 seconds per shot. Yet this hardly indicates a “regression”
since there now seems to be a more intricate use of staging and composition
than in his previous works. Most significant, however, is how for the first
time Hou is consciously aware of the uses of a static camera instead of a
moving one.
Two examples will suffice to demonstrate how much Hou is able to stage
and compose an individual shot. When the grandfather discovers that his
son (the uncle of the two children) has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, he in
no uncertain terms chases him out of the clinic. The last shot of this scene is
a long take just over a minute long. The camera is carefully placed to create
a strong diagonal composition from the foreground on the left side of the
frame, towards the background on the right side. Initially both the grandfather, who is wielding a stick, and the uncle are to the left of two trees.
Yet when the grandfather takes a few menacing steps towards the uncle, the
No Man an Island
uncle backs up until he is perfectly placed in the gap between the two trees,
making him still visible to the viewer. A careful viewer will have time to
notice how the uncle reacts when the grandfather beats a motorcycle. Once
again, this is a distanced long take in lieu of close-ups and more editing.
Then there is the first of no less than a half dozen shots in this film which
emphasize the stairwell landing inside the clinic. (These are Hou’s most
Ozu-like shots, yet without the graphic matching with subsequent shots.)
After the swimming incident, a mother of one of the boys arrives to ask
where her son might have gone. In the foreground of this shot is the landing
with wood stairs and some slippers on the left. Soon Tung-tung’s and his
aunt’s legs appear on that stairwell. Tung-tung stops halfway down the
lower steps with his back to the camera. Now perfectly placed on either
side of them are the worried mother, just to the left, and Tung-tung’s grandmother, just to the right. Later on, when the uncle appears and asks what is
happening, he appears a little further back and yet is also perfectly placed
between Tung-tung and the grandmother (figure 6).
Significantly, both of these long takes just discussed are completely
static. A Summer at Grandpa’s is not on the whole more distanced than The
Boys from Fengkuei, nor are its shots longer in duration on average, as already
noted. Yet clearly a higher percentage of these shots are also absolutely static.
Recall that in Boys around 30% of the shots have overt camera movements.
By contrast, in Summer only about 17% of the shots have noticeable camera
movements. Even the percentage of shots with only slight reframings has
decreased slightly from 15% to about 12.5%. This means that in seven out of
every ten shots of this film the camera remains utterly immobile.
The static camera and the long take together are apparently done for a
reason: for the first fifty-three and a half minutes, the ASL is 17.3 seconds
Figure 6
The stairwell landing in A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984).
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
per shot, and 23% of the shots have overt camera movements, while another
14% have just slight reframings. Once the uncle is banished from the house,
however, the film takes on a more somber feel due to some stylistic changes:
for the next twenty-two minutes the ASL is 20.1 seconds per shot, and yet
an even lower percentage of those shots contain movement (20% overt;
9% only slight reframing). Even more striking is what happens at the
“climax” of the film. During “Ghost Month,” the family receives the call from
Taipei (yet another shot with the same stairwell landing in the foreground)
indicating that the mother has gone into a coma due to an allergic reaction to
anesthetics. A muted crisis ensues. Hou’s style draws out this tense, somber
mood in a subtle and contemplative way. The ASL for the last twenty-two
minutes is 20.6 seconds per shot, yet the percentage of those shots with
any movement defies the normal “logic” of film language, since now fewer
than 10% of these shots in this last section have overt camera movements,
and just over 12% have slight reframing. In other words, over three quarters
of these shots in the last part of this film are completely still.
Why does he do this? There are two ways to explain this. One common
trope among critics and filmmakers in Taiwan is that the style of Taiwanese
films is the result of the concrete conditions of filmmaking in Taiwan. Many
have noted that limited equipment and budgets forced these filmmakers to
use such “innovations” as natural lighting, fewer camera set-ups and, yes,
even a static camera. Zhang Yi had this to say about his own films: “I am
most dissatisfied with how I have handled my own images. I would love for
my shots to move freely about just like Bernardo Bertolucci’s and bring the
audience into the deeper layers of reality. But given the present conditions
of production, is this even possible?”66 Hou, on other hand, apparently had
no desire to be a Bertolucci; he did not restrict his camera movements out of
necessity, but out of conscious choice. Once again, the grandfather’s clinic
played a key role, since the octogenarian doctor still lived there and was
still practicing medicine when this film was in production. As a result of
these logistical hassles, Hou and his crew had to work around the doctor’s
schedule which always included a long siesta around noon during which
time the film crew had to be absolutely quiet. Those imposed siestas, with
their resonating stillness and tranquility, profoundly affected Hou. He says
he fell in love with that certain atmospheric quality. Thus, for the first time
he purposefully kept the camera still in an attempt to capture that feeling on
film.67 As a result, another piece of the aesthetic puzzle fell in place, and a
crucial one at that. Duration seemed to have crept up on Hou, distancing he
seemed more aware of. But the static camera was almost a happy accident,
except it was the accident of a director becoming ever more aware of what he
was doing. Now he could apply this awareness even closer to home.
No Man an Island
A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985)
The Boys from Fengkuei is essentially a fictional work based on autobiographical details from Hou’s life. By contrast, A Time to Live, A Time to Die is essentially an autobiographical work which, at least according to Hou years later,
contained only two fictional elements: the cheap wicker furniture since his
father thought they would not stay in Taiwan long, and the grandmother
always attempting to return to mainland China.68 If everything else in this
film is true, we get a frank, and not always flattering, self-portrait of filmmaker as a young man: Hou as a young boy was a wanderer who even
gambled with stolen money. As a teenager he was a leader of a hooligan
gang, but not a very successful one. He fought with a dull samurai blade
in the streets, faked cheating on an exam just to irk his teacher, read dirty
novels in secret and even lost his virginity to a prostitute, the proof of which
is in a red envelope he received from her.69 Yet he has his sensitive side as
well: as a young boy he had that Shen-like propensity to observe every
detail, even the effect of a lathe on wood. Moreover, as a teenager he cried
unexpectedly and profusely at his mother’s funeral.
For Hou A Time to Live, A Time to Die was not only a return home (literally), it was a return to the CMPC. Once again, this was part of the troubled
overall trajectory of the Taiwanese New Cinema. Starting in 1985, the CMPC
took a more direct role in producing New Cinema films. My Favorite Season
(1985), Runaway (1985), Reunion (1986) and Han-sheng, My Son (1986) all list
the CMPC, or its subsidiary, Sunny Films, as its sole producer. Others were
co-productions. The remarkable The Terrorizers (1986) lists both Sunny Films
and Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest as its production companies in its opening
credits; Chen Kunhou’s 1987 work, Osmanthus Alley, claims the CMPC, local
producer-distributor Scholar Films and Golden Harvest as its producers.
Hou certainly looked at the CMPC with a great deal of ambivalence, and
once he got a chance to leave, he did. Yet this company, for all its shortcomings, did allow him to make his most mature New Cinema works, of which
A Time to Live, A Time to Die was the first.
The CMPC is important in another respect, because it was the training
ground for the most important of Hou’s technical personnel to the present
day: an editor, Liao Qingsong; a sound expert, Du Duzhi; and Mark Lee
(Li Pinbing), Hou’s most oft-used cinematographer. This technical crew
has been nothing short of exceptional, arguably as good as any director
could ever hope for anywhere, any time. Du Duzhi joined the CMPC when
he was only eighteen years old, (not long after Hou had his first job on a
set with Li Xing). Du worked there as an assistant for eight years, gaining
ample experience in the process, he says, but leaving him dissatisfied with
how things were generally done. He got his opportunity to change things
when he first worked on In Our Times in 1982. Thereafter he demonstrated
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
an uncanny knack for making dubbed films sound more and more like they
were recorded in sync sound, and often deceived unsuspecting ears.70 Hou
himself notes admiringly how Du would spend hours upon hours recording
nearly every possible sound he came across, carefully compiling and cataloging them in a rich sound library. He says that same of Liao Qingsong, who in
his early days would take home prints from the CMPC and study carefully
how films are put together. Likewise Mark Lee would take meticulous notes
on every light source in any scene he ever shot.71
As much as the CMPC provided Hou with some stability and personnel, it could not shield him from a viscous wave of attacks resulting from
this film. In 1985, the split of new versus old was reconfigured as the “proHou” and “anti-Hou” camps. What is surprising, however, is that the latter
used another New Cinema director as their “favorite” against Hou, Zhang
Yi. Zhang was no stranger to controversy: his film from the year before,
Jade Love, was subject to severe reprobation in the Minsheng Daily which
blamed the “excesses” of the New Cinema for all that ailed the indigenous
film industry.72 This reversal from charlatan to luminary was based on the
unexpected box-office success of Zhang’s next film, Kuei-mei, A Woman. This
success, more than anything, was due to publicity concerning its female star,
Yang Huishan, putting on a lot of weight over the course of the production to
more accurately play the entire life of a woman.73 This disingenuous support
for Zhang was merely a convenient means of attacking Hou’s A Time to Live,
A Time to Die (1985), which was deemed a failure at home, like his previous
two films, even though in reality it had at least broken even at the box office.
(Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, in which Hou acted, did much worse.)74 One
critic, Liang Liang, notes that Time and Kuei-mei both use long takes, but only
Zhang Yi’s film also uses drama to appeal to a general audience. Hou, on the
other hand, is reproached for how little “concern” he shows for either his
audience or for the storyline.75 As a result of this anti-Hou campaign, A Time
to Live, A Time to Die, despite winning numerous awards abroad (including at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival), lost out to Kuei-mei, A Woman at
Taiwan’s own Golden Horse Awards. (For Hou, this would not be the only
time this would happen.)
This controversy illustrates that the core issue was not politics, but
economics. Blaming Hou and the New Cinema for what ailed the domestic
film industry was baseless. Films that could be classified as New Cinema
works never exceeded 10% of the total produced in Taiwan over those years.
Furthermore, New Cinema films appealed to a specialized audience that is
not sizeable in any country. One writer called this “the equiva1ent of blaming
a decline in the sales of popular music on those who produce records of classical music.”76 The driving force behind the “anti-Hou faction” was artistic
personnel from the old school whose failures in the 1980s were much more
glaring than those of the New Cinema. These people and their films now had
No Man an Island
neither a domestic nor a festival audience, and they could not accept their
own creeping irrelevance.77
It seems strange today that such a battle ever occurred. Zhang Yi is
now all but forgotten as a director since his film career did survive beyond
the New Cinema movement itself. Why did he in the long run pass into
oblivion, unlike Hou? Certainly it was not from lack of trying to be an “art”
director. Besides Hou, Zhang Yi was the only other New Cinema director
in the 1980s whose films together averaged more than 20 seconds per
shot. Hou’s films from The Sandwich Man to Daughter of the Nile average
23.5 seconds per shot. Zhang Yi’s four works during this period surprisingly average 32 seconds per shot. However, compared to Hou, Zhang Yi’s
narratives are much more conventional. Despite having more camera movements, Zhang Yi’s images are conspicuously lifeless compared to Hou.
The compositions for the most part are functional in nature, going little
beyond the requirements of visibility. While much more natural-looking
than Taiwanese films of the 1970s, the lighting is inexpressive and flat when
compared to Hou’s. Most striking, however, is how Zhang Yi will have long
stretches where his characters do not move at all, demonstrating none of the
dexterity and intricacy of staging that Hou utilizes. In short, while Zhang
Yi’s visual design serves the basic need to make things visible, Hou’s compositions demonstrate an imaginative play with the parameters of visibility. Without the immediate relevance of its waist-shifting star, Kuei-mei has
faded over the years and is largely forgotten. Time, if anything, is the exact
A Time to Live, A Time to Die is certainly another step forward in Hou’s
long take/static camera aesthetic. The average shot length for the film as
a whole is now nearly 24 seconds per shot. Moreover, the takes get longer
on average as the film progresses: for the first hour until his father’s death,
the average shot length is around 21 seconds; for the next hour or so until
his mother’s funeral, the figure is 25 seconds per shot; for the last eleven
plus minutes until his grandmother’s death, the average is now just over
31 seconds per shot. Despite longer takes on average, now less than a
quarter of the shots in the film as a whole have any movement whatsoever,
and this figure includes those with only slight reframing at best. Despite
increasingly long takes in the second half of this film, once again that odd
tendency emerges to have an even greater number of completely static shots.
(Including those shots with only the slightest reframings, only 22–23% of the
shots in the last two sections move, versus 26% for the first hour.) It is clear
that Hou wanted to go even further with the long take. However, with Time
he now reached the technical limits of equipment then commonly used in
Taiwan. The Arri II camera magazines could hold only 400 feet of film stock.
In one crucial scene, right after the death of the father, Hou had hoped to
capture the mother leading the rest of the family in mourning in one long
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
take. However, the camera ran out of film stock just before what he claims
was the best part of that performance, and this forced him to do cut-ins.78
More notable in this film, and just as important in the long term, is the
full consideration paid to lighting for the first time in Hou’s career.79 It is no
coincidence that this is where his longstanding working relationship with
Mark Lee began. It appears that each man had to adjust to the other. Lee
says that working with Hou was different from working with other directors, because Hou would not break scenes down into discrete shots. This
forced Lee himself to consider successive shots and the problems of light
and shadow in ways he had never faced before. When he finished shooting
this film, he felt exhausted emotionally.80 For Hou, Lee’s relative inexperience was to his advantage. Previously all of his films had been shot by
Chen Kunhou. Nevertheless, Hou felt that the Japanese-style house in this
film had a certain “flowing, expansive” feeling that would best be captured
using only natural light. This required opening up the aperture and allowing
a much shallower depth of field, something Chen would have resisted.
The only lighting instruments used here were some Japanese-style HMI
reflecting lights.81 This was yet another marked break from existing practice
in Taiwan.
So the details are all there, intricately wrought, exquisitely arranged,
even more so than in his previous works. Yet it seems as if these details are
just cobbled together into episodes even more loosely connected than Hou’s
previous two films. To be sure, the charge that this film lacks “drama” in the
conventional meaning of the term is entirely correct. Yet expecting drama in
this sense once more misses how A Time to Live, A Time to Die is a film to be
first experienced as a flow of memories. In truth, this is a much more sophisticated work compared to his previous films, even structurally speaking.
One way Hou structures this film is through a disruptive and sometimes
retroactive strategy of narrative exposition. In a sense, he has been doing this
all along. Hou’s earliest films are structured around richly drawn quotidian
moments in which suddenly an unexpected, and unexplained, irruption will
occur. For example, in The Boys from Fengkuei there were sudden outbursts
of violence only later explained; in A Summer at Grandpa’s, after having so
long forgotten that somebody was even in the hospital, a sudden phone
call informs those at the grandfather’s house that the mother is in a coma.
Now Hou speaks openly about delayed exposition, such as when the chalk
mark on the young boy’s desk is not explained until a later scene.82 By itself
delayed exposition is not an uncommon practice, not even in Hollywood.
(Suspense is built on this.) But Hou’s eventual originality lies in his peculiar
handling of delayed exposition: since the incidental and the significant are
intermixed on an even playing field, we are less prepared for the latter when
it occurs. This becomes clearer once we note how this film is structured
No Man an Island
around three key deaths in Hou’s life: that of the father, the mother and
finally the grandmother at the end of the film.
If there is any trait that distinguishes the New Cinema from the “old,”
it is their respective treatments of death. Li Xing’s He Never Gives Up (1978)
ends with the death of the father figure surrounded by his entire family, one
of many such endings over his career. The purpose of this scene is to proffer
highly moralistic messages in measured, calculated strokes, each designed
to increase the requisite Confucian catharsis. This death is drawn out to
give the protagonist ample time to prepare for his final end, and plenty of
time for others to say goodbye and remind him that he led a good, proper
life. By stark contrast, in New Cinema films death comes without warning,
and in the most unheroic of circumstances. In Ah Fei, for example, the death
of the maternal grandfather is utterly pedestrian, occurring in the middle
of one of the most mundane moments of a person’s life: a man is getting
a shave and nothing more. In Reunion (1986), a picnic of growing students
with their beloved teacher from the past proceeds leisurely and uneventfully, until suddenly some students in a boat capsize. Yet nothing prepares
us for the drowning of the teacher’s fiancé, who swam out to rescue them,
seemingly without any problem at first.
Like these two other New Cinema examples, death arrives unexpectedly
in Hou’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die, not once, but thrice. Likewise, these
occur in the most ordinary of circumstances, and without warning. Most
striking is the death of Hou’s father. Although three minutes long, the scene
is completed in only eight shots. Despite averaging 22.5 seconds per shot,
not once does the camera move even an inch, largely because it is often
kept at a great distance from the action. More importantly, there is nothing
in the scene — no closer shots, no anticipatory music — to prepare one for
the death itself. Instead, what is accentuated here, even more than in our
examples from Ah Fei and Reunion, is a family caught up, not in the drama
of life, but in the ordinary routines of life unexpectedly disrupted by the
ultimate demise of the father.
The first four shots merely highlight familiar incidental details of
the family’s life at night. The fifth shot, however, is over a minute long. The
foreground is a darker room, yet one can see a smaller room in the distance
exposed by a Japanese panel door that is half open. An electrical blackout
for more than a half a minute shrouds the room in darkness except for some
candles lit. Nearly a minute into the shot the lights come back on and the
room is empty. Then a female voice shrilly cries out to the mother, and A-ha’s
(Hou as a boy) head peers around the edge of the Japanese-style panel. The
next two shots cut to the left side of the front room, showing an already dead
father in profile as the female members of the family try to draw breath out of
him, crying desperately (figure 7). The final shot returns to the street outside
the house, now showing neighbors as they slowly gather around, wondering
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
Figure 7
The unexpected, pedestrian death of the father in A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985).
what has just occurred. There are tears in this scene and in the following two,
but these tears are nothing like those found in Li Xing. They do not make the
death ordered, cathartic, sentimental — they make it palpably real. Seeing
the actors respond as they do makes one almost uncomfortable, like one is
intruding on a most private moment and should not even be there.
A Time to Live, A Time to Die represents the death of something more
than three family members. Just before the father dies, the grandmother gets
lost trying to “go back to the mainland,” something she does repeatedly.
(Somehow she thinks it is within walking distance.) This time, however,
she takes A-ha with her. Supposedly on their way back to the mainland, the
grandmother and grandson become distracted by a tree full of guavas. The
very last scene of the film is the death of this same grandmother, and the final
lines of Hou’s own voice-over remind us of this incident, “I still often think
about Grandma’s road back to the mainland. Perhaps I was the only one
who ever walked with her down that road. I remember that afternoon we
picked a lot of guavas home.” With those lines, the film ends. The guava
incident is something more than just another detail: it symbolizes the entire
arc of this film. Hou’s previous films follow a growing arc of awareness by
its youngest characters. Here it is the opposite: this is an arc of forgetting, the
fading away of thoughts about the mainland. The grandmother wants to go
home, but even she gets distracted by local delicacies such as shaved ice and
guavas. That Hou invented the details about the grandmother wanting to go
back, plus the wicker furniture, shows that he was after a deeper message of
how a new home came to be the only home he has ever known.
This arc of forgetting also informs the historical sense of the film. For
Hou’s family, only personal, familial history matters. With radio broadcasts
of air battles in the background, the family almost indifferently eats sugar
cane, discussing only how this affects them as a family and no more. Later
they receive a letter with news of a relative who could not leave China,
No Man an Island
and who is caught up in Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1959.
Once again, however, nothing is said of “Communists bandits” or affairs of
state. The mother only rues that it is a shame that the relative never got out.
Thereafter there are no more references to China except that of the grandmother. One writer notes the deeper significance of the background events
found in its two halves of the film: the first half (ending with the wake of his
father) occurs during the peak of the Cold War in Taiwan in 1958 when there
was even aerial combat between the ROC and the PRC. The second half,
however, occurs around the time of the death of Vice President Chen Cheng,
in 1965. This death represented the true end of the tense era of the 1950s, and
a shift towards rapid development and an export-oriented economy.83 This
historical backdrop accents Hou’s complete surrender to Taiwan in his youth.
He and his cronies even play pool on the day of the funeral of the vice president, showing no fear of disrespect, and nonchalantly fighting the soldiers
who found their behavior an outrage. Slowly, imperceptibly, China recedes
into the distance while the Taiwanese Experience quietly takes over.
A Time to Live, A Time to Die is a deceptively simple film. Not only are
there hidden layers of feeling, there are the uncharted depths of unofficial
history, reflecting an alternative historical philosophy in the making. Hou
at one point says that this film was heavily criticized by the GIO, and had it
been made ten years earlier, it would have been banned outright.84 What a
strange thing to be true for a film putatively lacking in structure or drama,
being nothing but the mundane details of everyday life supposedly cobbled
together. Of course, it is much more than that. Made two years before the
lifting of martial law, not only does this film have resonances and structures
not often perceived at first, in a most understated way it is suffused with
poetic subversion.
Dust in the Wind (1986)
The year 1986 was a landmark year for Taiwanese cinema, at least in the
aesthetic and diplomatic sense. After all, this was the year that both
Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers and Hou’s Dust in the Wind were released,
arguably the two crowning achievements of the Taiwanese New Cinema.
Every Hou film in the New Cinema by that point had won an award at some
festival: Mannheim (The Sandwich Man); Nantes (The Boys from Fengkuei,
A Summer at Grandpa’s); Rotterdam, Hawaii and Berlin (A Time to Live, A Time
to Die). Dust in the Wind continued this remarkable streak by winning the
prizes for best director, best cinematography and best music at Nantes.
By 1986, both Hou and Yang received awards from the GIO for making
cultural contributions to the ROC, proof that the government now saw the
propaganda value of these successes.85
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
The ROC government was not the key institution behind this success.
Rather it was what is best known as the international festival circuit, an institution which sustains Hou’s career to the present day. The government
understood soon enough that these festival awards were diplomatic coups,
yet their own promotion of these films was lackluster compared to other
nations. Instead these films were most forcefully promoted at festivals by
Peggy Chiao.86 Chiao’s prowess as a promoter notwithstanding, the reasons
for the receptiveness of these film festivals in the 1980s are quite complex,
especially given the peculiar geopolitical status of Taiwan. Chia-chi Wu
notes that “upper middle-rank” festivals such as Nantes were in tune with
the economic boom in East Asia during that time, and they used films from
the region as a form of product differentiation.87 Taiwanese films, however,
were handicapped by the political marginalization of the ROC. No festival at
first would label these as films from “Taiwan.” At Berlin in 1986, for example,
A Time to Live, A Time to Die was affixed with the Olympic-sounding label,
“Taiwan/China.”88 Edward Yang at the Locarno Film Festival was told that
The Terrorizers would likely become sacrificed due to political pressures.
Even though the film still managed a second prize there, the incident only
brought into sharp relief how Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation worked against
its films as well.89
And yet, these films kept on winning award after award. Why? Because
these films were arguably the most original in East Asia at the time, and it
was incumbent upon them to be so to get any notice at all. Xiao Ye explains
how both The Boys from Fengkuei and A Summer at Grandpa’s were to be shown
at the Berlin Film Festival despite pressure from the PRC to keep them out.
As he puts it: “Were it not for the excellence of the films themselves, these
would have never found their destiny in Berlin.”90 And this would have an
effect. Chia-chi Wu notes that Hou’s earlier entries at Nantes had the label
“Taiwan, Chine” foisted on them, but with Dust the official label became
“Taiwan.” To him this is an indication that the organizers’ political qualms
were eventually overridden by Hou’s “artistic difference.”91
Still, Hou was uncertain at first as to what this particular film should be
about, a result of the controversies surrounding his previous work. Finally
he decided to base this on the experiences of Wu Nien-jen on the advice of
Zhan Hongzhi.92 Dust in the Wind would be the last film Hou made at the
CMPC. The heads of the studio tried to dock nine days’ pay due to delays
caused by three typhoons, a sign of how much they still adhered to a lowbudget mentality.93 Nevertheless, Hou describes this as the film where he
finally overcame all of the particular problems he had faced in his previous
films, most of all at the technical level.94 A major technical breakthrough was
the Arri III camera, used for the first time instead of the Arri II, offering everything from a better sensitivity to light, a greater ability to focus, broader
color gradation, not to mention having a much larger film magazine.95 Yet
No Man an Island
this camera posed its own challenges. This was the first film Hou made with
Li Tianlu, the famous puppeteer who plays the grandfather. Hou found that
using dubbing, which was standard practice in both Taiwan and Hong Kong,
was out of the question given Li’s age. However, given how noisy the Arri III
was, they had to improvise with a blimp by wrapping the camera in black
blankets.96 That Li’s lines were recorded on the set was yet another important technical step taken by Hou and company, which would bear full fruit
in City of Sadness.
Still, it is hard to imagine Hou pitching this film. A boy (Wan) from a
small Northern mining town decides to go to Taipei to look for work in the
early 1970s. He finds a job in a print shop, then another job. He also goes to
night school. About two years later his longtime girlfriend (Huen) comes to
Taipei from the same town and looks for work as well. She gets a job as a
seamstress. They have their ups and downs. Suddenly Wan receives his draft
notice. Stationed in Kinmen, Wan gets letters from Huen for about the first
year, then he does not. Finally his brother writes to him to tell him that Huen
married somebody else, a postman. Wan goes home. His grandfather talks
about the weather. The credits roll. Nobody dies in this film, and nobody is
quite near death; even his father’s injury is hardly life-threatening, unlike
the mother’s coma in A Summer at Grandpa’s. This seemingly is Hou’s lightest
film in some time.
Nevertheless, one writer in Taiwan stated this about Dust in the Wind:
“With this film Taiwan finally has a work of art that can compare with the
‘economic miracle.’”97 Hou’s handling of this seemingly threadbare storyline
results in an extraordinarily deep work. Not only has he now consolidated
all of the steps taken as a New Cinema director in sure-footed fashion, he has
taken yet another facet of the Taiwanese Experience and gone well beyond
that, to something more universal, almost primal. Dust in the Wind is proof
enough that sometimes it is not the story that is told, but how it is told, which
is most important.
With talent and technology in tow, Hou now pushes the envelope with
every aesthetic step hitherto taken. First, in terms of duration, the average
shot length now jumps to 33 seconds, a figure that exceeds most of Renoir’s
films and matches many of Mizoguzhi’s famous works. Second, the camera
in this film overall is more distanced than ever. By my count, there are 196
shots in this film, yet 35 have no people in them at all. Of these, almost half
are establishing shots of particular locales, or detail shots, most of all of
letters sent to and fro, a major motif in this film. Another 7 are shots of either
clocks or train signals, markers of another key motif — the train — which
connects the city and the countryside. Another dozen shots in this film can
be said to be “pure” landscape shots, meaning there are no people visible
in them, and nature, whether the sea, the sky or mountains, becomes the
main focal point. Of the 161 remaining shots with people in them, by my
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
calculations almost one quarter of these shots (38 to be exact) are done in an
extreme long shot, many being landscape shots where the human figures are
mere dots. Most of these are taken at the mining village, such as the three
long takes of the grandfather sending Wan off to the military. Even shots in
the crowded city of Taipei will show the characters literally dwarfed by the
surroundings, such as when Huen is on the balcony at Wan’s place. Add 31
other shots which are primarily a long shot, 45% of all the shots with people
in them are a long shot or wider. In addition, the number of static shots is
simply astounding given how long these shots last on average. Less than
one-fifth of the shots (18.4%) in this film have camera movement, and when
they are there, they are used to a very calculated effect as we shall see. Almost
half of those shots which do move are at best very slight reframings which
represent no significant change in composition. Most of the overt camera
movements are only slight pans and tilts, often only for a few seconds. The
compositions are often of such intricate design requiring longer shot durations to allow all of the details to sink in. (Think of the print shop in which
Wan first works in.) The staging in some of these shots now become audacious. None of this is haphazard; everything finds its place.
Despite such a simple storyline, Dust in the Wind is certainly Hou’s most
challenging film up to that time. Still, it does not require intellect so much as
openness and a different frame of mind to be appreciated and experienced.
It is a much deeper and more rewarding film than one could ever expect from
a simple tale of unrequited love. Ultimately, this depth lies not in simply
longer, more distanced, more static and more intricate shots, but in how they
are tied together in an ingenious, and arguably unprecedented fashion. With
its veiled structure, Dust in the Wind may be one of Hou’s greatest feats.
Once again, Dust in the Wind appears at first but a randomly chosen set
of details drawn from everyday life. But many of these details now become
carefully crafted motifs which act as a resonant glue melding things together.
The very first shot and last shot introduce and reiterate two core motifs: the
train and the verdant landscapes which are characters in their own right.
The last shot of the film is of clouds and sea mingling with mountain peaks,
and yet in the distance, off-screen, one hears a train whistle. Shots of clocks
at the train station in turn connect to the all-important watch which Wan
received from his father. Letters in turn are connections bridging distances,
just like trains; but at the end of the film letters also signal severances such as
when Wan’s letters to Huen are inexplicably returned, and explained only in
a letter from his brother. (And to add motivic insult to injury, Huen married
a postman no less!) This break-up connects with another motif: movies. The
countryside and the city are connected by trains, yet are contrasted between
open-air and indoor movie screens. In her letter to Wan while he is in the
service, Huen includes ticket stubs after going to a movie with their mutual
friends and a certain postman, a meaningless detail at the time. The most
No Man an Island
ubiquitous motif, one found even strewn on the train tracks, or when a
mainland fishing family is stranded at his post, is food. Charles Tesson’s
essay on this film captures perfectly the symbolic significance of food in Dust
in the Wind, encapsulated in the last scene when Wan listens to his grandfather speak of failed crops and capricious weather. “The boy, in returning
home, has also returned to the source of food and is once again joined
together with nature.”98 For Hou, these are inescapable realities — food,
landscapes, nature — dwarfing our histories, forming the fundaments of
human experience, whether in Taiwan or elsewhere. With food, Hou reaches
for a primal core.
Yet this is more than an intricate mesh of motifs replacing the usual
direct chains of cause and effect. In Dust in the Wind there is cause and effect,
but often one only gets the effects, and learns of the causes later on. Take
for example, the break-up which comes almost out of the blue. When their
mutual friend, Chun, is in the hospital for a work-related injury, he talks
about his injury, his dreams and that the porridge is a little salty. (Food yet
again.) So mundane is the conversation that most viewers do not recognize
the set-up for another Hou-like disruption: for the entire shot Huen is seated
in a chair in the foreground with her back to the camera, offering us no clues
as to what she might be thinking. Only when Chun asks why the porridge is
so salty, and she does not respond, does Chun ask Wan, “What’s wrong with
her?” Wan answers sullenly that he just got his draft notice.
Once he is in the service, the two lovers exchange letters relaying the
mundane details of daily life. However, in Huen’s letter to Wan, two contradictory details emerge, although only in retrospect: on the one hand she gives
him the label of a brand of underwear. In Taiwan at that time, such a gesture
by a young woman indicated total devotion forever. On the other hand, she
shows him ticket stubs for the movies. Only later, since the postman has
gone with them to the movie, does this have life-changing implications.
Simply put, like Wan, we as viewers are utterly unprepared for this sudden
reversal of events. In a film nearly two hours long, here is a series of scenes
with numerous ellipses — all spanning a mere five minutes — where Huen
goes from counting the days before Wan will return from the military, to her
marrying somebody else. And the person she married? He was seen in
exactly two shots before this brief appearance in the flashback: when he was
delivering mail to her place of work, at which point he did not even know
who Huen was.
Even before this climax there are scant clues drowned out by the plethora
of quotidian details yet again. The published script is a revelation, since it
contains many more scenes than the finished film. Hou elides events which
he felt would make the drama too forceful or too direct.99 In the case of Wan
and Huen, Hou excised a couple of scenes penned by Wu Nien-jen where
Wan sees Huen at work possibly flirting with other young men. Had this
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
been left in the film, we would have been much better prepared for what
happens. Instead, we get only the slightest and momentary hints: barely
scandalous behavior such as “drinking with men” and taking her outer
shirt off to be painted by Chun. But soon these two moments are forgotten
in the onrushing floes of time when she makes Wan a shirt (which he wears
at the end of the film) and when she takes care of him during his bout with
Such surprises are everywhere in the film, and do not just involve Wan
and Huen. One only has to look at the first half hour of this film to see how
ingeniously Hou now uses sudden disruptions with his retroactive strategy,
resulting in full-blown experience before explanation. Think of what we
learn in the first twenty-plus minutes: we are introduced to various details
of Wan’s life in the mining town — his girlfriend, the train, his grandfather
trying to get his grandson to eat, his father’s injury, his own decision to go to
Taipei and a humorous incident revolving around his brother being punished
for eating medicine from the medicine cabinet. These seem like mere details
of the quotidian and nothing more. That is, until later on in Taipei when
Wan and the newly arrived Huen gather together to eat with his friends.
This is a long eating scene five minutes in length, done in only two shots.
It proceeds innocently enough. Huen soon gets up to retrieve a watch that
Wan’s father wants to give him. Everybody admires the watch, talking about
it and praising its automatic and waterproof qualities to no end. During the
second shot, the camera pans to the right slightly to focus attention on the
people admiring it. In fact, however, this rare camera movement serves to
distract the viewer from a significant detail. One person in the scene is not
talking, or even eating: Wan (figure 8). Instead of being happy about having
received this expensive watch, he suddenly storms out of the room (figure 9).
Everybody else, including the audience, is startled. Nothing, including the
Figure 8
A meal in Dust in the Wind (1986) where everyone admires a watch and ignores the
sullen state of its recipient.
No Man an Island
Figure 9
Then Wan suddenly storms out.
style, prepared us for this. Only two scenes later, when he writes a letter
home, do we realize the reason: Wan is afraid that his father cannot afford
such an expensive watch. Now we slowly come to realize something deeper
is at stake for Wan and his family — sheer survival. This changes the complexion of all the previous scenes, casting them with a darker tint in retrospect: the father’s injury means he cannot work, and cannot provide; the
grandfather wants his grandson to eat now, because perhaps there will not
be food later; the brother eats stomach medicine because he is hungry. There
are shades of survival throughout the film, in passing references made to
strikes, injuries and beatings. Dust in the Wind is not just about surviving a
lost love; it is about surviving life itself. Ultimately this means surviving the
caprices of nature. In this way the last speech by the grandfather, as ordinary
as it seems, connects with everything else.
Dust in the Wind is something more than a playground for aesthetes.
It is a primal return to the very basic qualities of human life, qualities which
somehow are brought into stark relief when undergoing the Taiwanese
Experience. Despite his youth, Hou has already developed a complex style
coupled with densely layered narratives. Still, this is not so surprising when
you consider where he is from, and what he has been through. With such a
rich depository of personal and collective experiences to draw from, when
Hou did join the New Cinema in 1983, he was already an old soul. Yet the
New Cinema period is but the opening chapter of a tortuous odyssey.
Daughter of the Nile (1987)
The year 1987 was a strange one for both Hou and Taiwan. It was the year
martial law was lifted, but this did not make things any easier, since it is also
the year the New Cinema came to its official end. The published declaration
of 1987, signed by nearly every participant and supporter of the movement,
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
called for clear governmental support of film as a “cultural” activity, and
demanded more room to create “another kind of cinema.”100 Immediately
questions were raised, however, as to what this “other cinema” might be,
and what institutional support it would require. This issue then came to a
head after Hou’s assistance on a government short entitled Everything for
Tomorrow. Hou’s participation in this project was not major (he was the
planner, not the director). It was not done out of sudden ideological enthusiasm on his part. Hou himself says that he did it as a personal favor to a
friend at the CMPC who was commissioned to do the project.101 But no
matter: to many it marked the complete capitulation of the New Cinema to
the system it had putatively cast doubt upon in its 1987 statement. Some said
that perhaps this surrender was inevitable given the fact that members of the
movement never created an alternative system to begin with.102
Such criticisms miss one crucial point: the New Cinema was never
outside of the system; it was the most telling manifestation of a system being
forced to change; the New Cinema was an artistic cathexis born and bred by
political and economic crises. Not that everything changed. What ultimately
killed the movement was a distribution system responding to conditions
long set by government policy which favored the Hong Kong film industry
now reaching its peak. According to one industry analyst, Huang Ren, the
distributors held so much power that film producers would often offer them
bribes in “red envelopes” to get good run times. More important was the
rapid turnover of these runs, which suited well action films or star-studded
romances that attract their audiences quickly, but was deadly for more
dramatic fare which often needed more time and word of mouth to achieve
box-office success.103 The rapid turnover of films benefited Hong Kong at
the expense of locally made films, which made Hong Kong the main cause for
the flagging film production in Taiwan — not the New Cinema. Taiwanese
distribution companies feasted on Hong Kong films, and those that held
the rights to distribute works from Hong Kong’s powerhouses were able to
control Taiwan’s market as a whole.104 Many looked to the government to
intervene. Yet few could face the scale of the problem, and the scope of the
needed solutions. One analysis summed it up best: to be truly competitive
entails a thorough revamping of the industry at all levels and a large-scale,
long-term investment. None of the existing production practices — not
the low-budget fare of Zhu Yenping, who does succeed in Taiwan, but not
abroad; not the auteurist cinemas of Hou and Yang, which succeed abroad,
but not at home — were the solution to the industry’s problems.105 In the end,
no solution was ever arrived at. Both the government and the film industry
remained paralyzed.
In other words, cinema in Taiwan was both a political and economic
minefield, and there were victims. Hou survived. However, given the economics and politics surrounding the New Cinema, Hou’s career would have
No Man an Island
ended with the movement had he relied on that alone. What allowed his
career to persist to this day is the mastery of a market outside of Taiwan.
It is for this reason that his transitional film of 1987, Daughter of the Nile,
is significant.
Leaving the CMPC for good in 1986 meant Hou needed to find money
elsewhere. In 1987, Edward Yang announced he was going to make a film
for Hong Kong’s D & B Company without any Taiwanese support. The
prospect of one of Taiwan’s finest turning to Hong Kong for investors caused
a major uproar in the local media. Soon thereafter an acceptable alternative
was found as Hou, Yang, Chen Guofu, Zhan Hongzhi and others joined with
Qiu Fusheng, the head of ERA International (a powerful Taiwanese video
distributor), to form The Film Cooperative.106 In one sense, this small firm
was like Wannianqing in that it sought co-productions with other companies. In reality, however, Hou would now find new ways of doing business.
The key person in this group was Zhan Hongzhi, a marketing and financial
wizard who is credited with giving lessons in what became known as “Hou
economics.” Hou rejected a joint venture with Golden Harvest to make City
of Sadness since Golden Harvest wanted the film to be a gangster story that
would take place in Macao. Zhan then came up with a new plan for film
financing. Rather than relying on a few large investors, money could be raised
by pre-selling the distribution rights abroad one region at a time, enough to
finance the film as a whole.107 While this resembled Hong Kong’s practice of
pre-selling rights to such markets as Taiwan, the acknowledged model was
Godard’s more incremental and global method of raising funds for overtly
non-commercial works. In retrospect this was the only way to go. It is easy
to forget that Hou’s films, while clearly not commercial fare, do make some
money in the long run. So strong was Hou’s cachet in the European market
that he personally got half of the 230,000 Marks paid by Channel One in
Germany for the television rights to show A Time to Live, A Time to Die. Due
to the success of both Time and Dust in the Wind in Europe, Hou was thus
able to negotiate 40% of the distribution fees for City of Sadness, guaranteeing
millions of NT dollars in return before the film’s release.108
Meanwhile, Hou made a film that is somewhat of an oddity: Daughter of
the Nile (1987). It proves there were some elements in the private industry in
Taiwan who still were willing to take a risk on Hou. (One of the subsidiaries
of Scholar films distributed it.) Yet the film itself is in many ways a disappointing step back after the consistent quality of his New Cinema works.
Hou himself was not happy with the result. According to him, Daughter was
really a star vehicle for Yang Ling, a popular singer in Taiwan, who was
too old to be playing a junior high girl. Moreover, it was a film her record
company wanted more than Hou did.109 Lacking any historical distance,
this work exemplifies how Hou finds portraying temporary life in the city
more difficult than either the city or countryside of the past. Not that there
Hou and the Taiwanese New Cinema
is nothing of interest here, aesthetically speaking. The film does have long
takes at 29 seconds per shot, and it is the most static film in Hou’s entire
career, since only about 10% of them have even a modicum of camera movements. Yet somehow the staging of the actors and the compositions seem flat
after the subtle vibrancy of his New Cinema works. The film does have its
defenders: Alvin Lu says this work provides Hou’s unique perspective on
popular culture in Taiwan, not to mention being a harbinger of the contemporary urban films of the 1990s by the likes of Tsai Ming-liang.110
Yet arguably the greatest significance of Daughter of the Nile is that it
emboldened Hou since his stature abroad gave him clout at home. Hou had
a run-in with the censors at the GIO over the ending of Daughter, which
contains a voice-over reciting the comic book from which the film derives its
name. It quotes Jeremiah’s biblical prophecy that someday Babylon would
become desolate. In the original Hou was going to show images of Taipei,
but in the finished version he was forced to use images from the comic book
itself. Hou did not take this sitting down. He threatened the GIO with an
international scandal, even declaring in the local press that the film inspection system was “unconstitutional” now that martial law was lifted.111
It proved to be a crucial lesson. Two years later, Hou and company would
manage to get City of Sadness released in Taiwan without any government
excisions or modifications, even though that film touched on the ultimate
taboo: the 228 Incident.
Had Hou not made another film after 1987, he would likely still be
remembered today for his New Cinema works alone. After all, he came to
practically define the movement, even more so than Edward Yang. Chen
Ruxiu has attempted to define this movement in aesthetic terms, yet many
of the traits he lists — most of all long takes, static camera, history filtered
through the personal memories of ordinary people112 — are better used to
describe Hou’s films than the movement as a whole. These are choices Hou
made, and these are exceptionally audacious choices: to use long takes and
a static camera, intricate staging and composition, all coupled with increasingly fragmentary, episodic narratives which cleverly disguise deeper connections, meanings and feelings. Yet these choices were also a product of
a particular time and place. It is remarkable that no producer or financier
ordered the requisite cut-ins, or those clearer causal connections one would
expect in a commercial film industry. But Hou had too much clout when he
joined the New Cinema, and the industry was too much in crisis to say otherwise — nothing else, not even the more commercial fare made in Taiwan,
was working either. Moreover, these films won awards abroad, a diplomatic
golden egg which allowed the goose to continue producing. Yet only for so
long. Sooner or later, Hou had to rely on outside sources for money. All the
while he dealt delicately with the deeper political implications of his films,
encasing them with a dense and brilliant aesthetic cast. He carefully tested
No Man an Island
the turbulent, changing waters of the 1980s. Only when all of the economic,
institutional and aesthetic pieces were in place by the end of the decade
did Hou really put everything to the test. The results of his next two films
were something beyond what anybody could have ever imagined, even by
Hou himself.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:06 GMT from JHU Libraries
History in Its Place
City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster (1993)
The Taiwanese Experience is inconceivable without Taiwanese history. The
autobiographical bent found in most New Cinema films ran counter to
the KMT’s longstanding refusal to separate Taiwan’s history from that of
China’s. Without making any overt statement or manifesto, the movement
announced what Taiwan really is, not what the official ideology fantasizes.
The Chinese title of Ke Yizheng’s Reunion says it all, translated literally as
“This Is How We Grew Up.” Outside of Taiwan, this deeper message is
lost; within Taiwan it is a recognizable code. Still, these stories emanated
from a generation growing up in post-war Taiwan; they centered mostly on
recent Taiwanese history, not before 1949. Given the lingering uncertainty
under capricious martial law, this is understandable. The lifting of martial
law in 1987 also meant the lifting of taboos concerning pre-1949 history. Hou
jumped in right away.
No two periods more complicate the issue of Taiwan than the halfcentury of Japanese colonial rule and its immediate five-year aftermath.
By delving into these two historical eras in his next two films, Hou now shifts
from leader to cultural pioneer. His City of Sadness becomes the first open
exploration of the greatest taboo of them all, the 228 Incident of 1947. This
film became a cultural event unlike any other on the island. Four years later
he will bring out The Puppetmaster, which covers the bulk of the Japanese
era. City begins in 1945 with the surrender of Japan and ends in 1949 when
the KMT moved their entire government to the island. The opening title
of The Puppetmaster announces that in 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan,
whereas the final voice-over makes clear that we are ending right where the
previous film began — in August of 1945. Yet despite such tidy temporal
divisions, in both films everything in between undercuts any previous
official history. These are not just alternative histories; they represent an
alternative philosophy of history, one undeniably Hou’s, yet one also
well suited for Taiwan’s ongoing geopolitical predicament. To grasp this
requires exploring what historians have actually said about these two historical eras.
No Man an Island
The Veiled Backdrop of Japanese Colonialism
Because the Japanese no longer make any claim on Taiwan — a result of
losing a world war — it is easy to overlook the stupendous impact of their
fifty-one years of rule over the island. There can be no doubt that Chinese
misrule from 1945 to 1947 remains the main catalyst for the separatist
Taiwanese identity which persists to this day. Yet this misrule stemmed not
just from the rampant brutality and the corruption of the KMT, it also had as
much to do with the state of Taiwan in 1945 when the Japanese left. Taiwan
in 1895 versus that of 1945 were separated by much more than a fifty-year
historical interregnum. For all the challenges the Japanese faced in 1895, they
were up to the task as much as any colonial power of their day, a record
they would not repeat anywhere else. What the KMT faced in 1945 was an
entirely different matter. The condition Taiwan was in was a virtual slap in
the face for the Nationalists, a humiliation for a supposed “victor” of war.
Japan may have lost the war, but clearly the KMT at that time was not up to
the task of ruling Taiwan as it had been ruled for half a century.
Japan faced some resistance in Taiwan, but never what they would later
face in Korea after it was annexed in 1910. Aside from a brief attempt in
the late nineteenth century, Taiwan had never been a fully integral part of
China; it had neither the entrenched aristocratic elites nor a fully developed
social system as in Korea or China proper. Therefore, there was a weaker
sense of a cohesive cultural identity among its locals, many born of pioneering ancestors who generations before had fled China in search of a better
life. Before the Japanese, the “Taiwanese” remained deeply divided between
Hoklo and Hakka, with added confusions resulting from conflicts with the
aboriginals. The policies of the Qing further worked against any cohesive
national identity in Taiwan, since Hakka were often employed to put down
uprisings by the Fujianese Hoklo.1 Between 1683 and 1800, the Qing also
used aboriginal militias no less than twelve times to quell uprisings, some
by Han Chinese (whether Hakka or Hoklo).2 Taiwan at this time was not an
imagined community, it was a phantom community rife with ever-festering
ethnic tensions.
The Japanese changed all of that. Under the Japanese a semblance of a
pan-Taiwanese identity emerged, in part because these divided groups all
came to recognize what they had in common — they were not Japanese. One
key policy change occurred in 1915 when the Japanese banned footbinding,
thus removing the most overt marker of cultural difference between those
of Han Chinese descent and the aboriginals.3 In addition, universal primary
education under the Japanese brought together children from groups long
in conflict with each other. This had the unintended result of fostering a sort
Taiwanese proto-nationalism, since they were still not full-fledged citizens
of Japan.4 Surprisingly, a number of indigenous cultural forms were still
History in Its Place
allowed to exist until a full-fledged assimilation policy began in 1937. By that
point, however, indigenous cultural movements (i.e. “The Home Rule
Movement”) and a number of cultural associations had already taken hold.
Nevertheless, attempts to retain Taiwan’s Chinese roots by some Taiwanese
intellectuals coexisted with Taiwanese hopes for equal status within Japan’s
system. The Taiwanese as a whole, it seems, could have gone either way,
displaying a pragmatic cultural dexterity much as they do to this day. This
burgeoning cohesion among the local population, acculturated to the ways
of the modern nation-state, made the KMT’s task much more difficult. Add
on the KMT’s immediate policies, which forged a deep and irreparable
divide between the benshengren and the waishengren, it is little wonder why
the Taiwanese resisted with such speed and forcefulness.
There were other reasons why the Taiwanese came to slowly accept, or at
least tolerate, Japanese rule, and that was the level of material development
and effective rule provided, even if this also involved exploitation and intermittent repression. Aside from a brief period under Liu Mingchuan, the Qing
never made much effort to develop the island, let alone to rule it effectively.
By contrast, the Japanese transformed the island from a remote, untamed
outpost on the edge of China to a highly developed colony of the Japanese
empire. From the start the Japanese did much to raise the living standards
of the locals, even if they did not treat the Taiwanese as equals. Certainly
this was done out of naked self-interest for the colonizers, yet that hardly
mitigates the positive effects of these policies on these colonial subjects. The
most important change initially was sanitation and medicine, something
prompted by the large number of Japanese soldiers succumbing to tropical
diseases in Taiwan’s unforgiving climate. For this reason, the Japanese began
to educate local doctors in Taiwan. The medical field ironically became the
most important repository of Taiwanese intellectuals and leaders for the next
several decades.5 (Indications of this are visible in City of Sadness.) Education
did not stop with medicine. Chinese reporters who visited Taiwan during
Japanese colonial rule were astounded to find rickshaw drivers reading
newspapers and maids reading novels, both unfathomable sights in China
at the time.6 This full-scale modernization program also included electricity,
running water, railroads, all under the auspices of an efficient administration
unlike any Taiwan had seen before.7
There is no denying that Taiwan was to be a developed agricultural base
in support of an industrial Japan. However, even that disparity began to
change in the 1930s when Japan recognized the strategic importance of the
island during wartime. Starting in 1937, the Japanese began a full-fledged
program of industrialization of Taiwan coupled with a draconian assimilation policy.8 The governor-general ordered the suppression of the Taiwanese
dialect, Chinese-language newspapers, gods of Chinese origin and even
No Man an Island
native art forms such as opera and puppetry, all of which hitherto had been
tolerated. The locals even began to adopt Japanese names.9
In truth, the Japanese failed to make the Taiwanese into Japanese — eight
years was hardly sufficient. Yet the KMT fared no better in trying to make the
Taiwanese Chinese, despite forty years of strident efforts. It is little wonder
why today many older benshengren still look back at the Japanese era with
post-colonial nostalgia. It is easy enough for them to forgive the many faults
of Japanese rule when compared to how egregiously the KMT ruled Taiwan
immediately afterwards. Moreover, under the Japanese the Taiwanese did
not suffer declining living standards and brutal repression the Koreans had
endured at the same time, nor anything quite like the Rape of Nanjing in
China in 1937, arguably the darkest chapter in Japanese colonial history.
Still, Taiwan remained a somewhat malleable tabla rasa, culturally speaking,
even under the Japanese. Indeed, it appears many Taiwanese would have
accepted being a part of China as well — but only as equals. This is where
the KMT failed miserably in remarkably short order.
The 228 Incident: The Sanguinary Cauldron of Taiwanese
According to a mainland reporter in March of 1947, a harrowing incident
occurred along the east coast of Taiwan on a road built on cliffs high above
the Pacific Ocean. There a bus of ordinary Taiwanese was stopped by six
or seven Nationalist soldiers from the mainland. Forcing their way on, they
slapped and cursed the passengers for riding a bus when Nationalist soldiers
were on foot. The driver, a Taiwanese himself, ordered the passengers off,
after which he closed the doors, leaving only the mainland soldiers on board.
He then promptly drove the bus off the cliff and into the sea, instantly killing
all inside.10 Even if this is an apocryphal anecdote, acquired by a reporter not
witnessing it firsthand, all the other evidence, including the government’s
own admissions forty-five years later, makes it as believable today as it was
then. Something had gone terribly and irreparably awry in Taiwan right
after its return to the “motherland.” The island was falling headlong into the
darkest chapter of the Taiwanese Experience, a “defining” moment if there
ever was one. There is little doubt today that the “Taiwanese Experience”
proper — an experience that truly sets the island apart from China and the
rest of the world — begins in earnest with the 228 Incident of 1947. This
was in truth a series of escalating events which occurred during the crucial
transitional period between 1945 and 1949. Today nothing is marshaled for
the cause of Taiwanese separatism as much as the 228 Incident. These three
seemingly innocuous digits still can open fresh wounds between waishengren
and benshengren.
History in Its Place
Assigning specific blame becomes crucial: do we blame the KMT, or do
we only blame Chiang Kai-shek, or Chen Yi, the infamous governor of
Taiwan at the time? Or do we blame the mainland Chinese in general,
or maybe even the Americans? Recent books on the subject have tried to
steer this issue by noting how the problems faced by Taiwan in 1947 were
faced by all of China.11 Some blame American Imperialism, noting strident
protests by locals at the American consulate just two months before the
incident.12 Such views try to deflect the loaded opposition of Taiwan versus
China. Yet while true to some extent, they overlook one crucial point: by 1945
Taiwan was already vastly different from the rest of China. Commentators at
the time acknowledged as much. One mainland eyewitness bitterly said this
about the initial incident: “perhaps inland killing a few people is not such a
big deal anymore, especially someone selling cigarettes, but the Taiwanese
take their lives a little more seriously.”13 A Hong Kong observer notes how
mainland officials, used to 90% illiteracy, met some unexpected resistance
in Taiwan where 85% of the population could read.14 Even Chen Yi himself
makes this telling remark: “If every province in China had people like the
Taiwanese, the KMT government would have been finished long ago.”15
Already going against the grain of history, the KMT’s initial policies
towards Taiwan only galvanized this historical abyss: the rhetoric declared
that Taiwan was a part of China; its immediate post-war actions towards
Taiwan, however, made the Taiwanese feel they were not Chinese. In 1945,
the KMT arrived on the island as putatively democratic and compatriot liberators under the auspices of the United States; the actual behavior of the
Nationalists in Taiwan was that of fascist colonizers with all of the brutality
and corruption, and none of the competence. (The trains not only did not
run on time, they almost ceased running altogether.) The Nationalists were
so focused on the civil war in the rest of China that they were blind-sided
by the Taiwanese rebellion. For a brief period they lost control of the island
due to the lack of troops they thought they would never need, since the
Japanese had effectively eradicated most Communists there. Miscalculations
were piled upon misunderstandings fueled by egregious corruption and
gross incompetence, an incendiary mix which was lit almost literally by a
single match — and Taiwan has never been the same since. To expect many
Taiwanese to not have a degree of separatism in their blood after such an
experience is unrealistic.
The chief architect of these disastrous policies was Chen Yi, the new
governor of the province personally appointed by Chiang Kai-shek. In public,
Chen espoused the hope that the special system being put in place would
“realize all of the ideals in Taiwan that had not been possible in China.”16
He even told his own officials, “Don’t bring all the bad habits of the
mainland to Taiwan.”17 Yet Chen Yi apparently had some bad habits of his
No Man an Island
own, having already compiled a record of gross misrule and brutality as
governor of Fujian province. There Chen experimented with his “Necessary
State Socialism,” a corrupt system of state monopolies that drained all local
wealth into the hands of his crony-filled administration. This had led to a
number of riots by the Fujianese which Chen Yi put down with unflinching
ruthlessness.18 In Taiwan, things would be worse.
Chen’s policies were designed to supposedly quarantine the island
from all of the problems in mainland China. In reality, however, they were
an exacerbation of the most oppressive features of the Japanese system —
albeit in ineffectual form — wedded to the worst features of the KMT system
from China. In this “special” system, everything in Taiwan was centralized;
all police, military, judicial and administrative powers were directly under
Chen Yi’s control. The government’s own 1992 report on the incident did not
mince words about the true nature of this bureaucratic behemoth: “If those
in the administration had gotten things done, obeyed the law, strove for efficiency, abstained from corruption and had not carried such a bureaucratic air
about them, then perhaps the Taiwanese would not have reacted so strongly.
But in truth this was not the case.”19 Furthermore, by simply excluding the
Taiwanese from anything but the lowest rungs of the system, Chen Yi’s government encouraged a separatist identity to harden.
Chen Yi’s government seemingly dismantled every advantage the
Taiwanese had enjoyed under the Japanese. It effectively destroyed the
Japanese rule of law to which the Taiwanese had become accustomed,
replacing it with whatever “special” laws the governor and his cronies
found suitable.20 This encouraged widespread rapacious behavior: a stream
of carpetbaggers and gangsters came over to Taiwan. During those first few
months there was a sudden rash of train crashes in Taiwan that resulted
from switch and signal equipment being stolen and sold as scrap metal.21
One paper in the mainland sarcastically alluded to this common practice:
“If anything breaks here, and we are unable to fix it because we do not
have the parts, we just simply take it all from Taiwan.”22 These polices also
destroyed the educational system which had given 97% of children in Taiwan
some education under the Japanese. Some reports state that the new educators were so corrupt as to extravagantly demand special tuitions and fees,
which these supposed educators then used to create their own businesses
on the side. This resulted in an 80% withdrawal rate from schools in rural
areas, and 20% in urban areas.23 One reporter summed things up as follows:
“Today when we look at all the Japanese constructed, and at their record
overall, you can’t help but feeling very ashamed of our own country.”24
The crux of the matter, however, was how this bureaucracy strangled the
economic livelihood of the Taiwanese. Despite restrictions, there were some
entrepreneurial opportunities between 1895 and 1945 for the Taiwanese.25
History in Its Place
The new “native” government, however, made private enterprise next to
impossible. Under the Japanese, 70% of all fields and forests were publicly
owned; 80% of businesses, transportation and electricity were under public
guidance. Under Chen Yi, all of these areas were under the 100% control of
a single organization.26 This administration was so officious that Chen once
proposed that every last item of private property be turned over to the government, and would only be returned if the locals could prove they had not
aided the Japanese military. (In other words, one was guilty unless proven
innocent.) While protests prevented this law from being enacted, the damage
was done, and the Taiwanese thereafter felt no different from a colonial
subject in the Belgian Congo.27 Other economic policies further widened the
gulf between Taiwan and China. Rather than making Taiwan a part of the
monetary system of China, Taiwan had a separate currency. For an island
lacking in resources and dependent on trade, this disastrous policy resulted
in hyperinflation. A catty of rice rose from 1.5 yuan in 1945, to 10 yuan at the
beginning of 1946, to 32 yuan a year later. In general, all prices in the first
half of 1947 quadrupled from the prices during the last half of 1946. Even
during World War II, the Taiwanese had never seen anything quite like this,
and never lacked basic necessities such as food.28 After 1945, the Taiwanese,
many now starving, may have secretly wished the war had never ended.
The central government in Nanjing was as much of a culprit in this
situation: Chiang Kai-shek saw Taiwan as nothing more than a source of
sustenance, a mere “rice warehouse” for his civil war effort on the mainland.
Chiang himself ordered large amounts of Taiwanese sugar to be sent to the
mainland with nothing given to Taiwan in return. This forced the local banks
to print even more of Taiwan’s special currency to offset this loss, resulting
in even greater hyperinflation.29 Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek’s response to
growing Taiwanese complaints was even tighter control and greater exploitation.30 In an increasingly desperate economic situation, more and more
locals resorted to selling smuggled cigarettes. It was no secret that the government was itself involved in the smuggling of cigarettes, but any private
smuggling offered competition to them, so cracking down on this was made
top priority.31
People noted how quickly the attitude of the Taiwanese had changed.
Reports from 1945 almost universally affirm how enthusiastically the
Taiwanese had welcomed the mainland Chinese. But a little over a year after
the “Glorious Restoration,” with the economy and public order in shambles
the Taiwanese now invariably began every description of conditions by
saying, “Back in the Japanese era . . .”32 They now called the mainlanders
“pigs,” an even worse designation than “dogs” which they had once used
for the Japanese. (Dogs may be fierce, but they are at least competent.) They
made every ironic pun possible with the cornerstone of Nationalist ideology:
No Man an Island
the very phrase “Three Principles of the People” became a running joke for
mediocrity and ineffectiveness.33 One commentator did not mince words
when he says that Chen Yi should be executed for losing the love of country
from 6.2 million Taiwanese in such a short time.34
As ill-prepared Chen Yi was to rule Taiwan, he was even less prepared
for the uprising he suddenly met in early 1947. Once again, miscalculations
combined with his unbridled brutality transformed an already horrendous
situation into an unmitigated nightmare. On the evening of the February 27,
1947, several Taiwanese in Taipei witnessed government inspectors beating
mercilessly a widow selling smuggled cigarettes. Crowds became incensed
at their denying a poor woman the only means left for her and her children
to survive. In a panic, one of the inspectors, despite orders to not carry
weapons, fired a gun and killed an innocent bystander. The next day large
crowds appeared before the government offices in Taipei. Eventually they
were met also with a spray of bullets from the troops.35 There was no turning
back after that moment. The date was February 28, 1947, a date which has
given this incident its enduring numerical resonance.
Since the KMT had stationed so few troops on the island, the unarmed
Taiwanese were able to seize most local organs of government and mass
media. Thugs also went out to beat and kill several mainlanders. After a
couple of days, the violence subsided as local leaders, hitherto without real
power in Chen Yi’s government, set up a committee in Taipei for the resolution of the 228 Incident. Branch “228 Committees” soon cropped up across
the island. If the Taiwanese had wanted to oust the government during that
first week in March, they could have easily done so and declared independence. But they merely wanted reform.36 By March 8 a comprehensive list
of forty-two demands by the main 228 Committee in Taipei included a call
for abolishing the government monopolies and the bureau of trade. Other
demands called for the inclusion of locals in various representative bodies
and in management positions.37 These were, in effect, a repudiation of everything Chen Yi had tried in Taiwan. Many of the demands may have been
planted by Chen’s own secret agents as part of a Machiavellian ploy to create
an excuse to respond in no uncertain terms.38 Respond they did. Controlling
only government offices, a couple of airports and a couple of fortresses,
Chen Yi initially appeared conciliatory, even making radio addresses promising reform. On March 8, however, suddenly Chen’s once conciliatory
demeanor was revealed as posturing. When given these forty-two demands
he stormed back: “What corruption? What shady dealings? What proof do
you have?”39 Chen Yi had just been buying time.
On March 5, Chen Yi received word that the troops of the 21st Division
were on their way to Jilong harbor in the north.40 They arrived as promised
on the afternoon of March 8 and began firing from the moment they got
to shore. The soldiers had orders to shoot anybody who happened to be
History in Its Place
outside. Eyewitness accounts at the time from numerous foreign observers
paint a consistent picture of a concerted campaign against young people
who were seen by the KMT as the greatest threat. One witness saw over
thirty young corpses left to rot with ears hacked, noses slit and members castrated.41 A local from the same time corroborates this account. After hiding in
a small house until March 12, this eyewitness finally dared to go outside and
saw three bodies in pools of blood — two of the victims were delivery boys.
This eyewitness ventured further and found several other bodies left on the
street being nibbled by wild dogs.42 Such accounts were typical from all over
the island. Most severely hit was the southern port city of Kaohsiung, to this
day the hottest bed of Taiwanese independence. The general in charge of
a fortress there, Peng Mengji, did not even wait for Chen Yi’s orders. His
soldiers came out, fired directly into any houses they passed and killed a
large number of people in an underground tunnel.43 In other areas the
slaughter was minimized because the locals had organized enough force
to resist — at least temporarily.44 Eventually, however, the mainland troops
swept over the island and began a prolonged campaign of “pacification,”
a euphemism for government-sponsored terror. Thousands of Taiwanese
were arrested or simply disappeared. What few leaders and dissidents were
left among the resistance were eventually weeded out of their mountain
hide-outs and often never heard from again. A government inspector came
over to Taiwan after the incident and inquired about the whereabouts of
eight prominent Taiwanese leaders he knew of, only to discover that they
were all “missing” with no bodies, nor even clear declarations of guilt or
crimes — just missing.45 This was a determined campaign to wipe out any
resistance, including mainlanders sympathetic to the Taiwanese.
The KMT tried to accomplish all of this as secretly as possible. Casualty
figures vary wildly today as a result. According to the government’s own
report in 1992, no accurate records were kept of the number killed: Chen Yi
initially said that only 1,800 died, whereas Taiwanese groups at the time said
well over 10,000; over time there were estimates of over 30,000 to 40,000 dead
out of a population of six million; the most chilling intimation of the possible
total is a 1953 census report of over 100,000 people whose whereabouts were
unaccounted for, and many of these were presumed to be victims of 228.46
If General Peng Mengji himself can openly admit that his troops killed at
least 2500 in Kaohsiung alone,47 then the numbers must be high for the
island as a whole. By March of 1995, another government report in Taiwan
admitted that the total number of victims was between 18,000 and 28,000,48
which ever since has been the closest we have to an official figure. Given the
desperate situation the KMT would find itself in after 1949, when Taiwan
was all it had left of China, their recourse was to completely suppress any
mention of the 228 Incident.
No Man an Island
City of Sadness: An Unparalleled Cultural Event
Until the lifting of martial law in 1987, even broaching the subject of the
228 Incident was grounds for treason in the ROC. A mere two years later,
City of Sadness altered the political and cultural landscape in Taiwan forever.
Rarely has one historical incident — and one film about that same incident —
had such a lasting impact on a single place. Initially this film was going to be
about the aftermath of the 228 Incident, focusing on refugees from Shanghai
who arrived on the very last ferry to leave China. It was to end in 1956, by
which point the characters would realize they were never going back. Golden
Harvest, however, demanded that the film be made in Macao so they could
exercise more control. Hou flatly refused.49 Then, Hou explains, “because
martial law was lifted, we decided to confront the incident itself and made
City of Sadness. So it really all comes down to timing.”50
Hou came across funding like never before. The most important
investor was Qiu Fusheng, head of Era International and an experienced
distributor of international films. Qiu provided an unprecedented budget
of NT$15 million after Hou insisted he could not go any lower given the
logistical issues involved with a historical film. An additional NT$5 million
was invested by Japanese investors, who arranged for the sound mixing,
musical scoring, developing and timing to all be done in Japan. The shooting
took up to ten months, and the budget ballooned to NT$30 million (roughly
US$1 million).51 Two people then played a key role in promoting City of
Sadness abroad before the release: Shu Kei from Hong Kong and Peggy Chiao
from Taiwan. Within Taiwan, however, Chiao and others kept a low profile
before the film’s release given the political sensitivity of its subject matter.52
Once the film neared completion, things turned Byzantine. City of Sadness
did not go straight from the post-production labs in Japan to the screens of
Taiwan; instead the film took a circuitous route, making two key stops
beforehand: the Venice Film Festival in September of 1989 and the censors of
the Government Information Office.
Before City of Sadness, no Taiwanese film had been entered into a toptiered competition such as Venice, the world’s oldest film festival. Initially
there were mild expectations; the common sentiment was that it was honor
enough for a Taiwanese film to even join such a prestigious competition.
Nevertheless, there was growing talk about its chances of winning the top
prize, the Golden Lion. One report noted that the head of the judges’ panel,
Andrei Smirnov, was favorably inclined towards Chinese films, as was the
famed mainland director, Xie Jin, one of its members.53 Once expectations
were raised, paranoia set in among the Taiwanese media due to Taiwan’s
political status, or lack thereof. A motif of the “empty flagpole” in Venice
was found in several articles, since the flag of the ROC could not be flown
for the usual political reasons. Many predicted this might hurt the chances of
History in Its Place
winning any prize at all.54 One reporter summed it up as follows: “Since we
have no relations with Italy, our flag is not being flown at the festival, and
this is cause for regret. But the fact that City can compete with films of any
nation by means of its artistic achievement is the result of the flexible manner
in which our country has approached diplomacy in the last few years.”55
In the end, they had worried too much. On September 16, 1989, every
front page in Taiwan announced the awarding of the Golden Lion for City
of Sadness. His picture now appearing on the major dailies in Taiwan, Hou
became a celebrity overnight. More importantly, the award was not seen
as merely a personal triumph for Hou, but for Taiwan and the Republic
of China.56 Hou had not only penetrated the highest reaches of the festival
realm, he had conquered it, creating a diplomatic coup by cultural and
artistic means.
Yet the Golden Lion was a mixed blessing for the government, in a sense
tying their hands on the domestic front. The GIO was in an extremely delicate
position, as it now had to consider both domestic and international scrutiny
of the ROC. Only one film was banned in 1988. Even formerly banned works
such as China Behind and Love in a Fallen City were now allowed to be shown
in Taiwan.57 Still, the censorship of the KMT government had always been
intentionally unpredictable, a surefire recipe for self-censorship by filmmakers. Moreover, nobody could quite believe that the government would
tolerate a film about the 228 Incident. This is where the timing became critical.
Contrary to normal procedures, a copy of the film was sent to Venice directly
from Japan, circumventing the GIO.58 The GIO was informed it would not
receive a print until September 4 due to a delay in putting on the Chinese
subtitles.59 With a print already getting a lot of attention in Venice, the government faced the embarrassing prospect of having two versions of the film:
one international, one domestic. Paralyzed, the members of the GIO did
nothing after an initial private screening. Instead, they called upon seventeen “esteemed members of society” to look at the film, including members
of the film and broadcasting industries, and experts on Taiwanese history.
On September 11, days before the Golden Lion was announced, newspapers
announced that the panel of seventeen had recommended that the film be
released without any cuts, and the GIO had agreed. The United Daily News
stated that any cut would have produced an even bigger scandal than Hou’s
previous international outcry over the ending of Daughter of the Nile. Crucial
elections in December, Hou’s international standing as a director, the image
of the KMT at home and of the ROC abroad, left them no alternative but to
let the film pass.60
The next day, however, the version passed by the GIO was screened by
critics, reporters and the key Hou insider, Zhan Hongzhi (who also plays one
of the intellectuals in it). Zhan was shocked to find two minutes missing: the
scene late in the film where Hinoe and other intellectuals are rounded up
No Man an Island
by the military from their mountain hideout, during which some are shot.61
Rumors exploded everywhere. Some opined that the military had seen the
film when it first passed through customs and had recommended the cuts
to the GIO before showing it to the panel of seventeen.62 However, neither
the military nor the GIO had yet seen the scene, or knew that it existed. Qiu
Fusheng at Era International made the sensitive cut before the print was
sent to the GIO, apparently without Hou’s prior knowledge. New rumors
circulated that the head of Era had engineered everything — from the completed version first appearing in Venice, to the delay of the print from Japan
to Taiwan, to the omitted two minutes. Given the precedence of the “Apple
Peeling Incident” of 1983, Qiu must have anticipated the inevitable outcry
forcing a second review by the GIO, which would have to release the film
without any cuts whatsoever. Furthermore, this also was a publicity coup
that could only reap benefits at the box office.63 Whether this was the intent
of Qiu Fusheng or not, this is exactly what resulted. The complete version of
City of Sadness, including the controversial two minutes, was now cleared for
the domestic screens in Taiwan.
Despite the hullabaloo in the media, nobody was quite prepared for
what happened next. Before the film’s release, the published script had
already sold 10,000 copies, the fastest-selling in Taiwan’s history.64 Despite
higher ticket prices than was the norm for Chinese-language films, the first
showings of the film were so packed that it was beating its American and
Hong Kong competition, forcing many Taipei theaters to add an additional
early screening at 9 a.m.65 Eleven days after its release in Taipei, it had
already made NT$40 million in the city alone.66 By year’s end, the Taipei
box-office figure was estimated at around NT$66,000,000 (or roughly over
US$2,000,000), more than twice the film’s supposedly bloated budget.67
There is no telling how many people actually saw the film island-wide, for
the audiences were reportedly even larger outside of Taipei, especially in the
south, where theaters were notorious for inaccurately reporting their boxoffice figures. Still, it has been said that ten million people saw the film in the
end, or roughly half the entire population of the island.68
City of Sadness became the cultural event for the ages. Certainly the
Golden Lion at Venice played a role, as did the controversy over the missing
two minutes. However, marketing and controversy could not disguise two
and a half hours running time, nor could it change an exhibition system
known for its unkindness to longer films not predicated on either action or
comedy coming from Hong Kong. It was a film that likely stumped those
who first saw it, and whose word of mouth about its difficulty should have
dissuaded others — and yet they still came in droves. These mind-boggling
numbers indicate how deeply the 228 Incident resonated in Taiwan, how
forty years of attempted erasure by the KMT had utterly failed. With City of
Sadness, the 228 Incident was now in the public domain for good.
History in Its Place
Yet Hou’s success both at home and abroad did not unify Taiwan so
much as expose politically charged fissures both within the film industry
and without. The former becomes evident in the snub the film received in
December of 1989 at Taiwan’s own Golden Horse Awards. Despite receiving the highest award ever received by any Chinese-language film, despite
setting a domestic box-office record for a Taiwanese-made film not surpassed
to this day, City of Sadness received only two Golden Horse awards: for best
director and best male actor for Chen Songyong as the eldest brother, each
by a narrow seven-to-six margin on the voting panel. The judges gave eight
awards, including best picture, to Stanley Kwan’s Full Moon over New York
from Hong Kong. The political nature of this result was clear to everyone even
then, and yet another media maelstrom ensued. Stanley Kwan himself was
clearly embarrassed as he repeatedly declared that his film was no match for
the artistry of City of Sadness.69 Only the head of the GIO, Shou Yuming, tried
to publicly defend the decision by saying that those on the judging panel
were looking out for the tastes of the “little people” as opposed to “elitist
film aficionados,”70 conveniently ignoring, of course, that even in terms of
box-office numbers, Stanley Kwan’s film paled in comparison to Hou’s. Hou
himself did not mince words. He said he won best director only because
the Golden Horse needed to save face. What irked him most of all was the
fact that his technical crew, Chen Huaien (cinematography), Liao Qingsong
(editing) and Du Duzhi (sound), were shut out completely.71
Even this paled compared to the political vehemence the film aroused
outside of the film industry. At stake was not only the long-term identity of
Taiwan, but more immediately a set of elections for key posts in Taiwan in
December of 1989. The timing of the film was seen as critical by everyone.
Hou and those working closely with him engaged in a concerted campaign
to present the film as belonging to a “transcendent” realm of art which
should not be tainted by partisan politics. Even one of the screenwriters,
Wu Nien-jen, a native Taiwanese who has always leaned more towards
independence (and would eventually make ads for the DPP), was quoted
as saying that the purpose of the film was to bring the incident out into the
open without letting it become a political tool.72 But nobody quite believed
Hou and company. Moreover, people at opposite ends of Taiwan’s political
divide were certain Hou was in cahoots with the enemy.
On the side of the KMT none better represented the traditional, conservative, Greater China view than the infamous general, Hao Bocun, who at
the time was the President Lee Teng-hui’s chief of staff. Just before the film’s
general release in Taiwan, Hao and others were given a private screening of
City of Sadness. His reaction, written in his diary, is worth quoting at length:
Clearly City of Sadness is meant to put both the party [the KMT] and the
government in a very ugly light, and stir up the passions between native
Taiwanese and mainlanders. Even though some claim its meanings are all
No Man an Island
concealed, its purpose is most evident. The scene of the soldiers arresting
the communists shows only the violence to disgrace the soldiers without
explaining why they had to do what they did. Although the film won the
award at Venice, it is suffocating and slow, and most likely will not do well
at the box office. The only thing I can really say is that the opposition clearly
has its own plans, and this is why just before year-end elections releasing a
film like this will help the cause of Taiwanese independence.73
That Hao could have so badly predicted the film’s box-office success evinces
a gross underestimation of the long-term effects of the 228 Incident in Taiwan.
How much this film actually hurt the KMT in these December elections
is open to debate. The KMT has always relied on the trump card of possible
attack by the PRC if a party like the DPP ever takes over. Nevertheless, these
elections were a major defeat for the ruling party, which lost several mayorships and county commissioner seats, a key position in Taiwan’s political structure which greatly aided the DPP in the 1990s. Yet the DPP and its
supporters expected much more than this, some even thinking that perhaps
the KMT would collapse outright now that the 228 Incident was part of the
everyday discourse in Taiwan.74 With such charged and perhaps unrealistic
expectations, some started to look for answers when things did not quite pan
out. New rumors came out accusing Hou of making the film in secret collusion with the KMT to help mitigate the potential damage of bringing 228
out into the open. Xiao Ye, a veteran well-versed on how the KMT has dealt
with cinema from his years in the CMPC, dismissed this accusation rather
brusquely: “the KMT is not that smart.”75 Nevertheless, this idea persisted.
In time, such criticisms of Hou coalesced in an anthology entitled Death
of a New Cinema, which was first published in 1991. These political writings
based their analysis not on Hou’s personal failure, but on a systemic failure
that is indicative of a political and economic system — including the film
industry embedded within it — that has remained unchanged, all the
while swallowing up even “progressive” cultural elements such as Hou.76
One critic suggested that the Golden Lion, like its box-office success at
home, was more the result of timing and clever marketing than artistry.77
Most troubling for these politically minded critics was the aesthetics of City
of Sadness. Most blamed Hou’s idiosyncratic style for obfuscating what otherwise should have been a clear, condemnatory film of the most egregious
misdeeds perpetrated by the KMT government. One writer, for example,
says that having so many people coming in and out of the frame diminishes
the potential of explaining the situation these characters are in, especially
since most of the key events, including the primary causes of their suffering,
are left off-screen.78 Liao Binghui criticizes as follows: “Every time a political
problem is about to appear, the shot immediately changes its position from
real political oppression and violence to the mountains, the sea and fishing
boats, utilizing beautiful mountain and sea scenery to displace and misplace
real problems.”79
History in Its Place
Over the last two decades there has been an accretion of academic
defenses of Hou which have become increasingly sophisticated. Yet these
are also surprisingly uniform on one point: City of Sadness is a different
sort of history. In the introduction was quoted Chris Berry and Mary Ann
Farquhar’s view that this film represents a subaltern “historiology.” June Yip,
a Western-trained scholar living in Los Angeles, defends the film’s historical
representation as part of a general process of “decolonization” of Taiwan in
the late 1980s:
Hou’s film is noteworthy not only because it dared to bring its retelling of
the controversial event to the big screen but also because it attempted to
undermine official interpretations of the incident by deliberately telling
history “from below.” . . . City of Sadness explicitly denies the KMT government representation and subjectivity by giving it no visual presence.80
In other words, rather than “objectively” portraying historical events as they
happened, Hou filters all of them through the subjectivities of individual
characters, revealing how “all historical knowledge is mediated through
human acts of narration.”81 Rosemary Hadden pays particular attention to
the voice-overs of females characters such as Hinomi, which “engenders a
counter-discursiveness that disrupts the monolithic, myth-making aspect of
the KMT’s master narrative.”82
More important are the academics within Taiwan who now largely
defend Hou’s treatment of these historical events. Lin Wenchi, for example,
notes that the film adeptly depicts, not the actual violence, but the effects
of that violence on characters not at the center of historical events. For this
reason it presents a deeper, more truthful representation of the Taiwanese
than any “objective” history could ever hope for. Most importantly, “City of
Sadness begins with a celebration of returning to the motherland, yet it ends
in division from that motherland.”83 Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh’s chapter (written
in Chinese) questions demands for a direct and conventional portrayal of
these historical events. This is simply another form of “Big History,” in her
view, the same affairs of state and politics which all official histories stress.
City, however, is an alternative history, a “private history.” For this reason
the film legitimately uses fragments such as diary entries and family photographs from people not in charge of these happenings, but who fall victim
to them in any case.84 All these voices come to this basic conclusion: City is a
history of another sort, something to be commended, not condemned.
The Textual Phenomenon of City of Sadness: Experience before
From the diametrically opposed certitude of Hao Bocun and his immediate opponents, to the plethora of nuanced academic defenders thereafter,
we seem to have a film that is all things to all people. Still, it would be a
No Man an Island
mistake to posit City of Sadness as the ultimate Barthesian “writerly” text,
a polysemous hall of mirrors with no fixed points of reference. Nor is this
all merely due to the particular contexts in which these myriad views arose.
With its stretches of contemplative quietude, with its tendency to detach
itself from both violence and the more common cinematic emotions, for all of
its labyrinthian qualities and its open-endedness, City lends itself to a certain
range of audience responses, while precluding others. Furthermore, this film
attempts to veer around its immediate political utility in favor of something
more long term. It is time to now explore what the fuss was all about. Length
here will not allow a complete analysis of a film as densely wrought as City.
For now it will suffice to explicate its larger narrative, structural and stylistic
features and how they operate in tandem to create one of the most complex
films ever.
There is one underlying principle which unifies this work, if not all of
Hou’s films: City of Sadness is above all else a film designed to be experienced
first, and understood later. “Episodic,” “elliptical” and “de-dramatized” is
an adjectival ensemble just as easily used on many art cinema films. The key
is Hou’s almost perverse handling of ellipses. When watching a Hou film,
we often become aware of gaps in the narrative at only the most unexpected
moments, placing retroactive emphasis on what had seemed to be the merely
picayune and incidental on the surface. This exposes a deeper connectedness
between all the scenes seen, an underlying unity that is not Aristotelian, but
deeply tragic nonetheless. The best analogy for the viewer of a Hou film is
a neighbor looking across the fence. As an acquaintance at best, the viewer
witnesses events over there at random and usually from the same, distanced point of view, catching them at what appear to be merely moments
of simple, everyday life. But after seeing these familiar scenes enough times,
subtle differences can be noted. Sometimes radical changes are immediately
evident, but only later is there an explanation, a sort of cinematic grapevine
that the viewer is at the end of, forcing him or her to reassess what had been
witnessed firsthand. At still other times something dramatic might occur
directly in sight, yet the viewer is completely unprepared, having no way of
apprehending its significance. Instead this sudden disruption is witnessed
in its raw form, with no semantic cushions for guidance, almost causing the
viewer near embarrassment. Sometimes what is seen are pure episodes of
everyday life; sometimes they are something more. But slowly the viewer
comes to realize that these neighbors are suffering from the lingering effects
of greater historical and social forces which can never truly be seen. This positioning of the viewer as neighbor across the fence leads to a capricious aesthetic, an aesthetic of surprise. In City, this strategy now permeates the entire
film. The viewer now becomes like a firsthand survivor of the 228 Incident,
who does not yet have time to reflect on what has transpired. Kent Jones says
History in Its Place
it best: despite being about one of the most traumatic episodes in Taiwanese
history, this film has an unusual “present tense” quality to it.85
City of Sadness focuses on the Lin family in Northern Taiwan during the
years 1945–1949. At the core are four brothers, all of whom in one way or
another are victims of larger historical events. The second brother, a doctor,
is already missing when the film begins, being lost in action during the war
and never to return. The first and third brothers, Wen-heung (played by
Chen Songyong) and Wen-leung (played by Jack Kao), are victims of a lethal
combination of political and economic forces as a result of their underworld
activities. The youngest of the four sons, the deaf mute Wen-ching (played
by Tony Leung), is the symbolical center of the film since he is the most
unexpected victim of the new political order due to his initially innocent
involvement with a group of intellectuals.
Some cast doubt on the historical plausibility of this family’s motley
make-up;86 some dislike how it focuses on intellectuals who initially
espoused a “Greater China” idea, only to become victims themselves.87 Still,
one can defend this along the lines of Robert A. Rosenstone, a historian who
notes how both written history and filmed history are textual operations
that reflect historical reality in complicated, and more importantly, distinctive ways. To judge historical films, according to him, one must get beyond
strictly factual questions to note how films involve the processes of compression, condensation, alteration and metaphor to convey history in a way
suitable to cinema.88 From this perspective, the Lin family being comprised
not only of gangsters, but also of doctors and intellectuals, serves well both
the cinematic requirements of metaphor and condensation by providing a
cross-section of post-war Taiwanese society. Noted earlier is how members
of the medical profession formed the core of indigenous political and cultural
movements in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule. Likewise, since the
Taiwanese were excluded both economically and politically after 1945, many
Taiwanese did in fact resort to illegal means to survive. Furthermore, the
film overall reveals how the idea of “Greater China” became lost in Taiwan.
As such, the Lin family perhaps better represents the pre-war and post-war
Taiwanese socio-economic situation than the Corleones in The Godfather represent the United States after World War II.
Through these brothers are filtered larger socio-historical forces. These
congeal around two intertwining narrative strands: one involving gangsters and one involving the intellectuals. Wen-leung, who returns from the
mainland in a mentally troubled state, eventually gets involved in drugsmuggling with some Shanghai underworld connections he developed
during the war. The oldest brother, Wen-heung, discovers that his own boats
are being used for transporting contraband without his approval, and confiscates some drugs being smuggled in. This eventually leads to Wen-leung
No Man an Island
being arrested and tortured due to the political connections the Shanghai
gangsters have, not to mention the ultimate demise of Wen-heung, even after
he surrendered the contraband to ensure Wen-leung’s release. Meanwhile,
the other narrative strand involves a group of intellectuals who are
acquainted with Wen-ching, the deaf-mute photographer. Wen-ching is not
only good friends with Hinoe, he falls in love with Hinoe’s sister, Hinomi
(a nurse, significantly). Late in the film they marry. However, Wen-ching,
because of his connection of Hinoe and other intellectuals, joins them as a
victim of the oppression following the 228 Incident. While these two narrative strands intersect at points, the gangster storyline, being more economic
in nature, predominates in the first half of the film, while the intellectual
storyline, being more political in nature, predominates in the second half
once the 228 Incident occurs.
This skeletal outline implies a simple trajectory of mainland economic
exploitation followed by political domination. The “problem” is the arrangement of these storylines into an almost perversely elliptical plot padded with
a seeming welter of “superfluous” details and subplots making it difficult to
distinguish the significant from the incidental. The most telling example is
the prolonged sequence involving Wen-leung’s friend, Red Monkey. There
are several scenes of unexplained outbursts and reprisals resulting from
Red Monkey’s death, but no real explanation of the underlying causes until
the mediation session with A-kio, a local matriarch. (As it turns out, Red
Monkey was trying to skim off the counterfeiting scheme without sharing
with others.) For a viewer unable to distinguish between the different
dialects, this sequence is particularly challenging. Yet even then the negotiations in Taiwanese imply that this is merely a local squabble among local
gangs. Only much later in the film are there oblique hints that the Shanghai
gangsters are exploiting these local divisions.
Hou received a lot of flak for this sort of narrative structure, and even
those who defend him have called this loose and disorganized. Li Tuo
has described the film’s editing as “non-logical” since scenes are picked
at “random” with little concern for “cause and effect.”89 City of Sadness,
however, does not deny causality so much as it disguises it. Comparing the
published script to the finished film reveals this indelible mark of Hou. The
script for City called for more scenes of the actual violence of the 228 Incident;
there were also to be explicit political slogans freshly painted on public
walls that would be in obvious contrast to the bitter realities of KMT rule.
There is even one scene in the script of the police beating a woman selling
cigarettes — the main spark for the 228 Incident itself. In the finished
film, by contrast, one catches only brief glimpses and muted references to
government malfeasance, often in passing, or from a great distance. Most
interesting is the script’s treatment of Wen-leung who is a victim of both the
mainland gangsters and the government. The reader of the script is much
History in Its Place
better prepared for his initial appearance in the hospital as a lunatic, providing some clues as to what happened to him on the mainland. Likewise,
his return to insanity later on is explicated by a subjective shot where he
remembers his own arrest and torture at the hands of the Nationalists.90
In the film, however, the third brother’s initial return is sudden and unannounced: Wen-leung appears like a haunting specter, an eerie effect with no
evident cause. We are never shown Wen-leung’s own perspective of being
tortured either, as the script called for; as usual we only see the effect: he has
been made a lunatic once more by events left off-screen.
It is difficult to know what to make of any ellipsis between any two
scenes. This is especially evident at the “climax” of the film, for lack of a better
term. After getting married at the Lin family altar, a montage sequence of
sorts shows Hinomi and Wen-ching in brief vignettes of everyday, domestic
life: Hinomi, now visibly pregnant, shops on the street; Wen-ching touches
up photographs; Hinomi and Wen-ching eat together; Wen-ching brings
Hinomi to the hospital to give birth; and finally Hinomi is writing in her
diary of her satisfaction in life, while her young son — already able to walk
around the table — is playing with the tea cups. Without dissolves, without
any clear markings, the actual temporal gaps creep up on the viewer. This
sequence is done in such a flowing manner as to lull us into a false sense that
this serene domesticity will continue. This, however, turns out to be a cruel
ruse. The next scene begins with a knock on their door at night. Wen-ching
goes to answer while Hinomi tries to feed her son. Wen-ching reads a note
given to him, and seemingly freezes. He hands it to Hinomi, who reads,
and then freezes as well. Saying nothing, she visibly is upset, barely able to
continue feeding her son. At this moment a flashback explains the contents of
the note — the infamous “missing” two minutes which had created a media
storm before the film’s release. In the midst of the mountains Nationalist
troops are raiding Hinoe’s mountain hideout. Hinoe is captured; some of his
absconding colleagues are shot down.
After receiving news of Hinoe’s arrest, Wen-ching and Hinomi are seen
on a train platform as a train whisks by in front. Then there is a long quiet
scene of them taking a family photo together. After the camera clicks and
the image freezes, a voice-over of Hinomi finally retroactively explains these
two images in her letter to the Lins: they had tried to flee, but realized they
had nowhere to go. The photo was taken three days before Wen-ching’s
arrest, and now she does not know where he is. As this voice-over begins,
so does the epilogue, almost imperceptibly. Hinomi’s letter segues to one
final scene at the Lin home where two women are reading the letter, others
are gambling, ending with the Lin family eating at the table. On the surface,
this return to the Lin home seems like another finely wrought vignette of
domestic life. Only a final title lets the viewer understand that it is now 1949
and the KMT government made Taiwan its final home. Without any further
No Man an Island
explanation, Wen-ching is simply gone, another chilling absence. Life goes
on, even if bitterly.
Instead of the usual chain of cause and effect, City of Sadness is better
described as a chain of effects which only hint at causes buried in the intervening narrative ellipses. Yet the film is also intricately structured around a
series of parallel scenarios and repeated locales, which are all crystallized
in the above “climax.” Both narrative lines, for example, involve multiple
eating scenes or table gatherings resembling eating scenes. These scenes
combined give clues to the overall trajectory of events, including historical ones. Note how the “climax” and the “epilogue” involve no less than
three eating scenes, including the key moment when the note arrives about
Hinoe’s arrest. (Hinomi is trying to feed her son at that moment.) Moreover,
all three of these eating scenes occur at the same locales as previous eating
scenes, most of all the Lin family table, which is prominently displayed in
both the opening and closing scenes of the film, and several key moments
in between. Similarly, the brief scene where Wen-ching is bringing Hinomi
to the hospital corridor is another indelible locale seen throughout the film.
Not only do moments from both storylines occur in that same corridor from
the exact same angle, so do some brief glimpses of the actual violence of the
228 Incident itself. On top of all this is the saliency of numerous landscape
shots in this film, which often dwarf images of violence. Underlying all of
this is a certain logic which is hardly random.
In conjunction with these parallel scenarios are fine-grained stylistic traits.
When discussing the style of Hou, we always begin with what he is best
known for: the long take. The average shot length of City of Sadness is roughly
42 seconds. This average shot length is a major leap from his previous films,
of which Dust in the Wind had the longest, around 33 seconds per shot. Then
there is the static camera. In City, a little over 29% of the shots have some sort
of camera movement. Thus, an astonishing number of shots (71%) do not
move despite the high average shot length. Moreover, the 29% figure has to
be further qualified by the fact that about half of those movements are only
slight reframings which do not fundamentally change the composition.91
Tony Rayns aptly describes this film “as if a brilliant miniaturist had
miraculously filled a huge canvas.”92 Certainly Hou took his greatest chances
with the sheer density and intricacy of these shot compositions, arguably
the densest of his entire career with the exception of Flowers of Shanghai.
Without the usual editing devices such as cut-ins and close-ups aiding the
average viewer, no doubt some people can get lost in this visual jungle. Yet
these are hardly random and disorganized shots. Hou admits in one interview that perhaps he is “too painstaking” with his mise-en-scene.93 Many
have seen this firsthand. Georgia Brown of the Village Voice visited the set
during production and noted how Hou would be just as likely to work a
sync slate or wipe off smudges on a window — something unheard of on
History in Its Place
a unionized Hollywood set.94 Hou claims, however, that he does not do
the same with his actors. In City of Sadness, the staging of the actors occurs
within long takes with a complex array of simultaneous character movements, often on multiple planes. Despite this risk, these are readable shots
even without the punctuation of multiple closer views in a more conventional film. David Bordwell convincingly argues that this freedom allowed to
actors occurs within a carefully arranged framework by Hou, “otherwise,
the felicities of figure movement would amount to miracles.”95 Numerous
examples of these “miracles” can be found in both narrative strands and in
these repeated locales and/or scenarios.
Take the shots of the Lin family table (figures 10 and 11). All except one
(during the wedding) are captured along a single camera axis, a strategy
Bordwell calls “iterated framings.”96 In the opening scene, this is a festive
and colorful occasion where the Lins are opening their new gambling den
significantly called “The Little Shanghai.” We see the grandfather and the
oldest son for the first time in a distanced shot taken from an adjacent room.
The penultimate shot is from the same camera axis, yet the scene is bleached
of color and dialogue. The only constant is the grandfather eating at the table
with his oldest grandson and his only remaining son, who is now a lunatic,
a summation of how history has affected this family. Other moments at the
Lin table in between also hint at the overall development of events. The most
interesting is right after Wen-ching is seen being led down a prison corridor,
Figure 10
The first scene at the Lin family table in
City of Sadness (1989).
Figure 11
City of Sadness’s penultimate shot:
the last eating scene at the Lin table
from the same framing as
the first.
No Man an Island
presumably to be shot by the soldiers. As usual, there is no way to read this
shot temporally, since Hou’s ellipses are so unpredictable. Still, the grandfather and Wen-leung are eating silently and stoically. Only the next shot
reveals that Wen-ching is in another room: he had a close call and is visibly
shaken, but safe for now.
Similarly, the narrative line of the intellectuals progresses from the festively fecund to the somberly sparse. The first time the group gathers they
laugh and sing and make only brief references to larger political events
(figure 12). David Bordwell has already provided detailed analysis of the
first eating scene among the intellectuals in City of Sadness, showing how
Hou deftly approached the classic problem of staging such a scene around
a table, utilizing a risky strategy of distancing and compact staging on
multiple planes, to the point where foreground characters could cut off from
view the central characters behind them. The end result of these subtle shifts,
blockages and revelations is a scene of great “delicacy.”97 Later, they all meet
at Wen-ching’s studio, and a more somber gathering includes a discussion
of the conditions which will in fact precipitate the 228 Incident (figure 13).
However, this scene soon becomes something more than a forum for all the
Taiwanese grievances in 1947. Much to the chagrin of some, Hinomi seems
to play no significant role in this conversation.98 Yet she is given a fairly
prominent position just to the left of Wu. She motions from across the table
for Wen-ching to come over and play a record, directing viewer attention
to their sudden change in position to the back part of the room. This then
eventually leads to the second shot in the scene, a two-shot of the budding
couple. This is also quite lengthy, a 76-second, medium shot of them slightly
angled to the camera. Gradually the German folk song “Lorelei” drowns out
the continuing muffled conversation of the intellectuals. Soon Hinomi and
Wen-ching exchange written notes, talking about the lyrics of the song.
Figure 12
The initial festive eating scene among the intellectuals in City of Sadness (1989).
History in Its Place
Figure 13
The second, more serious eating scene among the intellectuals (the longest take in
City of Sadness).
An unusual scene even for Hou, the end result is arguably one of the
richest and most densely layered scenes he has ever done. Following the
longest take in the entire film, Hou now counterpoints it with a remarkably
different yet free-flowing rhythm of intertitles intercut with shots of slightly
varying shot scales and set-ups of Wen-ching and Hinomi. Even while
admitting that Hou’s cinematic style overall is a hybrid of Chinese traditional aesthetics and modernism, Berenice Reynaud finds that these intertitles are partially inspired by the calligraphy found in traditional Chinese
painting, which conjoined images and words.99 If this were the case, then
why not superimpose these titles on either the right and left side, since that
would allow his long takes to be longer as well? A better explanation is the
overall purpose of this scene. This change from an extended take to editing
represents a remarkable shift in tone from the grave conversation of the intellectuals, to a song and written conversation seemingly unrelated to politics.
The second half of this scene produces an almost dream-like sense of hope
that counterbalances the gravity of what has just been discussed. Had this
scene been only the first long take, its abstract political issues would have
been its only purpose. Instead Hou does not belittle what is said, so much as
dovetail these words with his deeper project: to render a palpable version of
that quotidian world that will be affected in a very real way by what is being
discussed in the abstract.
There is also a retroactive significance to this scene: this will be the last
time this group will ever be together. Thereafter, one by one these men disappear, all off-camera. Hinoe before long will be in hiding in the mountains
and Wen-ching seeks him out. Unlike the past gatherings, this setting is
No Man an Island
bucolic, impoverished and somber. Everything in the conversation is now in
earnest; there are no songs, jokes, or laughter, no leisurely discussions of the
world at large while cloistered in safe refuge, no melodious acoustic balms
such as “Loralei.” More importantly, this time there is not even a hint of food
until Hinoe’s wife appears and begins to clear the rickety wooden table for a
meal (figure 14). Yet before any food is seen, Hou cuts to the next scene.
Figure 14
The last “eating” scene with only Wen-ching and Hinoe, who is in hiding.
There is a similar overall trajectory in the narrative strand involving the
gangsters. The first time they gather at a table it is a festive meal between
Wen-leung and his mainland counterparts. However, Wen-leung makes
the fateful decision here to allow his own brother’s boats to be used for
the smuggling of drugs, which will have disastrous consequences for the
Lins themselves. Once again, we have the same subtle shifting of heads and
movements which direct attention to key details at key moments. However,
the scene is handled in three long takes: in the ellipsis between the second
and third, Wen-leung makes his faithful decision, unbeknownst to us at the
time. Significantly, there are no more such meals with the mainlanders, only
gambling scenes or the scene where Wen-heung surrenders the drugs in
order to get Wen-leung’s release. Not only are the settings more Spartan in
this last example, there is also only the perfunctory serving of tea to accent
the cold, businesslike air.
Why all these eating scenes? Culture would seem to have the most
direct bearing. Food, and most of all the gatherings around food, play a deep
symbolic and social role in Chinese culture, even in its diasporic manifestations. One scholar has gone so far as to say that “few other cultures are as
food oriented as the Chinese. And this orientation appears to be as ancient
History in Its Place
as Chinese culture itself.”100 Another states, “Chinese use food to mark ethnicity, culture change, calendric and family events, and social transactions.
No business deal is complete without a dinner. No family visit is complete
without sharing a meal. No major religious event is correctly done without
offering up special foods proper to the ritual context.”101 Food acts as both
a social lubricant and bonding material, something literally symbolized by
how everyone draws from centrally placed dishes, not individual plates.
According to one observer, when the Chinese gather together to eat, often
the goal is to find mutually shared interests rather than to engage in contentious debate as would be more likely in the West.102 Here Hou is seemingly
pinned into a cultural corner, yet he explains his way out of it in pedestrian
terms. According to him, eating scenes are the best way to get his actors to be
their most natural selves. Hou waits until mealtime so his actors are actually
having their lunch or dinner on the set while acting out the scene. According
to him, actors become lost in the “business” of eating, handling everything
with greater naturalness, including their improvised dialogue.103 (Hou may
be the only major director in the world for whom craft service is an integral
part of his mise-en-scène.)
The large number of scenes in the hospital corridor, all along the same
axis, provides glimpses of larger historical change. This corridor makes its
first appearance about fourteen minutes into the film, perfectly encapsulating
the initial transition from Japanese to Chinese rule. We are introduced to the
basic layout of the corridor itself and several adjacent rooms. Significantly,
in one room in this scene we see Hinomi writing in her diary, the origins of a
private record of what will become tumultuous historical events. In another
adjacent room, various nurses are learning Mandarin Chinese, a linguistic
indicator of the new regime change. In yet another room, Wen-heung summarizes to the doctor what has happened to his family: one brother is missing
from the war, and the other (Wen-leung) has returned insane. The scene ends
with a shot in the room of Wen-leung, and we see his crazed yet unexplained
state, so severe that he is sedated and bound to the bed posts.
When the corridor returns a second time, it marks the final departure of
the Japanese. This somewhat long take down the corridor shows the arrival
of the Japanese woman, Shizuko, who has come to give Hinomi some
things before she herself leaves for Japan. Initially it might be difficult to see
Shizuko: she is extremely far away in the shot and partially obscured by a
nurse wheeling a cart much closer to the camera. As Shizuko approaches,
however, she is highlighted by being frontal, centered, increasing in size and
by carrying a bundle wrapped in gold — the brightest object in the mise-enscène.104 At the same time, however, there is a lot of incidental movement in
the shot, including an old man who stands up and walks across the hallway,
occluding Shizuko momentarily. From a door on the right, a nurse first
emerges, then a doctor. While both temporarily block our view of Shizuko,
No Man an Island
neither stops directly between her and the camera. Instead, they are to the
right and left of her, creating a perfect visual sieve directing our attention
once more to Shizuko (figure 15). In this case Hou does admit a certain
design, since he had the nurse count to ten before coming out, and the doctor
count to twenty.105 Still, without a single cut-in, the end result is immaculate.
The same can be said for later events in the corridor such as the spillover
from the 228 Incident itself, or the arrival of Hinomi to give birth which is
perfectly accented by the subtle shifting movements of a janitor mopping
the floor.
Figure 15
Hou’s intricate blocking of his actors along the hospital corridor in City of Sadness.
If the hospital corridor does not produce any specific cultural meaning,
it is more difficult to ignore this possibility with the large number of landscape shots in City of Sadness. In these shots, one is reminded of Chinese
landscape paintings which often dwarf their human figures (when they
are present) who are often mere minuscule specks. However, there are also
specific uses for landscapes in City related directly to the difficulties Hou
faced in dealing with one of the most violent periods of Taiwanese history,
subject matter which ran against the grain of his poetic, indirect narration.
One strategy is simple elision of the actual violence, such as the disappearance of many of the intellectuals, or the return of Wen-leung to a state of
madness. In the latter case we see his arrest and his return, but not the actual
torture at the hands of the government — we see the effects, but not the direct
cause. Another strategy is to show the violence, but only at a pronounced
distance. More than once there is a cut after violence has commenced to a
much greater distance along the same axis. This occurs, for example, during
the Red Monkey sequence when A-ga attacks another gangster in the field,
History in Its Place
or when Wen-leung’s fight inside the gambling den spills outdoors in an
extreme long shot.
More than elision and distancing, however, what bothered many was the
presence of landscapes which seemed to make the violence seem small, even
petty. The fight involving Wen-leung becomes dwarfed by the mountains
towering over everything. Likewise, A-ga’s sudden attack to revenge Red
Monkey’s death occurs in the vast, verdant surroundings of the Taiwanese
countryside. The real controversy emerges with the infamous “deleted”
scene which had the GIO on edge, made mainland hardliners like Hao Bocun
livid, and yet also left the opposition bitterly disappointed. Liao Binghui’s
accusation of Hou’s constantly panning away from violence to images of
nature is clearly referring to the flashback of Hinoe’s arrest. How can Liao
term this as “evasive” while Hao deems it as damning of the military? While
there is pan in this scene, it does not turn away from violence to impassive
nature; rather, it is a major reframing, one that makes possible a view of a
comrade in the distance presumably being hit by a second bullet (figure 16).
What really troubles Liao is not elision, but the radical distancing under
the vast canopy of nature. In framing the action this way, Hou shows
violence and in the distance the impassive roaring of the waves which will
continue to crash on that beachhead long after this period of history has
passed — indeed perhaps long past any history left to be recorded. Those
waves, that vast ocean, become the visual mantelpiece; human figures, and
Figure 16
The infamous “missing” two minutes in City of Sadness. The white speck in the lower
right hand corner is a falling victim of Nationalist oppression.
No Man an Island
actions, even violence, become small. As such this image is emblematic of
both Hou’s world view and of the film’s deft design which thwarted the
polemical needs of the moment.
In City of Sadness it is important to remind ourselves that this is not style
for the sake of style, but style for a particular narrative, lyrical, and consequently historical effects. Every shot is a microcosm of the film as a whole:
a wealth of details, but with enough room to offer suggestions of the deeper
significance without trumpeting them. History seeps slowly and almost
imperceptibly through the quotidian mesh. For all the quietude expressed
in seemingly frozen vignettes of everyday life, Hou’s film is ultimately
about unforeseen, shocking and irreversible change at the most intimate
level, those changes which occur beneath the grand and often cruel sweeps
of history. Through a very intricate patterning of repeated scenarios, locales
and backdrops (mostly landscapes), which together conspire to give the
film its oft-noted complexity, an often unrecognized structure reveals itself.
In these situations, seemingly odd stylistic choices matter a great deal. Hou
has seemingly produced a historical film unlike any before it.
Four years, later, however, he would prove to have even more to say on
the matter.
1989 to 1993: The Long, Quiet Road to The Puppetmaster
The impact of City of Sadness was both immediate and long-lasting. The
impact of Hou’s next film, The Puppetmaster, is much more difficult to gauge.
The four-year interregnum between the two films is the longest in Hou’s
career to date. Yet this was not a hiatus of inactivity. For the first and only
time Hou took a partisan political stance by supporting the former DPP
maverick, Zhu Gaozheng, and a brief-lived political party (Shemin dang)
which focused on social issues in Taiwan over any call for Taiwanese independence.106 (In the 1991 elections, this latter stance cost the DPP, while the
KMT wisely played the middle road of neither independence nor reunification.)107 Hou’s clout in the film world now allowed him to become a producer,
and not just in Taiwan. Xu Xiaoming made his directorial debut with Dust of
Angels (1991). With Hou as the producer, the style of the film led many to call
him its behind-the-scenes director as well.108 Hou even became a producer
for Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) through his connections with
Era International.
Most importantly, however, were the cues others were taking from Hou,
most of all by “going historical.” Edward Yang made his most direct foray
into Taiwanese history with arguably his greatest work, A Brighter Summer
Day (1991). Wang Tong had already made historical films about Taiwan, but
his 1992 film The Hill of No Return was shot in the same mountain locales as
City of Sadness. Even Zhu Yenping, Taiwan’s most successful director at the
History in Its Place
local box office, whose films are often indistinguishable from Hong Kong’s,
got into the historical act with A Home Too Far, a condemnatory exploration
of the KMT’s exploitation, and eventual abandonment, of soldiers along the
Burmese-Chinese border after the mainland was lost. More conspicuous is
how much Hou now defines the “Taiwanese style,” even for veterans like
Yang and Wang. Yang never averaged over 15 seconds per shot in his earlier
films, but in A Brighter Summer Day the average shot length is nearly double
that at just over 27 seconds per shot. He also now utilizes more complex
staging techniques compared to his previously sparse compositions. The first
scene in the pool hall uses three shots from deep inside the elongated room.
Yang is careful to keep the principal action in the foreground, unlike Hou,
but at one point a platoon of troops slowly walks by in the distance, a subtle
reminder of the White Terror. Wang Tong had made films that averaged less
than 8 seconds per shot (i.e. Runaway averages 7.8 seconds per shot), but in
The Hill of No Return the ASL shoots up to 20 seconds per shot, including a
shot at the end of the film that lasts nearly six minutes without a cut. Young
directors could not seem to avoid Hou’s now elongated stylistic shadows,
including a key newcomer, Tsai Ming-liang, who eventually will take some
of Hou’s aesthetic lessons literally. Before long this influence will extend
beyond Taiwan.
Not everyone saw this as a positive development, but further signs of
deepening crisis. Some initially thought Hou’s success with City of Sadness
might save the film industry. Sober heads, however, knew otherwise.
Edmond Wong correctly predicted that City would be a one-off success
simply because it was the first to bring 228 to the screen. The industry as a
whole, however, remained essentially unchanged.109 Others felt Hou was
leading Taiwanese cinema down an untenable path. Huang Yingfen notes
how everyone now followed Hou’s lead in pursuing a “festival style” of
long takes and the static camera because with no local market open to them,
the film festival route is the most viable.110 In any case, by 1993 the island
produced half the number of features it had in 1989; it would produce only
a quarter that number in 1994. By contrast, Hong Kong released more than
3.5 times that number on the island in 1993, the year this film came out.111
Box-office shares in this same year reveal an even worse state of affairs:
in 1993, foreign films (most from Hollywood) had 67% of the box office in
Taiwan, while Hong Kong had 29%, and Taiwan-made films had just over
4%.112 In a few years’ time, even these paltry figures will elicit nostalgia.
Another “giant” loomed over Taiwanese cinema in 1993: this was the year
of the unprecedented box-office success of Jurassic Park. This meant that not
only would these percentages continue to decline hereafter for Taiwanese
films, but also for Hong Kong films as well. From here on out Taiwanese
cinema will remain mostly a cottage industry of a few notable art films and
the rare commercial hit, but not a film industry in any true sense of the term.
No Man an Island
Taiwan will soon become the most Hollywood-dominated market in all of
East Asia.
Into this general state of affairs was born The Puppetmaster, in what
seems almost like an immaculate conception, as if the film emerged from
a pure void. Hou clearly had long desired to shoot a documentary on his
favorite octogenarian actor, Li Tianlu, who had served him so well in his
previous three films.113 In an interview with Peggy Chiao, Hou says the film
itself was made in reverse order: they first recorded Li’s story on audio tape,
then scripted the film, then shot several of these fictional scenes. Only after
doing all this did they ask Li to talk about himself in these same settings.114
Either way, this film took on a life of its own during shooting. Taiwan itself
could not provide the requisite pre-1945 settings, which led Hou to seek out
suitable locations in mainland China, now a new-found possibility for a
Taiwanese director due to the relaxing of government rules. The Puppetmaster
was shaped by the difficulties of shooting in China resulting in constant
delays and last-minute changes which added to the film’s looser structure.115
The finished film did not have the immediate impact of City of Sadness.
The Puppetmaster is the first Taiwanese film to ever compete in the competition at Cannes, and it would not be the last. However, it came away with
“merely” a Special Jury Prize at Cannes due to the dogged determination
of Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, not the Palm d’Or. More significantly, this
prize had no effect on the box office back in Taiwan. The Puppetmaster played
for almost a month in Taipei, yet sold just under 30,000 tickets, and pulled
in a little over NT$5.7 million at the box office (or just under US$200,000).116
City garnered over ten times that amount in Taipei alone and millions more
throughout the island, as seen above. One reporter notes how this disproves
the conventional wisdom that festival success, or critical success, or even
artistry, has anything to do with box-office success back home.117 Hou once
again has returned to a familiar status as box-office poison.
Yet while not having as widespread an impact, one could at least argue
that The Puppetmaster was an even greater critical success than its predecessor. It made the deepest impression on some, leading to almost rapturous
hyperbole. One Japanese critic, for example, says that with this film Hou is
able “to reinvent cinema.”118 J. Hoberman in the Village Voice describes The
Puppetmaster as “more like the rebirth of cinema itself.”119 Even the editor
of Death of a New Cinema, Mi Zo, declares this film as far superior to City
of Sadness on a political level, since Li Tianlu can at least speak, unlike
Wen-ching in the previous film.120 From the beginning there was some inkling
that Hou had achieved new heights, yet heights almost too high, with their
outlines lost in the clouds, shrouded in the muted mists of its own making.
As a belated masterpiece from the master of cinematic indirectness, The
Puppetmaster literally and figuratively went over nearly everybody’s head.
History in Its Place
The Puppetmaster: The Film Made of Passing Clouds
The Puppetmaster is a cinematic enigma both difficult to classify and analyze.
J. Hoberman aptly describes The Puppetmaster as “sui generis — neither
documentary nor fiction.”121 If this is a documentary — whether about
Li Tianlu, his art form and/or the Japanese era — its “argument” is buried
deep within. Analyzing the film thematically becomes a virtual archeological dig unearthing fragments fraught with deeper cultural and political significance. This is no less true aesthetically.
The late Li Tianlu remains a cultural icon in Taiwan. Li himself seemed
very aware of the historical and cultural significance of his lifelong mesh of
life and art: “Often I try to escape the grip of fate only to find myself controlled by it. Am I not one of the puppets on the stage? . . . I am just an old
artist. The last one hundred years, Taiwan’s fate has been my fate; the decline
of a local art form has been my decline.”122 Li was born in 1910 when direct
resistance to Japanese rule had largely subsided. He recalls that he grew
up when a Taiwanese consciousness began to slowly emerge after World
War I.123 In 1936, Li established his famous puppet troupe, Yiwanran, and was
soon performing up to thirty-five times a month. One year later, however,
he was closed down due to the new assimilation polices enforced by the
Japanese.124 Many accounts of puppetry focus on local puppeteers who
cleverly resisted Japanese assimilation. Li, however, honestly and unapologetically acknowledges his stint in the propaganda section of the Japanese
police force, saying he joined because of one good Japanese officer who
treated Li like a friend.125 Yet he also recalls performing traditional stories
when the Japanese were not looking.126 This ambivalence becomes central to
Hou’s film, and is indicative of Taiwanese cultural identity as a whole.
After the war, Li began to wonder about Taiwan’s future under the new
government once the Taiwanese experienced deprivations they had never
experienced under the Japanese. He would not perform until five days after
the 228 Incident.127 Yet Li eventually came to accommodate himself to the
new order as he had done under the Japanese, even performing once for
Chiang Kai-shek.128 More importantly, however, Li would become Taiwan’s
leading cultural ambassador from the traditional arts, being puppetry’s
counterpart to Lin Huaimin and Cloud Gate in modern dance, and Hou
and Yang in film. Li began to accept students from abroad, first from France,
then from the United States, Japan and Austria.129 This resulted in numerous
performances abroad by Li’s puppet troupe beginning in France in 1978.130
Eventually, Li received a large number of prizes he could hardly count. The
government of the ROC even gave Li an award for “the promotion of international understanding.”131
The relationship between Hou and Li was exceptional, bridging generations and transcending the fact that the former is of recent mainland
No Man an Island
descent, while the latter is a multi-generational Taiwanese. Both have tied
their personal fates with that of Taiwan; both have used their art as a form of
ambassadorial service for an island they equally call home. In truth, Li did
not fully appreciate or understand Hou’s films, even calling the editing in
Dust in the Wind “a mess.”132 Nevertheless, once Hou began to use him in
the mid-1980s, Li became a regular fixture in Taiwanese films, appearing as
a grandfather figure in four films in 1988 alone.133 In City of Sadness, Li not
only takes on a role of symbolic importance, he also became a key source of
information for Hou on the finer details of everyday life in the late 1940s.134
When Hou decided to shoot The Puppetmaster, he took Li with him to the
mainland to pick out appropriate locations in Fujian province.135 Hou also
arranged to have Li first recite his story on audio tape, from which Hou
would then decide what to shoot in The Puppetmaster.136 Li appreciated to no
end that Hou wanted to shoot his life story, and he always loved the freedom
given to perform, calling Hou “an actor’s best friend.”137 Li Tianlu may not
have understood Hou’s films, but he understood Hou, and the understanding was mutual.
Lu Tonglin suggests that Li becomes Hou’s surrogate father, underscoring Hou’s tacit reaffirmation of a patriarchal Chinese tradition.138 Yet
this film is not a hagiography or a paean to tradition. The Puppetmaster is
also more than a biopic. The prominence of hand puppetry is in itself significant, since it is arguably the most identifiably Taiwanese art form. Hand
puppetry developed in Fujian, the mainland province lying directly across
from Taiwan. Hand puppetry became widespread during the Qing dynasty,
when Taiwan was a part of Fujian province until 1886.139 Still, it was the fiftyplus years of Japanese rule over the island which played a pivotal role in
this art form’s distinctive development on the island. Not long after the first
wave of puppeteers came over from the mainland, Taiwan became a part of
the burgeoning Japanese empire in 1895. Puppeteers managed to keep the
art form alive under the Japanese, passing it along to a second generation
who surprisingly found enough space to preserve, and even develop, the
art form.140 Moreover, geographical limitations forced these puppeteers to
develop their craft independently from the mainland.141 This situation lasted
for most of the Japanese era, allowing a fully developed, indigenous and
popular art form to appear everywhere on the island until the draconian
assimilation laws of 1937 were enforced.
Of particular interest is how Hou neither idealizes the Japanese era nor
castigates it. Lu Feiyi notes the implications of this when comparing The
Puppetmaster to Wang Tong’s The Hill of No Return, which also dealt with
the Japanese era. The Hill of No Return shows a clear opposition between
the Japanese and Taiwanese, implying that the Taiwanese, even after a half
century of Japanese education, still kept intact an unadulterated Chinese
identity. The Puppetmaster, on other hand, takes a much more complex view,
History in Its Place
noting the accommodations and compromises the Taiwanese made to the
reality of Japanese power. Unlike Wang’s film, Hou’s work expresses an
ambivalent hybridity, a sense of mixed blood and a much more hesitant
identity overall.142 The discussion above of how the Taiwanese actually
behaved during the Japanese era suggests that Hou’s version is closer to
the truth.
One would expect that The Puppetmaster, taking place from 1911 to 1945,
centering on the peripatetic existence of this all-important puppeteer, would
explore in visual terms what has been discussed above. Yet the film explains
little of the Japanese domination of Taiwan, or the role hand puppetry plays
in sustaining a distinctively Taiwanese culture under Japanese rule, or even
the cultural importance of Li Tianlu, most of all as a cultural ambassador
due to his artistic prowess. The Japanese in this film are neither benevolent
rulers nor malevolent tyrants — they just happen to be there. Puppet performances are not pressed into symbolizing a burgeoning Taiwanese identity;
they are just part of the everyday life of the common people, bending to the
whims of change, always under the watchful eye of nature. Even Li himself,
great master that he is, and great cultural figure he would become, is in this
film but a simple raconteur who recounts not his heroism, nor his resistance,
but simply how he lived in difficult times, and survived. The Puppetmaster
is about as close to what Hou has always sought, much like Shen Congwen:
to look at the world, even the historical world, without any of the usual
judgments and rhetorical expectations. Hou creates an alternative, natural
philosophy of history.
In perhaps no other Hou film does the primacy of experience over
understanding reach a higher pitch. On the surface, The Puppetmaster seems
like a loose collage of episodes from Li’s life. After an opening title explaining that Taiwan became a part of Japan in 1895, the film opens in 1911 on
the first birthday of Li Tianlu. Then the film jumps ahead to episodes of Li
as a young boy including the Japanese’s first appearance in the film, the
death of his mother, the arrival of his cruel stepmother resulting in the loss of
his adopted sister, Muzai, and the death of his grandfather. The plot jumps
ahead some years later to when Li is around twelve or thirteen years old and
is humiliated by his stepmother for one last time. He storms out of the house,
and the next scene shows him performing outdoors. Thereafter he is seen
eating with a grandmother, who also dies suddenly. Without warning, the
film then leaps ahead to Li as a young man marrying a woman against his
father’s wishes. In the scene immediately following, Li’s first child is born
off-screen. Li then visits his father, performs in his new troupe and then pays
his respects to his father’s corpse. Then suddenly it is 1937 and Li performs
opera since outdoor performances are banned by the Japanese. While doing
this, he meets a woman named Li Zhu, with whom he has a brief but particularly memorable affair. This is then followed by another very abrupt
No Man an Island
shift to 1942 or later. A puppet play is being performed, now of Japanese
propaganda. The next two scenes show Li’s new troupe traveling the countryside. The next three scenes involve a Japanese soldier with whom Li
fought. This sequence ends with Li’s family eating, at which point the lights
go out as an air-raid siren is heard. In the following scene, Li says goodbye
to his Japanese friend since the war is over. Li then contracts cholera, but
survives. Immediately following this, Li is making a small coffin for his
youngest child, who in the intervening ellipsis had died from cholera along
with a grandfather. The film then ends with images of Taiwanese pulling
apart abandoned Japanese fighter planes for scrap metal. The year is 1945.
These all sound abrupt, but the actual film seems otherwise. Chu Tien-wen
provides an insightful comment in her introduction to the script: the creation
of The Puppetmaster was like the “editing together of clouds.”143 This patchwork of clouds provides the best metaphorical means to approach this most
elusive film that otherwise defies analysis. By understanding how clouds
behave, most of all how they can blend together, we can then understand
how this film “behaves” as well. The temporal ellipses are bolder than ever,
yet they are also more cleverly disguised. Far from being jolted, the average
viewer is usually left unaware of how radical the temporal and spatial leaps
are, where a single edit often spans years. The closest precedent may be the
German film, The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (1968), by Jean-Marie
Straub and Daniele Huillet. This film is literally a chronicle of the life of an
artist which possesses no grand narrative or thematic thread. It features
several static long takes of musical performances by Bach, much like the
puppet and opera performances in Hou’s film. Yet the title in Chinese brings
out one key difference: translated as “Life Is but a Dream on a Stage,” this
implies a dream-like patchwork of life and art. Unlike the overtly fragmentary nature of the German film, in The Puppetmaster the transitions from
one “scene” to the next, from one narrative “event” to the next, or even
from one performance to the next, are never as abrupt or jarring. On the
contrary, all of these elements literally flow into one another, in both directions. Furthermore, there is no privileging of the artistic performances over
everything else as occurs in Anna Magdelena Bach. By contrast, the puppet or
opera performances in The Puppetmaster are but one element among many:
along with the characters, narrative, domestic squabbles, food, song, politics,
history, landscapes, life and death, they all flow into one another in a protean
cinematic mix.
Hou achieved this by a deft mixture of old and new. For example, the
puppet performances are often the clearest markers of historical change in
this film much the way the table gatherings and the hospital corridor had
functioned in City of Sadness. The propaganda puppet play perfectly summarizes the occupiers’ late attempt to fully integrate the Taiwanese into
Japanese society. Similarly, the final performance in the film symbolizes a
History in Its Place
return to tradition, yet also shows a shivering Li performing despite having
cholera, a disease that took many lives in Taiwan right after the war.
If we define Hou as the master of the long take and the static camera,
this is the ultimate Hou film bar none. The average for this film has now
nearly doubled from City of Sadness, standing at an astonishing 82 seconds
per shot, putting him clearly in the same company as Mizoguchi, Jancsó and
Angelopoulos. Moreover, of the hundred shots in the film,144 seventy-one of
them feature no camera movement, while another fifteen shots feature only
the slightest reframings. (No film by Mizoguchi, Jancsó or Angelopoulos
has ever produced numbers like this.) This means only fourteen shots have
camera movements that are likely to be noticeable in a single viewing.
Furthermore, most of those discernible camera movements are only for a
small fraction of the shot’s duration. One prime example is the first performance of the young Li after he has stormed out of the house: the first shot
begins with a tilt down from a tree to a puppet performance shown in a long
shot, one of only four camera moves in the film not motivated strictly by
character movements. The camera then holds this position for nearly two
minutes before the next cut. It is no wonder that upon its release some people
described the film almost like it was putting together still photographs.145
There are other familiar elements as well. For example, table gatherings, mostly eating scenes, are numerically significant in The Puppetmaster.
However, these no longer play the large-scale structural role they did in
Dust in the Wind and City of Sadness. The longest take in the film (over seven
minutes with only slight reframings at certain moments) is in an eating
scene that is the culmination of Li Zhu’s test of Li’s faithfulness to her. The
Li Zhu sequence overall is the centerpiece of The Puppetmaster: this episode
involves five successive scenes, three of which are table gatherings, two of
which involve food. (Li’s wife, by contrast, is hardly even seen in the film.)
Moreover, these occur during the war, and yet we see nothing of the war
or even the Japanese during this sequence. This exemplifies Hou’s overall
historical project: not to focus on the “significant” events of history making
the annals and textbooks, but rather the details of everyday life by those
who lived though history, and whose most vivid memories are left out of
conventional historical records.
There are instances of intricate staging in this film. One example is the
staging when Li as a young man visits his fiancé’s house, which David
Bordwell has already described in great detail.146 However, while this is
familiar Hou by this point, overall The Puppetmaster is sparser than its immediate predecessor in arranging actors within the frame. This, however, is not
a step backwards for Hou, but rather another subtle strategy that underpins
the unusual experience this film engenders: by creating static visual nodes,
a false appearance of constancy emerges in a world otherwise in flux. Each
shot appears like a tableau as if the world had stopped to pose for the
No Man an Island
camera. (At one point Li Zhu literally does pose for a still photograph.) Such
stasis and quietude, however, only further distracts one from the radical
gaps between these images, or the dramatic shifts and turnabouts that often
occur off-screen in the intervening ellipses.
There are also familiar editing patterns. Yeh and Nornes have pointed
out that the linchpin of Hou’s editing aesthetic is his tendency to cut along
the same camera axis.147 While not completely accurate with respect to City
of Sadness, this claim is better justified with respect to The Puppetmaster. Here
Hou tends to restrict himself by cutting from an already distanced shot to
an even more distanced shot along the same axis. This strategy, established
in the first scene of Li’s birthday, is repeated when the camera cuts back to
an image of Li’s father waiting for Li to finish his class at school and other
scenes thereafter. Some of the cuts to the real Li Tianlu (where he usually
continues his initially off-screen monologue) are either done with the same
set-up as the previous shot, or from a more distanced set-up along that same
axis. Here Hou ingeniously blurs another potentially disruptive dichotomy
between the diegetic and non-diegetic worlds in a fluid fashion: having Li
always appear in either the same camera set-up, or at least along the same
camera axis as the previous shot, further aids this smooth transition from the
“story” realm to the “documentary” realm, much in the same way that this
film blends together “life,” the “stage” and “dreams.” Thus, even editing
strangely plays a role in blurring boundaries in The Puppetmaster rather than
calling attention to them.
In his previous films we have already seen how Hou tends to use
landscape shots which often achieve their own autonomy. Here there are
numerous distanced shots in which key narrative details are dwarfed by
landscapes. The arrival of the stepmother offers one prime instance of this.
On-screen a carriage moves away from the camera, almost swallowed up by
the surroundings. (So diminutive is this detail that only the published script
can clarify that it is the stepmother arriving.) Such oblique narrative exposition, often made more indirect by the overwhelming expanse of the natural
world itself, means the narrative has become almost secondary to nature
itself. Some controversies have revolved around this issue. Nick Browne
describes these shots as not just beautiful, but also “sublime.” In his own
words: “They [the landscape shots] are moments of the narratively unrepresentable and stand as points of stasis in the narrative system of Hou’s films.”
Clearly what left the most indelible impression on Browne are the final two
shots of the crowd dismantling Japanese planes, which he calls “one of the
most incongruous and beautiful images of world cinema.”148 Shen Xiaoying
disputes Browne’s contention that certain shots defy narration.149 Li Zhenya
disputes Browne’s conclusions about The Puppetmaster by avering that
there is no sense of time and space in the film that is outside of politics and
history.150 At the core of this dispute is the shared assumption that there is a
History in Its Place
dialectical opposition between the natural and the human worlds, between
nature and history, or between nature and narration. In the case of The
Puppetmaster, however, terms like “dialectical” seems to me acutely foreign
to how this film operates as a whole, and therefore misguided.
These familiar Hou traits, many now pushed to a new level, are conjoined with traits which seem rather novel for Hou. Mark Lee returned to
work with Hou for the first time since 1986. Unlike in City of Sadness, with
its often somber diffusion of the interiors, The Puppetmaster consistently
employs very directional lighting, in some cases even using backlighting
that completely silhouettes the main figures on the screen. The scenes with
Li Zhu in her room involve either strong top-lighting for the night scenes,
or strong side-lighting for the daytime. Even when the interior lighting more
resembles that of past films, they often still use strong chiaroscuro in any
case, leaving the characters — themselves illuminated — surrounded by rich
gradations of light and shadow never seen before in a Hou film. Given Hou’s
goal of increasing subtlety and indirectness for his narration, this was the
next logical step to take. Even if such lighting challenges the viewer in some
respects, these interior views are hauntingly and exquisitely beautiful on
the big screen.
Of course, one of the most potentially jarring features of this film is
its half-documentary, half-fictional quality. Hou’s interest in documentary
should come as no surprise, given his interest in showing Taiwan as he
sees it. Still, to start this particular film as a narrative and then to suddenly
insert the real Li Tianlu on the screen — and not do this until at least fifty
minutes into the film — is an audacious move. Nevertheless, it is not as disruptive as one might expect. Documentary and narrative here are combined
effortlessly, and without any overt stabs at reflexivity that one might expect.
Furthermore, Li’s own appearances on-screen, coupled with his voiceovers, play a deeper role than merely combining two distinctive cinematic
forms. They also allow distinct temporal time frames to meld together. Li’s
voice-overs are just as often anticipatory as retroactive: sometimes certain
key moments are introduced abstractly through his words first, after which
what has been said will be presented visually on-screen. Consider the death
of Li’s grandmother, which prompts the initial, unexpected appearance of
the present-day Li. We first see the young Li and a woman eating together,
but there is no way of discerning who she is. Over the next three shots
(a landscape of a field followed by two distanced images of men building
an addition to a house), Li’s voice-over explains that she is his grandmother
who was brought to his house because other relatives thought she was
bad luck. Thus far the voice-over has been retroactive, explaining all of the
events seen, including the addition to the house (figure 17). Li then goes on
to say that they lived together without incident, and soon enough the camera
cuts along the same camera axis placing the actual Li seated in a medium
No Man an Island
Figure 17
The shot right before Li Tianlu’s first appearance in The Puppetmaster (1993).
Figure 18
Li appears along the same axis in the same setting.
shot, directly addressing the audience (figure 18). Significantly, Li’s commentary deftly segues into future events not seen, events that culminate in
the death of his grandmother, who has barely been introduced to begin with.
Throughout the film Hou uses these on-screen appearances to link past and
future events, once again almost imperceptibly. For example, when the film
jumps to 1937, we see an indoor opera performance. At first, Li’s voice-over
explains the greater significance of an indoor opera performance already
seen, a visible effect of larger yet unseen events (the war and the subsequent ban on outdoor puppet performances). Yet after he appears on-screen,
Li begins to talk about how he met his most memorable amour while
performing in this opera troupe, thus seguing easily into the prolonged,
upcoming sequence involving Li Zhu.
Considering this film’s long, static and distanced takes, either intricate
or static staging, landscapes which often dwarf human actions, lighting
History in Its Place
schemes which push visibility almost to the margins, a most unusual
strategy of inserting the documentary elements in the same settings as the
fictional ones, an epilogue so unexpected, and so oblique, that it has resulted
in widely varying interpretations — combined, this seems like the perfect
recipe for alienation and fragmentation; it sounds nothing like the free-flowing feature-length poem this film actually is. Why? Because one particular
element — the sound bridges — acts almost like a glue which washes over
every gap, smoothing over every potential boundary along the way.
Of Taiwan’s most renowned directors up to that time, Edward Yang
had performed the most daring manipulations of sound in the 1980s, often
employing an array of dexterous mismatches between sound and image
for pronounced effect in his urban trilogy of That Day on the Beach, Taipei
Story and The Terrorizers. Hou, by contrast, almost evinced a naiveté about
sound, although he has had the good fortune of working with Du Duzhi
and Chen Mingzhan, the latter of whom did the music for both Dust in the
Wind and The Puppetmaster. Over time, however, Hou’s sound strategies,
like so many of his stylistic strategies, have become increasingly subtle as
to often disguise their underlying audacity. There are signs of this in City
of Sadness, but in The Puppetmaster they are employed for very pronounced
effect. It is precisely this film’s sound design which allows the free-flowing
quality whereby past, present and future drift through each other, allowing
the extreme ellipses in this film to become quite understated, if not invisible. In part this is because of Li Tianlu’s voice-overs. Yet this sonic strategy
extends beyond these. Late in the film, for example, there is a clear temporal
gap between two shots: the first shows a Japanese officer complaining about
Li inside of a house; the second shows Li getting in a fight with that same
officer on a hilly landscape. Thunder comes in at the end of the first scene,
and continues well into the second. One could say that this is not an untypical sound bridge, except the sound of the thunder begins at least thirty
seconds before the cut, leading the audience to assume that the thunder
and the first scene were synchronous. Yet since the sound of thunder continues for nearly twenty seconds into the new scene before slowly fading
out, its temporal location remains ambiguous, especially since both scenes
occur on an overcast day. As such, the two scenes are strongly linked by the
sonic flow of the thunder, and the temporal and spatial gap between them is
In addition, there is a constant layering of various sounds, most of all
a mixing of Li’s voice-overs with other sonic elements, whether diegetic
or non-diegetic. One striking early example occurs around the death of his
mother. Li’s voice-over begins while we see the mother combing her hair and
is subtly mixed in with ambient sounds of tapping and footsteps. His voiceover also mixes with the sounds of the market when they buy a duck there.
In the next shot we see two carriages moving away from the camera into the
No Man an Island
distance, the muted sounds of which can be heard in the background. While
seeing this image, Li’s voice-over continues to describe how his mother died.
Soon enough the subtle strains of Chen Mingzhan’s guitar music chimes
in as well, only to slowly segue into the next scene where the children are
introduced to the stepmother. Certainly such sonic layering in itself is not
that unusual and can be found in Hollywood films. What is unusual is that
in this case one can hardly pick out the actual narrative ellipsis due to the
continuous sound, nor the temporal disruption at work in this last image:
the script makes very clear that those carriages, which appear on the screen
before Li even gets to talking about his mother’s actual death, are actually
transporting his new stepmother to their house. Thus, while we hear from
Li an accounting of an event already past and never seen, the visuals on
screen are already well into the future since the carriages indicate that Li’s
father has already remarried. Sound here not only lets past and future
flow into each other without any clear borderlines, it hides its stratagems
under a guise of spontaneity and unforced naturalism, the hallmarks of the
film’s creator.
Even music is handled in such unusual ways to wash over potentially
jarring gaps. Music figures prominently in the all-important five-scene
sequence between Li and his mistress. The first eating scene of Li and Li Zhu
is followed by a brief scene of her having her portrait taken. Yet laid over
both scenes is a single, continuous song heard in the background at varying
levels. In the initial scene the sound has a timbre of coming from the radio
behind them after Li Zhu tunes to it. (Therefore it is clearly diegetic.) As the
image fades to black, the music becomes much fuller when the image fades
in to the photography session. (Now the music is non-diegetic.) Only very
slowly and gradually (stretching nearly twenty seconds), does this song
finally fade away in the third scene when they look at the photographs and
then eat noodles in her room (figures 19, 20, and 21). After a long interlude
where only dialogue and ambient sounds are heard, the sounds of an opera
performance slowly fade in. This seems to be diegetic, yet the music segues
to the fourth scene that follows. Since in part this involves an opera performance, now we realize the music is motivated by this scene, not the one
previous. This music in turn bleeds over into the fifth and final scene of the
sequence where Li is tested by Li Zhu. In short, over these five scenes two
different pieces of music each tie together three scenes each, with the middle
scene being connected by both pieces. In this way, there is a sonic flow
created over the entire sequence, once again smoothing over the otherwise
jarring ellipses.
The sound in the sequence involving the pubescent Li and his grandmother carries over three successive scenes, and is emblematic of the
construction of the film as a whole. The sound of firecrackers and music
slowly fades in with the opening shot, the aforementioned outdoor puppet
Figure 19
First night of the Li Zhu
sequence, with pronounced
top lighting.
Figure 20
Li Zhu being photographed, the music
Figure 21
Li Zhu and Li Tianlu as
a young man looking at
the photos; pronounced
side lighting.
No Man an Island
performance after he left home. Li’s voice-over soon explains that he was
now on the road performing as a young boy. The second shot, a cut-in to
the young Li performing from backstage, clearly reveals that the music is
diegetic, originating from his performance. This shot fades to black, and
the next image fades in showing a restaurant on a street. This appears to be
in a proximate area, given that the sound, seemingly following the rules of
the audio proximity effect, is more distanced due to a noticeably reduced
volume. The last two shots of this second scene now show Li eating with his
grandmother in a restaurant, a clear indication of a temporal gap — except
that the sound of that performance by this same Li, now eating, has continued uninterrupted in the background, seemingly mixing naturally with the
ambient murmurs in the restaurant itself. And if that were not enough, the
music from that same performance, now long completed in the visual realm,
carries over even into the next shot, an extreme long shot of a landscape
that includes Li leading his grandmother along a path. (Once again, only the
script clarifies this.) Only then does that sound of the performance fade out
in an excruciatingly slow fashion, taking nearly another half minute to do
so. This in turn segues into the return of Li’s adult voice-over explaining this
episode concerning the grandmother who would soon die.
If there is an underlying structure to The Puppetmaster, it is how imperceptibly past, present and future flow into each other. Sound in particular
plays the primary role in smoothing over what would otherwise be very
rough elliptical divisions, and yet it does something more than that. Li in the
present reflects on the past: yet that past seen on screen itself has an almost
magical temporal structure whereby past, present and future seem to occur
simultaneously. With the help of Du Duzhi, Hou disguises his almost devious
manipulations under the veil of realism, resulting in a cinematic experience
that is very much a part of the world it depicts, and yet at the same time is
markedly different from it. Most viewers will not consciously reflect on the
disparity between sound and image — but they will experience it on some
level, perhaps sensing that there is something uncanny going on, even if they
cannot quite place their finger on it. Because of the sound design most of all,
The Puppetmaster is like a dream that seems utterly real. The question only
remains as to what this dream is telling us.
Histories without Rhetoric or Vision?
Hou’s career to date suggests that he is at his best with historical material.
However, that is precisely what makes Hou’s historical films so difficult for
most viewers. These are not the sort of histories we are used to: they do
not involve the great historical personages who supposedly “drive” these
events; they do not seem structured, certainly not around an argument; they
do not seem to make any “point,” lacking any clear rhetorical thrust. Instead,
History in Its Place
these on the surface are mere chronicles of the quotidian lives of little
people. That is usually what people mean when calling these a “subaltern”
history, or a “history from below.” These are unofficial histories par excellence, yet they almost seem to be anti-histories, most of all City of Sadness and
The Puppetmaster.
Yet these are not just historical deconstructions. For starters, both films
seem calculated according to a peculiar position Taiwan finds itself both
domestically and internationally. Of the two films, City of Sadness posed
the greatest challenge given how it implicated the ruling party by touching
upon the greatest historical taboo of them all. Yet it also had implications
for China, since the underlying message is about how China has historically
treated Taiwan. Few historical eras anywhere are this explosive or sensitive.
How to best proceed was anyone’s guess. In this climate, Hou was arguably
the best man for this job, a job which had no consensus. Another Taiwanese
director at the time, Ye Hongwei, said this about Hou’s handling of the
228 Incident: “If I had shot this subject matter, I would have done so in a
much more political way, but it would have been banned as a result. The
current censorship system will not allow such a risk.”151 If this accurately
describes the late 1980s in Taiwan, then perhaps Hou’s peculiar treatment
of such touchy subject matter was the only way to bring this incident to the
light of day at that particular time, or any time thereafter for that matter.
Of all the comments made by Hou concerning City of Sadness, none is
more confounding than his personal belief that this film is “too direct.”152
Hardliners like Hao Bocun would agree, but not those in the opposite camp.
In truth, this is a history with rhetoric. But like everything else — such as
causality, or its underlying structure — this rhetoric is buried behind a calculated pretense of having no rhetoric at all. Close inspection does reveal a
decided imbalance of voices in the film which favors the Taiwanese, not the
mainland newcomers. These multifaceted voices include not only Hinomi’s
diary, but also the first two meals among the intellectuals, which air out the
grievances against the new ruling party. In the first of these meals, there is
even a rare cut-in to Hinoe right when he makes a pointed remark against
Chen Yi. In the second meal, a visual democracy allows everyone to catalog
the grievances of the Taiwanese against their new overlords. Who speaks
for the mainlanders or the KMT? Only the disembodied voice of Chen Yi
in the speeches made after the Incident began. Chen Yi is perhaps one the
most irredeemable figures in the history of the KMT. That Chen Yi is the
only voice of the mainlanders in the entire film is tantamount to having
Hitler speak for all conservatives, or having Pol Pot speak for all liberals.
Moreover, these announcements are chilling, displaying that invisible nature
of power that Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh notes. No other mainlander speaks in this
film unless talking business; there are no cut-ins, no gatherings of mainland
gangsters where they complain about the Taiwanese. Moreover, when the
No Man an Island
soldiers appear in the film, such as the arrest of Wen-leung, or later of Hinoe,
the soldiers have their backs mostly to the camera, almost as if they were
an impersonal, inhuman force. Hou’s handling of these issues is almost
devious, and more damning of the KMT than it first appears
The problem is that Hou then lacquers this with profuse details such as
food, song, laughter — the stuff of everyday life. Most telling is how both
eating scenes with the intellectuals end in song, not calls to action. The political in Hou’s cinematic world, like its human subjects, like history, like even art
itself, are all engulfed in a deeper world view. In the script for City of Sadness
Hou explains as such: “What I hope to capture on film is all the activities of
human beings under the laws of nature.”153 This seemingly vague statement
is seen by many as indicative of Hou’s political evasiveness, but it accurately
reflects how he sees politics in his own terms. The problem for Hou is not the
political undertones, but how many in 1989 attempted to reduce the film to
its politics, or to further their own immediate political aims.
This becomes much clearer in The Puppetmaster, where the historical
controversies were more remote and muted, allowing Hou to present his
historical vision more fully. Unlike City of Sadness and the 228 Incident, this
was not the first film to deal with the Japanese era in Taiwan. Yet never have
the Japanese been depicted as such — one does not see much of either their
vices or virtues. They are but one of many people in Li’s life and nothing
more. They are neither especially good nor bad; despite their real power,
they hardly seem of any consequence. They came, and then they went.
No longer is anything privileged. History is but a smaller part of a larger
picture. History has now been put in its place. In fact, everything, including narrative, art, history, food, life and death, to name a few, has its place;
nothing is given greater weight than anything else. Furthermore, the flowing
“cloud-like quality” allows these elements to intermix freely, even to mingle
at points, and then quietly part ways, often for good. Even the episode with
Li Zhu, the most arresting in the entire film, simply comes and goes, and
she is never heard from again. People are born, people die, and that is that.
In The Puppetmaster, nature is everywhere, the canopy under which all else
occurs, dwarfing even the grandeurs of art and history. Everything changes,
even art, according to the whims of an unseen fate.
Hou now fully realizes the vision he first had when he was shooting The
Boys from Fengkuei and reading Shen Congwen’s autobiography: to render a
world where what matters is not the prattle of pundits and politicians, but
life as it is, and as it is lived, and most of all, as it is remembered by its survivors. The Puppetmaster is perhaps as episodic in the true sense of the word
as any feature film ever made, yet it is not episodic for the sake of being
episodic. These episodes are part of a much deeper project than anybody
can ever possibly realize after a single viewing. Were it not for its deceptive simplicity, the ease by which it ebbs and flows, its abiding quiescence,
History in Its Place
this film would be noted as one of the most radical ever made compared
with most every other cinematic foray into history and philosophy. Without
dint of logic or argumentation, without the usual trappings of intellectual
fervor or sophisticated nattering, The Puppetmaster, by the very fabric of its
cinematic being, is one of the most understated yet profound philosophical
statements to ever grace the screen. One wonders what Hou had left to say.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:06 GMT from JHU Libraries
Goodbye to All That
The New Hou from Good Men, Good Women (1995)
to Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Looking at Hou Hsiao-hsien’s entire career tempts one to engage in that
dubious intellectual exercise of determining a possible “peak” or “break.”
If Hou peaked, he peaked relatively early. In little over a decade, he astonishingly went from making bubble-gum musicals in a dying film industry to
making award-winning festival films which reconfigure long-held notions
about both film aesthetics and history. Moreover, every step along the way
was a sure one in the same general direction: Hou’s commercial trilogy half
knowingly planted the seeds for certain stylistic tendencies which later will
make him a festival darling; the New Cinema films each were sure steps
forward, each adding another integral part to an ever more distinctive aesthetic and world view; following a half step backward in Daughter of the Nile,
Hou then seemingly reaches new heights with City of Sadness, only to find
the fullest — and deepest — expression of all he had been pursuing with The
Puppetmaster. Had it ended in 1993, his directorial career today would seem
organically wrought, as if all had been by design, and not by a confluence of
contingencies. What could Hou possibly do next?
The first person to recognize this was, not surprisingly, Chu Tien-wen.
Right after the release of Hou’s next film in 1995, Good Men, Good Women, she
wrote these startlingly prophetic words: “In the future when people study the
films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, they will discover that in his creative development
The Puppetmaster is a pinnacle, and thereafter there will be complications and
twists and turns.”1 Chu’s prescience is now confirmed more than a decade
later, yet it goes against the conventional periodization of Hou’s career
where this film is the final installment of Hou’s so-called “historical trilogy,”
not the beginning of a new, uncertain phase. A single viewing of Good Men,
Good Women, however, leaves one feeling that something has changed. Chu
herself observes how longtime Hou collaborator, Zhan Hongzhi, was almost
stupefied by an initial screening of the film, as if Zhan was saying goodbye
to an old friend he had once known so well.2
By the next film, Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), the suspected change
was evident to nearly everyone, yet even this could not quite compare to
the film which followed. Flowers of Shanghai is a breathtaking “twist” to be
Goodbye to All That
sure, or a dazzling “turn” if you prefer, but nobody can deny that this film
marks a vexing complication. For the first and only time in his career, Hou
produces a film which is set entirely in mainland China, making no reference
to Taiwan whatsoever. For that reason alone it was near treason for some,
representing an abandonment of Taiwan and the realism that had formed
the cornerstones of his previous films, even including the two most recent,
less certain efforts. For others, on the other hand, it was nothing short of
the greatest film of the year (if not the decade) the world over, a mesmerizing mise-en-scene masterpiece so delicately wrought, so finely paced,
and so wondrously lit that it mattered little what it was about, or where it
took place. Few in 1998 could dispute that Hou was still the master of the
medium: Flowers of Shanghai rivals the best of Mizoguchi, not just in terms of
beauty and subtlety, but also sheer visual complexity. Yet in doing so, Hou
raises new questions, even bringing us back to square one with the troublesome issue of China. Has Hou Hsiao-hsien, the director hailing from Taiwan,
made the most Chinese film ever? If so, is this film also a major break, maybe
even more significant than the one putatively made in 1995?
It would be a mistake to see these changes as resulting from changes in
Taiwan or Taiwanese cinema during the mid-1990s. If any person defined the
decade for Taiwan, it was Lee Teng-hui, the president from the KMT and yet
who was a benshengren. Many now feel that Lee intended to make the KMT
implode from within. After retiring, he even declared that he only joined
the KMT in the 1970s because “the most dangerous place to be was also the
safest place to be.”3 Nevertheless, seen at first as a temporary solution after
the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, he managed twelve years as the president
(1988–2000). During that time Lee implemented sweeping changes, including constitutional ones that made it possible for the next president, Chen
Shui-bian, to rule without being the head of a political party. In 1996, there
was the first direct presidential election ever in Taiwan which prompted
threatening missile tests by mainland China, a strategy which backfired. Lee
won 54% of the vote. The DPP candidate, Peng Mingmin, a veteran advocate
of Taiwanese independence, came in second with 21% of the popular vote.
Members from both the KMT and the DPP slung mud in the opposition’s
faces, but Lee and Peng never exchanged a negative word about each
other. They were old friends.4 Yet during his last term, Lee’s approval rating
plummeted from 80% to 40% for a number of reasons: corruption in the
KMT, relatively declining economic competitiveness and numerous diplomatic failures.5 Popular or not, Lee still the pushed the cause of Taiwanese
sovereignty as far as it could go. In 1999, Lee Teng-hui made a bold statement
on German television where he declared that ever since the constitutional
changes in 1991, the relations between China and Taiwan have been on an
equal “State-to-State” basis.6 Not only did this provoke the ire of the PRC,
it caused unease among many in Taiwan who feared such provocations.
No Man an Island
As much as Lee Teng-hui allowed Taiwan to democratize with breathtaking speed, he did nothing to save the local film industry. In 1993,
Taiwanese films pulled in little over 4% of the total box office; in 1998 that
figure has dwindled to less than half of 1%! More shocking is the decline
of Hong Kong which pulled just over 3% of the total Taiwanese box office
in 1998, the bulk of which was earned by Jackie Chan’s Who am I? Just
five years before, Hong Kong films pulled in nearly 30% of the total box
office in Taiwan.7 Chinese-language films collectively took in only a paltry
3.5% of the total box office in Taipei in 1998 compared to over 34% in 1993.
Flowers of Shanghai still came in a mere eighth among Chinese-language films
in its own capital city.8
Flowers did receive from the ROC government an Assistance and
Guidance Grant for Cinema, the near totality of active government film
policy to the present day. Every year since 1989, a dozen films or less will get
varying amounts of money, usually barely enough to produce a low-budget
work This subsidy system has subsidized films that have gone on to win
awards at major film festivals, and it has helped jump start the careers of
both Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-liang. The problem is that the grant system does
nothing to alter the sorry state of local distribution and exhibition, which
over the course of the 1990s becomes overtaken by Hollywood. During the
first ten years, seventy-six films received government funds, and yet only
three of them managed to make this grant money back at the local box office.
Roughly half of the films receiving funds were never released, or sometimes
even completed.9 Particularly alarming are the inroads being made into exhibition by Hollywood: in 1998, the state-of-the-art Warner Village opened in
eastern Taipei, at the time the single largest movie complex in all of Asia.
Within half a year, it was pulling in one-third of the total box office for the
entire city.10
As the tenth anniversary of this government policy neared in 1998, many
argued that this grant system provides neither “assistance” nor “guidance.”
Some charged that the grants themselves are responsible for the sorry state
of the industry, ignoring that the problems began long before this system
was in place. Others countered that this should not be seen as a way to
save a film industry to begin with, which will require much more than that:
instead they argue that these grants should only subsidize a handful of art
films which can serve as cultural diplomats on the world stage. One director,
He Ping, quipped that with such small sums of money, should one use a
glass of water to help a man dying of thirst, or to put out a burning house?11
But everybody clamors for these grants, and the money gets spread pretty
thin. Peggy Chiao later described the grant system as being like “distributing a bowl of rice to a group of starving beggars, which is not enough to
sustain any of them.”12
Goodbye to All That
Hou’s cachet abroad did not cause this change either. All three films he
made from 1995–1998 were entered into the competition at Cannes despite
less than 1% acceptance rate. And Hou certainly did not need to rely on government funds to make these films: he easily found investors from abroad
(most of all Shochiku in Japan) just as he had with City of Sadness and The
Puppetmaster. In other words, it is hard to pinpoint any specific contextual
causes, industrial or otherwise, for these undeniable and seemingly permanent changes. We must look at the films themselves and speculate.
Good Men, Good Women (1995)
If Zhan Hongzhi was somewhat distraught by Good Men, Good Women,
he may have felt somewhat responsible. This film is based on a short story by
Lan Bozhou, “Song of the Covered Wagon,” which was published in a 1988
anthology which Zhan edited.13 Still, the story and the film cover familiar
territory for Hou and company, namely the colonial Japanese era and the
immediate post-war years including the 228 Incident. What is new is the
broaching of the White Terror’s beginning in the early 1950s and how that
trauma seemingly resonates in present-day Taiwan. The statistics regarding
the White Terror, which technically continued until the lifting of martial law
in 1987, are chilling enough. Between 1949 and 1960 over 2000 people were
shot and another 8000 severely punished. At most, 900 of these victims were
actual Communists, while the rest were simply caught up in Chiang Kaishek’s consolidation of power. Before martial law ended in 1987, Taiwan had
a total of 29,000 political prisoners, another 140,000 who suffered hardships,
and 3,000 to 4,000 who had been executed.14 Certainly this paled in comparison to the unmeasured violence in March of 1947, and it could hardly
match the horrific events on the mainland such as the Great Leap Forward
and the Cultural Revolution. Yet the pervasively tense atmosphere and the
deep psychic scars it left are still evident today in the mass distrust and
cynicism many Taiwanese feel towards politicians of any stripe. In her recent
sophisticated study of how Taiwanese literature and cinema have depicted
the traumas of the 228 Incident and afterwards, Sylvia Lin argues that this
is the key meaning behind Good Men, Good Women which connects this work
with the previous two films. All three films, according to her, reveal how
untrustworthy visual representations of the past are, especially after decades
of official repression. For her, the underlying theme of Good Men, Good
Women is the ambiguous way the Taiwanese relate to the past because of
the “imposed collective amnesia” resulting from forty years of martial law.
In particular she notes how unresponsive Liang Jing is to the excerpts of her
own diary coming back to her, that in fact she cannot deal with a personal
trauma (Ah-wei’s death three years earlier) in much the same way Taiwan
No Man an Island
as a whole finds it difficult to face up to the public traumas of its long suppressed history.15
As enlightening as this interpretation is, this does not explain why
Good Men, Good Women feels so different from the previous two films of a
putative historical trilogy. As we have seen, both City of Sadness and The
Puppetmaster are highly fragmentary films, but obliquely so; Good Men, Good
Women, by contrast, flaunts its fragmentariness. The film almost announces
its purposes to the point of being somewhat didactic. This does not entail a
complete thematic or stylistic divorce from the past. For example, in the interrogation scene on the mainland, both the interrogators and the Taiwanese
who have arrived to fight the Japanese struggle to find a common language
since they speak different dialects, a reminder of the linguistic grapevine
when Wen-heung surrenders the drugs to the Shanghai gangsters in City.
It further reinforces Hou’s ongoing subversion of the KMT’s desired linguistic unity ever since he used Taiwanese in The Sandwich Man. Likewise this
film seems like another step forward in Hou’s ongoing pursuit of ever longer
takes, since the average length is now up to 108 seconds per shot, a “logical”
progression from 42 seconds and 83 seconds per shot respectively. David
Bordwell also notes how this film’s use of both chiaroscuro and staging are a
continuance of strategies found in the other two films.16
Two other things, however, indicate a very different Hou from before.
The first is the tripartite narrative structure revolving around the actress
Liang Jing in the present day, Liang Jing three years earlier up to Ah-wei’s
death, and the historical past of Jiang Biyu and Zhong Haodong, which may
be read either as Liang Jing’s imaging of a film not yet made about these
historical figures, or it may be read as the actual images of that same film
within a film. Either way, the contrast between the latter narrative strand, set
in the 1940s and 1950s, and the first two, both set in contemporary Taiwan,
are literally as different as black and white versus color. Sylvia Lin takes
issue with the common interpretation of this tripartite structure to contrast
the past replete with idealism versus a crass present full of only indulgence
and material comfort.17 However, not only has Hou said this was one of his
intentions on more than one occasion,18 the film’s color schemes lends itself to
such an interpretation. Liang Jing of the present day is depicted in color, but
often in murky, cramped interior settings; Liang Jing of three years earlier is
distinguished with a slightly harsh bluish wash. All the scenes of the historical past, however, are represented in soft black and white with almost a tint
of sepia. Moreover, the film replicates what Lin found to be a shortcoming
of the original short story: Zhong remains an idealized, heroic figure in what
amounts to a political hagiography.19 Not only does the Zhong in this film
display none of the unabashed yet humanizing foibles of the Lin brothers in
City of Sadness, or of Li Tianlu in The Puppetmaster, the images in black and
white so idealize his past that Zhong and others appear to be shrouded in a
Goodbye to All That
diffused, cinematic nimbus. Hou has said that Good Men, Good Women is his
least favorite film.20 Perhaps the reason is because in this respect it is most
unlike Hou, so far removed from his spiritual mentor, Shen Congwen. It is
certainly his most overtly reflexive film, yet it is also his “coldest.”
The more permanent and significant change, however, lies elsewhere.
For those familiar with Hou’s films up to that time, the opening shot of Good
Men, Good Women seems like Hou: lasting 84 seconds, an extremely distanced landscape shot shows people singing crossing a field, and the camera
does not move even a fraction of an inch (figure 22). This is the Hou we
have always known. As it turns out, this opening is but a prolonged mirage.
Right at the cut to the second scene, a ringing phone chimes in. Without an
extended sound bridge to smooth over this sudden rupture, one is almost
jarred into this brave new cinematic world unlike any previously created by
Hou. The camera tilts, pans, tracks and arcs, moving continuously within
a plan sequence nearly four minutes long (figures 23–25). It represents the
most elaborate use of camera movements in any Hou shot up to that time.
More importantly, this long yet moving take is hardly a one-off device in this
film: instead it establishes a major stylistic pattern for the entire work since
around 72% of the shots contain camera movements, and most of these are
overt, not just slight reframings. By contrast, every Hou film since A Summer
at Grandpa’s in 1984 had camera movements in less than one-third of their
shots, and usually about half of those are only slight reframings. The newly
moving camera in Hou became the hot topic of conversation in Taiwan when
the film was released. One astute Taiwanese critic notes that Hou seems to
move his camera like a reticent child just learning this technique.21 The best
evidence for this is a scene with Liang Jing and Ah-Wei, arguably the most
intimate moment in the film. In one of the longest takes lasting well over
four minutes, shot from behind, but with their faces visible in the mirror,
Ah-wei hugs Liang Jing from the left side while she applies make-up and
Figure 22
The opening landscape shot in Good Men, Good Women (1995).
Figure 23
The beginning of the second shot — a new Hou in the making.
Figure 24
The framing midway through the second shot.
Figure 25
The framing at the end of the second shot.
Goodbye to All That
discusses their future. For most of the four minutes, however, the camera
pans to the left in a painstakingly slow fashion, so slow that it is barely
Hou and crew do not offer satisfactory explanations for this startling
change. Chu Tien-wen was the first to call attention to it, but she does not
offer any explanations beyond Hou having already reached a “peak.” Hou
sometimes attributes this to Annie Shizuko Inoh, the actress who posed new
challenges for him.22 At other times, however, he suggests that the stationary
camera is the best way to capture the feeling of the past, but not the present.
He says he first learned this lesson from watching Bertolucci’s The Last
Emperor where he felt the moving camera was much at odds with the historical subject matter. Since he had lost interest in the past with this film (at least
in part), he had also lost interest in the stationary camera.23 However, the cinematographer, Chen Huaien, offers alternative explanations. Chen attributes
this change to the new camera operator, Han Yunzhong, who was oftentimes
unsteady. It was decided that this unsteadiness would be better exploited
than eradicated.24
Most significant, however, is how this dramatic change in Hou’s style
has persisted ever since — hence the “break.” While Hou’s films from the
early 1980s all the way up to 1993 display an increasingly static camera,
from 1995 onwards we see instead the predominance of the mobile camera.
I have already discussed many of the ramifications of this change elsewhere,
including extra-cinematic ones.25 For now, suffice to say that Hou was abandoning what had been his aesthetic calling card on the international festival
scene: his unusual long-take, static-camera style. More importantly, he was
abandoning what was about to become a new Pan-Asian style on the festival
circuit. It would soon become apparent that the changes went even deeper
than this.
Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996)
Goodbye South, Goodbye seems a film of quiet desperation, not only for its
hapless protagonists, but for its maker as well. The film was addled with
three production hiatuses totaling several months. Hou himself describes
this as a result of attempting to return to the “directness” of The Boys from
Fengkuei, without recourse to a script, outline or structure, instead relying
mostly on the spontaneous interactions among his three actors, Jack Kao,
Lim Giong and Annie Inoh. He says he only managed to edit the film after
once more viewing Godard’s Breathless, which provided not so much a
model as inspiration from its relentless protagonist, who moves forward no
matter what.26 However, the finished product does not quite breathe or flow
as Boys, an indication that in many ways there is no going back, as if Hou is
too aware of, and too forced, in his attempt at renewed spontaneity.
No Man an Island
Goodbye does confirm the rupture half announced by Good Men, Good
Women: not only is the ASL almost identical (105 seconds per shot), now
roughly 80% of the shots have camera movements, most of which are continuous and overt. While simpler in story and structure than its predecessor, it features unfamiliar devices for Hou as if he was now willing to try
anything. For example, Hou uses overt POV shots through the green visors
of a motorcycle helmet, or the red wash of sunglasses. He also uses the handheld camera with near abandon in certain scenes, most of all in the KTV
(karaoke night club) settings toward the end. The longest take of the film,
where underworld and political figures decide the case of Flatty and Kao in
the shadowy interstices of a KTV, is 8.5 minutes of a handheld camera constantly trying to keep up with the complex negotiations through panning.
Yet while Goodbye South, Goodbye is arguably the most overlooked Hou
film since Daughter of the Nile, it should not be dismissed. One of the most
interesting scenes takes place in an apartment where the three protagonists
talk and argue between their shooting of a small basketball, a sign that Hou
had not lost interest in complex staging in depth (figure 26). More interesting, however, is the film’s underlying thematics. Kent Jones suggests that no
“film since Warhol has given a better sense of just hanging out.”27 However,
Goodbye is better described as a road movie traversing Taiwan’s economic
terrain. This is not new. Hou’s New Cinema films provide indications of how
Taiwan’s economy has operated at a day-to-day level: the special economic
export zone in Kaohsiung seen in The Boys from Fengkuei; Hou’s own unwillingness to collect on money owed to a private biaohui in A Time to Live, A Time
to Die after seeing the poverty of the debtor; the small businesses such as the
print shop in Dust in the Wind; and the archetypal move from country to city
so central to the Taiwanese economic experience in multiple films. Goodbye
South, Goodbye, on the other hand, provides a more complete overview of
how the Taiwanese economy operates.
Figure 26
Staging along multiple planes of depth in Goodbye South, Goodbye.
Goodbye to All That
More than anything, Goodbye South, Goodbye illustrates the thorny nature
of many economic deals in Taiwan, which are usually relational (based on
guanxi), not contractual. Westerners would be shocked at how such deals
transpire, especially when they often involve family members. Central in this
film are the deals involving public buyouts of land (including a pig farm)
for Taiwan Electric, the apparent origins of which are certain unused scenes
found in the published script of Good Men, Good Women.28 In Goodbye, both
male protagonists find themselves cheated out of their shares of such deals,
and yet when they seek restitution they run against a tangled web involving
the underworld, politicians and the police. Moreover, Flatty fights his own
uncle and then is arrested by his own cousin, a police officer, further illustration of how much these are family affairs. All parties concerned join together
in the shadows of the KTV at night (in the longest take mentioned above),
after which they make an extralegal gentleman’s agreement to release the
two, but only after the police throw their keys into a field at night. Few films
from Taiwan have more succinctly illustrated how much economic activity
in Taiwan can toy with legal boundaries, which historically were not wellenforced by the KMT. In a typically subtle and indirect way, Hou is addressing an issue which concerned many at the time, what Peggy Chiao bluntly
described as “Money Politics, Underworld Rule.”29
Even more significant, arguably, is the aspiration of the three protagonists to move to China and open a restaurant and disco. By the mid-1990s
there was no denying the economic impact this small island was having on
its hefty neighbor across the Straits of Taiwan. Mentioned in chapter 2 is how
Taiwanese investment into China, despite being illegal, increased fifty-seven
times over the 1980s until it reached US$2.7 billion in 1988. In 1990, this
figure jumped to US$4 billion; in 1991 it was US$5.5 billion; in 1992, it rose
to US$7.4 billion; by 1993 the figure has cracked the US$10 billion mark.30
This has not subsided since. Not only has Taiwanese investment in mainland
China now likely exceeded US$60 billion, the Taiwanese themselves are
moving many of their factories from Taiwan to the mainland, and providing
the mainland with much needed managerial skills. Today it is commonly estimated that over 300,000 Taiwanese live in Shanghai alone, and the real figure
is likely higher than that. In this way, these three protagonists, as marginal
and shady as they appear, ultimately aspire to a Taiwanese norm.
This is where the title of the film matters. The literal title of the film in
Chinese is “South Country Goodbye, South Country,” an inversion of the
English title in more ways than one. Hou says this represents how Taiwan
in the past always belonged to someone else, called China’s or Japan’s
“South Country.” Only now does Taiwan have a modicum of independence.
However, even now many in Taiwan cannot quite accept Taiwan’s situation.
Thus they often aspire to leave, only to find they cannot, and are stuck in
their own internal contradictions as a result.31 This commentary elucidates
No Man an Island
the final scene of the film: after being adrift the entire time, after failing at
every turn to find their financial ticket to the “greener pastures” of China,
they suddenly crash on a desolate field at the crack of dawn, somewhere in
the middle of the “South Country.” With Hou, there is no escaping Taiwan —
at least not yet.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
For some, Flowers of Shanghai represents the ultimate betrayal: Hou has seemingly abandoned Taiwan in favor of China. Of course, the shadow of China
has often lurked over Hou’s previous films: the oft-wayward grandmother
in A Time to Live, A Time to Die who believes that China is just over the bridge;
the mainland fishing boat stranded on Kinmen Island in Dust in the Wind; the
China lurking everywhere in the historical backdrop of City of Sadness; the
historical storyline in Good Men, Good Women which partially takes place in
China during the war against the Japanese; not to mention Kao’s aspiration
to open a business in mainland China in Goodbye South, Goodbye. Yet in every
case these Chinese “digressions” reinforce Hou’s longstanding primary
materials: the lyrical contours of the Taiwanese Experience. And as always,
even those who hope to escape Taiwan in Hou’s films never succeed. In the
case of Flowers of Shanghai, on the other hand, there is no Taiwan to escape.
To these characters, Taiwan does not even exist.
Likewise, Flowers of Shanghai barely existed for Taiwanese audiences.
Certainly the film represents the continued brilliance of Taiwan’s most
distinctive director, yet it also represents the decrepit state of the local film
industry given how poorly it performed relative to other films in its own
market. Indeed, one can question if this film was even intended for the
Taiwanese at all. Suspicions to this effect are not lessened by the preponderance of Japanese money provided by Shochiku, or that Flowers played for
two months straight in Paris, unlike in Taipei. All this leaves Hou vulnerable
to the charge that this work represents his own version of Chinese exoticism
being shamelessly put on display for foreign consumption, maybe even in
his own way following the “Zhang Yimou model” as defined by Lu Tonglin.32
The appearance of “Chineseness” is further reinforced by the impressive
literary pedigree of no less than three prominent Chinese authors from different generations: Han Bangqing (Han Ziyun), Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing)
and Ah Cheng. It is not difficult to figure the affinity Hou has with these
Chinese writers. Han Bangqing is the original author of this novel, Flowers of
Shanghai, first published in 1894 in the Suzhou dialect. (A more contemporary
version of the Shanghai dialect is used in the film since using the original was
too taxing for the actors.)33 Han has a method of narration that is somewhat
similar to Hou’s, hiding key details in the ellipses, having something emerge
out of seemingly nowhere, with the explanation not found in what is actually
Goodbye to All That
written down, but in what is unseen, and inferred, by the reader.34 Ah Cheng
became a literary star in Taiwan in the mid-1980s with his King of Chess, representing a generation of mainland writers on a “nativist” search for cultural
roots in the face of modernization.35 With Flowers, Ah Cheng had a palpable
impact on the look of the film by advising the art director, Huang Wenying,
to use not only functional props, but “useless” props as well (including
apparently Chanel lipstick). As he explains it, “Functional items are decorations for space; useless items are traces of life.”36
The strongest tie here, however, would have to be Eileen Chang, who
translated Han’s novel into Mandarin in the 1970s, the version which
inspired Hou to make the film.37 Once again, this apparently occurred via
Chu Tien-wen, who comes from a literary family that revered Eileen Chang.38
Descriptions of Chu’s own writings often resemble those used for Chang’s.
For example, Yvonne Chang describes Chu as falling back on a “sentimental-lyrical tradition” that pays more attention to “subjective, private
sentiment with a posture of complacency in regard to sociopolitical issues.”39
In a long interview published in Film Appreciation, Hou hardly mentions
Han Bangqing, but talks at length about Eileen Chang.40 This is not surprising since both Hou and Eileen Chang share a similar historical sense by
focusing on the mundane and the quotidian over the officially significant.
In one famous essay she writes: “Rigid and unswerving world views, be they
political or philosophical, cannot help provoking the antipathy of others.
What one calls joie de vivre is to be found entirely in trivial things.”41 This
personalized historical vision, focusing on the irrelevancies in the midst of
the larger structures of history, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hou’s own
renditions of history. For both Hou and Chang, seemingly irrelevant details
become the center of the universe.
So the evidence seems overwhelming: set entirely in China during the
waning years of the last Chinese dynasty, aided and abetted by an impressive trio of Chinese literary talent, Flowers of Shanghai seemingly represents
nothing more than Hou’s sudden exodus away from the island he had long
been partial towards. Some even welcomed this development: Taiwanese
critic Liang Liang says that Hou finally abandons the Taiwanese consciousness that has long dominated Taiwanese cinema, and thus reestablishes
links with China not seen since the days of Li Hanxiang and King Hu.42 For
Alain Bergala, such a beautiful film is a complete departure for Hou since
for the first time he had to close his eyes to the world in front of him and
penetrate a “classical China” he can only imagine.43 Kent Jones likens its
aesthetic techniques to an ancient Chinese concept of liu bai, allowing what
is visible to suggest something beyond its parameters.44 The most frequent
point of comparison is with classic Chinese novels, most of all Dream of
the Red Chamber, something noted by both indigenous critics45 and foreign
sources such as Richard Pena, who equates the detailed settings of Flowers of
No Man an Island
Shanghai with those of classic Chinese novels and “their maddening lists of
foods prepared for banquets or minutely detailed descriptions of gifts . . .”46
Hou further reinforces this sense of Chineseness with some of his comments.
In one interview in 2001, he says that he became enthralled with the novel’s
descriptions of Chinese everyday life, which he feels to be very political in
nature. Furthermore, he always loved the extended families and the complicated banquets in novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber.47 Everywhere
you turn, even with Hou’s own words, Flowers of Shanghai seems to come
up China.
Yet we should take pause with some qualifications before jumping on
the China bandwagon. First, if this is an indulgence in chinoiserie, it certainly
does not follow the Zhang Yimou model with easily accessible films for a
Western audience. In fact, Nick Kaldis argues that its challenges undercut its
potential as “exoticized images of China for Western consumption.” As he
For, instead of falling into the trap of conservative cultural essentialism,
reactionary nationalism, or joyous capitulation to global capitalization,
Flowers of Shanghai actually embraces exotic images of China, multiples
them, reproduces them, and fixates on them, smothering the (Western)
viewer in an excess of Orientalist fantasy.48
This may seem an overly clever defense, but it does raise a key point: the
very obliqueness of the narration, coupled with a surfeit of visual details,
could very well drown or “smother” a viewer used to the more straightforward and marketable visions of China’s past by the likes of Zhang Yimou
and Chen Kaige.
Second, even without references to Taiwan, this is still a Taiwanese
vision of Chinese culture. Hou makes very clear that Flowers of Shanghai is
not about China over a hundred years ago, but about how he, a present-day
Taiwanese, imagines that China to be. During an interview at Cannes, Hou
qualifies the cultural meaning of this film:
As far as I am concerned, the source of Taiwanese culture is China. But this
is not the mainland China of today, and this is not the political reality of a
China separated from Taiwan. Instead this is the Classics and the poetry
I was exposed to in school, followed by the swordplay novels and classic
novels I loved to read, all of which became a deep part of my background
and the basis of my creativity. Of course I grew up in Taiwan and that is the
environment I am most familiar with. But the China of a hundred years ago
that I am now shooting on film is that China read, imagined and understood
by me from all those books. This imaginary China and the China of today
are perhaps two entirely different things.49
In other words, this film’s “Chineseness” is not China per se, but how
a Taiwanese today envisions an earlier China that no longer exists, if it
ever did.
Goodbye to All That
Third, even Hou suggests that China is not central to this film. Flowers of
Shanghai evolved out of an original plan for a film about the so-called “Father
of Taiwan,” Zheng Chenggung (also known as “Koxinga”), who drove the
Dutch out of Taiwan back in the seventeenth century. While collecting materials with Ah Cheng, Hou discovered that one of Zheng’s favorite pastimes
was to frequent brothels, and that led him to read Flowers of Shanghai as
background reading. Soon enough Hou fell in love with both the novel’s
ambience and the complexity of its characters, and he decided to make a
film based on the book instead.50 In one interview, Hou says the real focus
of the film is male/female relationships and how women really do make the
decisions despite all appearances. He adds that although it is set in late Qing
China, it could really be set at any place and at any time, even in the present
day, since there are always those who control, and those who are controlled.
Flowers simply reveals how such power relationships play out when civilization is at its most refined and delicate.51
A fourth qualification is that this is Shanghai in the late nineteenth
century, a situation very unlike how Chinese society normally operated at
that time. During the Qing era, men and women normally did not interact
in public, marriages were arranged, and romantic love was almost nonexistent. But in the foreign concessions in Shanghai, an alternative universe arose
where Chinese men could behave in a very un-Chinese manner, where different classes (i.e. officials and merchants) gathered together as they would
not outside, drinking, eating and carousing together, pursuing women
romantically (and not just pay for sex). The women in turn had the right of
refusal, and could obtain a certain amount of economic independence, not to
mention exercise some power in the process.52 Huang Wenying, the production designer, notes that even the furnishings and décor in this film represent
a mixture of styles which are not completely Chinese, but which are very
appropriate for Shanghai at the time. (She adds that their use of Vietnamese
carpenters was serendipitous since their work still carried a French influence.)53 To wit, this faux world is literally the Chinese equivalent of a fantasy
camp, a carefully constructed utopia where normal rules of decorum and
social rank need not apply.
Then there is the question of Hou’s modus operandi. For a filmmaker
who relies so much on either his own experiences or of those he knows
well, it is surprising that Hou could render so successfully something that is
largely fictional and ostensibly alien to his own experience, including a
dialect he does not understand — unless, of course, Hou is able to capture
this world because in some ways it is so familiar. Hou notes that Shanghai
during the last years of the nineteeneth century was a thriving port city built
on three decades of international trade, a place he imagines to be lively,
flourishing, prosperous and free. Then, significantly enough, Hou adds that
in many ways it resembles Taiwan.54 Some scholars have echoed this view.
No Man an Island
Gang Gary Xu argues that the absence of colonial authority in this film makes
it all the more present, and extends this idea to how Taiwan likewise is absent
but present in Flowers of Shanghai, since this film was made in Taiwan.55 The
metaphor for Taiwan may be even more concrete than Xu lets on, since this
brothel has a decidedly ambivalent status within the world at large. In the
middle of the film, the outside world makes its only palpable intrusion, and
only on the soundtrack. Most of the revellers go to the window to see what
the commotion outside is. They then reassure themselves that this police
arrest outside does not affect them and return to their festivities. This one
scene informs us that this world, which seems to float on its own, exist on
its own, follow its own rules, and even seems to thrive in its own political economy, is in fact at the mercy of the larger world outside, subject to
the whims of foreign powers who tolerate its existence, but who grant it an
ambivalent status at best. That is a situation Hou is most familiar with —
that is Taiwan as well. Whether Hou is conscious of this metaphor or not is
irrelevant. This is merely to suggest that Hou became comfortable capturing
this environment since it is not as alien to him as one would expect.
One can dispute Taiwan as metaphor in this film, but there is one undeniable fact: Flowers of Shanghai is MIT — “Made in Taiwan.” Hou originally
intended to shoot at least part of this film in mainland China. Yet the PRC
government would not approve since they did not like its “decadent” subject
matter. In the end, the entire film was shot on sets built in Taiwan, in Yang
Mei.56 With his usual Taiwanese crew being forced to shoot only in Taiwan,
the entire film moved indoors — another anomaly in Hou’s career. Yet all of
Hou’s films exhibit a claustrophobic density rife with the details of everyday
life, those “irrelevancies” which take center stage. Even his landscape shots
often seem claustrophobic, with several planes of mottled clouds, roaming
mists, edges of mountain slopes, houses littering the countryside, angled
according to dictates of feng shui, among which are the people living their
incidental lives, all competing for the audience’s eyes. In lieu of these landscapes, now there are cosseted, cloistered sets, and yet a familiar sensibility
seeps through, as though Hou, without knowing or intending it, has created
a faux China as if it too were an island. Even in this mise-en-scène, the
shadow of China remains just that — a shadow.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that this film seems very Chinese to
many viewers. Yet so accomplished is this film formally, and so distracting is its aesthetic surfaces, that one can easily overlook whether this film
is about anything at all. An initial viewing may induce a dream-like state,
but it may also leave the impression of being nothing more than empty formalism, or perhaps a pretentious, elitist soap opera at best, or an egregious
indulgence in chinoiserie at worst. The primary culprit would have to be its
mise-en-scène. According to one report at the time, the film’s budget was
around NT$80 million (roughly US$2.6 million), half of which was spent
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on the sets, props and costumes.57 Huang Wenying was crucial to the visual
success of this film. Huang grew up in Taiwan admiring Hou’s work. She
got a MA in theatrical production at the University of Pittsburgh after which
she had a Heinz Fellowship for three years at Carnegie Mellon University.
In 1993, she went to New York and worked with several famous theater
designers. However, she always desired to work with Hou and first did
so in 1995 with Good Men, Good Women. Starting with Flowers, she moved
back to Taiwan to work full-time as Hou’s production designer, and now
as his producer and managing director of the Sinomovie Company, which
opened in 2001. According to her, they spent up to a year researching Flowers
of Shanghai, during which time Ah Cheng guided them to antique markets all
over China. She estimates that the set design, props and costumes alone cost
about US$1.8 to US$2.0 million.58 (Given the stars involved, this implies that
the reported NT$70–80 million figure is too low.)
Such meticulous preparations and financial outlays led to further complications. Flowers became the most star-studded work of Hou’s career. Not
only was Tony Leung working with Hou once more, but other Hong Kong
stars joined in such as Carina Lau (Pearl) and Michelle Reis (Emerald).
According to Hou, this was necessitated by the mounting budget, and
Hong Kong stars allowed them to raise more funds. Yet Hou’s insistence
on the Shanghai dialect created yet more problems: both Lau and Reis at
least knew a little of the dialect; Tony Leung, on the other hand, did not
know a word of it and nearly quit due to the difficulty of trying to learn it.59
Meanwhile, the role of Crimson was originally slated for Maggie Cheung,
but obligations with Wong Kar-wai, and her fear of having to speak the
Shanghai dialect, prevented this. Since the main backer of this film was
Shochiku, a Japanese actress, Michiko Hada, was suggested instead in order to
increase the film’s marketability in the Japanese market.60 For Hada, learning
the Shanghai dialect was impossible. Thus she did her lines in Japanese,
and had her lines dubbed in post-production.61 According to Hou, using
Mandarin would have been too familiar and monotonous for the rest of these
actors, and would have interfered with the settings themselves. Using the
Shanghai dialect, by contrast, would “brew” a desired atmosphere (but not
necessarily a historically accurate one). More importantly, it would create a
“distancing” effect.62
Adapting from a novel with hundreds of viable characters proved to be
especially difficult and time-consuming. In the end, Hou and Chu decided on
three sets of characters representing a cross-section of varying situations in
this environment.63 The first set involves Wang Liansheng (Master Wang) and
his relationship with two “flowers girls” (courtesans), Crimson and Jasmin.
The second involves Pearl and Master Hong, plus two other younger flower
girls under Pearl’s direction, Jade and Treasure. The third involves Emerald
and Luo Zifu (Master Luo), but also includes actions revolving around her
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madam, “Auntie Huang,” and other junior flower girls. (There are other
characters as well, such as A-Chu and Shuren, who play relatively minor, but
not insignificant, roles.) These three character sets interact in complex ways.
They come together most conspicuously in four separate banquet scenes
that are interspersed throughout the film and help anchor this otherwise
unwieldy web of relationships. These stories also interact elsewhere, since
Pearl and Master Hong frequently act as power brokers in this labyrinthine
human world. Master Hong, for example, often makes appearances with
Wang Liansheng to help resolve some of his personal issues, while Pearl
often acts as a behind-the-scenes mediator. Only Emerald and Master Luo
operate with relative independence from the other narrative strands, a fact
befitting the character of Emerald, who represents a woman who knows
how to win and exercise her independence with calculating boldness. The
film overall is structured around an inverse hierarchy that favors those who
have the least control, much like Hou’s earlier films. Clearly at the top of this
narrative hierarchy is the reticent Wang Liansheng, played by Tony Leung.
Wang either appears or is heard in over half of the scenes in this film, more
than any other character. Despite being the main character, he speaks very
little, a reminder of his mute role in City of Sadness.
The first thirty-five minutes establish the film’s basic architectural framework. After a prolonged opening banquet scene, the film breaks off into four
enclaves: Crimson and Master Wang in the Huifang Enclave; the Gongyang
Enclave with Pearl and Master Hong; the Shangren Enclave, where we are
introduced to Emerald and Master Luo; finally, the East Hexing Enclave,
where we see Master Wang once more, only now with Jasmin. The appearance of Master Wang in two of the four enclaves already suggests that he
is the central character. On the other hand, the relative equal weight given
to the four enclaves, something bolstered by how all four are introduced
with an intertitle, suggests that each will have relatively equal weight in the
narrative. As it turns out, however, this is not quite the case, and a serpentine
complexity emerges instead. Of the four enclaves, the last is the least significant, serving merely as a catalyst to the main narrative strand involving
Wang and Crimson. The two middle enclaves serve as both counterpoints,
and at some points as distractions, which hide numerous elliptical gaps in the
film. Furthermore, the storylines from these two enclaves come to dominate
the last half hour of the film, during which there are only two brief reminders of what ultimately became of Wang and Crimson after their relationship
completely disintegrates.
This unusual structure is further abetted by takes of exceptional length
and particular editing strategies. Hou speaks of this film having thirtynine shots, one for each scene.64 However, the DVD version in the USA has
only thirty-seven discernible shots, or forty-two if including the film’s title
and the four intertitles. Either way, Flowers of Shanghai has a phenomenal
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average shot length — the longest in Hou’s career, and one of the longest
ever in the history of feature-length narrative films. Even if the title and
the four intertitles are included, the average shot length comes out to just
over 2.5 minutes — or 154.5 seconds per shot to be exact. If you exclude the
titles and intertitles, and only count the duration of actual shots, the average
is nearly 3 minutes each. It is not strictly true that there are thirty-seven
scenes to go along with thirty-seven shots (or thirty-nine if referring to the
version Hou speaks of). The opening four sections in each enclave follow
a similar pattern: a fade in to the action, a continuous long take, a fade to
black covering an ellipsis, then another fade in to the same space later on,
followed by another uninterrupted long take, until this shot also ends with
a fade to black.
Given the extraordinary length of these takes, it comes as little surprise
that the vast majority of them have camera movement. Of the thirty-seven
shots, only two (or a mere 5%), can be called completely static, and both
of these are under 20 seconds in length. Two other shots have only slight
reframing at best. All of the remaining shots in the film have overt camera
movements, in many cases for much of the shot’s duration. Yet it is not
so much shot length that seems to affect camera movements in Flowers of
Shanghai as it is shot scale, which is predominantly the medium shot. Given
his career up to that time, this is an unusual move on Hou’s part. Certainly
the crowded sets was a practical reason for the camera being closer in, yet
doing so would seem to mitigate against his longstanding habit of distancing. Only Hou found this to not be the case, as he explains:
The biggest change from Boys from Fengkuei to Flowers of Shanghai is that
I had always thought that I had to keep the camera farther away in order to
achieve an overarching, detached perspective. But with Flowers of Shanghai
I discovered that this was not necessarily the case, that where you can place
your camera also depends on how you develop your characters. If you
are present with them, and yet are both quiet and cool yourself, and you
like and even love your characters, then you can stand right next to them
and observe them with both eyes. Thus, even if the camera is closer, you
can still achieve the same effect. The camera becomes just like a person
next to the action. Sometimes this person looks one way at a group of
people or a person, then will shift to the other side when he or she hears
something there.65
In truth, these camera movements possess a special, elusive quality that
is difficult to describe. Within any single shot, several distinctive camera
movements can occur, often with pauses between them, some brief, some
extended. These distinguishable camera movements can be further subdivided into more large-scale movements versus more small-scale movements.
The latter are usually motivated by an actor’s movement, usually tilts and
pans that adjust the framing. The former, on the other hand, are just as often
unmotivated by any character movement, most often involving arcs either
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to the right or to the left, although not in every case. Each time the camera
returns to a general area it had been to previously, it will offer a slightly
different perspective, usually by arcing just a little further to the right or the
left than before. Not only does this add to the visual variety of the long take
overall, sometimes these camera movements will also surprise you with new
information, often revealing that someone else is in the room, and has likely
been there all along. Perhaps most important, however, is how these larger
movements carry a measured, floating quality, almost as if the camera itself
is in the initial states of inebriation. This, as much as the décor, lighting and
acting, profoundly affects the overall mood of the film. Tony Rayns notes
how often time seems to stand still in Flowers of Shanghai, only to later reveal
how much time has actually elapsed.66 In part this can be explained by how
seamless it all is: no matter what any particular section accomplishes alone,
these large-scale and small-scale movements blend into each other so effortlessly that sometimes one is surprised to note that a different movement has
commenced. The slowness overall allows one to soak in numerous details,
much like a static long take in earlier Hou films. But the hundreds of minute
shifts produce a visual field more fecund and more protean than those found
in previous Hou films, resulting in an overall, dream-like effect.
In terms of staging, this film may mark one of two pinnacles of Hou’s
career. Not since City of Sadness has he employed such dense staging techniques, most of all in the banquet scenes. (As always, table gatherings and
eating scenes seem to bring out the best in Hou.) In many cases, it is hard to
know how much is pre-planned, and how much just happened, especially
given how the camera moves back and forth. Yet there are multiple layers of
actions and shifts in perspective: servants enter and occlude principals, fans
open and close. Most prominent are indelible oil lamps on the tables which
are seen together in ever-shifting, ephemeral configurations, yet which seem
to anchor everything else, guiding our shifting visual forays into multiple
planes of depth.
Yet if anything marks this film as the classic it should become, it is the
lighting. Flowers of Shanghai is arguably one of the most beautifully lit films
ever made anywhere, and could be the crowning achievement of Mark Lee’s
illustrious career. It literally has left people breathless, and it is so distractingly beautiful that one might not notice anything else. (This assumes
one is seeing this on the big screen, not on the DVD.) Almost all of the light
is soft and diffused, usually in a golden glow motivated by late-nineteenthcentury oil lamps. Yet nearly every shot is carefully sculpted into endless
gradations of light and shadow; along with a dozen planes created by people
and objects, there are a hundred gossamer planes created by the lighting.
How Lee accomplished this is nothing short of a miracle. Huang Wenying
reports that they had very little time to prepare for actual shooting days.
They always start with a basic plan but then have to work very fast: she will
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get the sets ready in the morning, and Lee will then come in at 2 or 3 in the
afternoon and set up the camera and lighting, which are decided on the spot.
Yet everything is so well-coordinated. Even the different colors in different
enclaves were matched to the wood according to what Lee thought would
work best in terms of lighting. Meanwhile Hou, as much as he tampers,
trusts both Huang and Lee to come up with the best overall result.67
Space will not allow the detailed analysis that every scene in this film
deserves. The opening shot of the film, however, merits special consideration. For a director who at one time had never heard of the term “master
shot,” this is not just a master shot for the opening scene — it is the opening
scene, in fact. (In a sense, it is the “master shot” for the entire film, if not Hou’s
career.) Although it appears first in the finished film, the take actually used
was a re-shot on the final day of production.68 The end result is a tour de force.
At eight minutes, it is by far the longest take, and its visual complexity indelibly establishes the atmosphere for the film as a whole. Moreover, its subtle
arrangement of the characters suggests the hidden web of relationships
underlying this seemingly spontaneous camaraderie. Master Wang does
almost nothing in this scene, yet he is given a degree of visual prominence
for much of it; Master Hong and Pearl seem but one of many revelers, but
they too offer brief glimpses into their behind-the-scenes manipulations. Yet
since so much else is also visible, and so much else occurs, a single viewing
does not easily lead to such inferences.
After an intertitle explains the basic situation of the flower houses in
late-nineteenth-century China, the sounds of the banquet begin well before
a slow fade in, revealing that the camera is already moving in a slow arc
to the left. The density of detail is almost overwhelming, but there are
three distinct planes competing for the viewers’ attention, two more horizontal in relation to the screen, the third more vertical. In the foreground are
moving hands engaged in a drinking game, coming from two actors barely
visible on the right and left edges of the frame. In the middle of the frame are
the two oil lamps lined up diagonally and in depth on the table itself. Due
to their lustrous glow, these may draw attention to themselves and away
from the moving hands in the foreground, providing — in conjunction with
the slowly moving camera — the strongest depth cues. At the same time,
however, these lamps potentially bring attention to the three characters who
stand out prominently at the end of the table: to the right of the lamp is
Master Hong, who is holding a pipe and frontal to the camera; to the left of
the lamp is seated Pearl; to the left of her, seated just around the corner of
the table is Master Wang. Even here, however, there is a slight “hierarchy”
among the three characters. Despite Hong’s more active involvement in
the action, Master Wang is more highlighted by the lighting. This makes
Wang stand out since he is brooding and detached from the revelry more
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than any other character. Unbeknownst to a first-time viewer, a narrative has
already begun.
Having at least suggested the relative importance of three characters through lighting and demeanor, the scene’s complexity now evolves.
Numerous incidental details potentially overwhelm the significant. After
about twenty seconds, for example, the arc segues into a slight pan to the
right until a line of heads four deep is seen on the right side of the banquet
table. Then the camera pans left then arcs to the right, and for the first time
clearly visible is the man seated just to the left of Wang (the viewer’s left).
After some reframings of Master Hong standing and sitting, the camera
pauses briefly and then pans to the right before arcing to the left, motivated
by the young Yufu being challenged by Luo in a drinking game. Unlike the
first time being at the right side of the table, this time Wang and Pearl are
cut off by the left edge of the frame, and it is revealed that there are at least
three other flowers girls seated behind Yufu. Yufu is now in the center of the
frame, and will remain so since the camera is static for around a minute save
for a few slight reframings. Just when Master Wang seems to have been forgotten, Yufu mentions Crystal, and the camera begins with a pan left which
becomes an arcing movement to the right, returning once again to the left
side of the table, this time revealing even more people than the last time the
camera showed that side. The camera pans right fairly quickly to catch sight
of Yufu leaving, then it pans back to the left, framing four on the left side of
the table in a diagonal: on the right, and farthest away, is Pearl; to the left
of her and closer and closer are Master Wang, a man with a fan, and a man
now gossiping about Yufu and Crystal being in love. (This establishes a key
tendency of this world: once one leaves, everyone else gossips.)
Despite these movements back and forth, despite no real action and no
words from him, Master Wang still stands out in an understated way, even
conspicuous in his silent and sometimes pensive pose. Despite the actions
and discussions seemingly revolving around Yufu, little actions, such as
when a maid comes in to pour into Wang’s cup, redirect some attention back
to Wang (figure 27). By the five-and-a-half-minute mark of this shot, Master
Wang has been continuously visible excepting the one-minute focusing on
Yufu. Moreover, since the camera has to traverse the center whenever it shifts
its direction, Master Wang becomes center of the visual field several times.
That being said, even those recognizing the stars can only be challenged
by the surfeit of detail, and many might also miss the subtle hints soon to
follow. As Master Wang picks up his glass, Pearl raises her fan and whispers
to him, the first indication of her role as a power broker of sorts. Master
Wang nods slightly then drinks to the crowd, implying that he listens to
her suggestions. As the camera returns almost to the initial framing, Wang
stands up and leaves with a young maid through the back door. After this
exit, somebody asks Master Hong what is wrong with Master Wang. Master
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Figure 27
The dense mise-en-scène in the opening “master shot” of Flowers of Shanghai (1998).
A maid calls our attention to a taciturn Master Wang by pouring a drink.
Hong explains the conflict between Crimson and Jasmin over Wang, the first
indication that Hong plays a power role as well.
Still, these hints become nearly lost as this concocted world increases
in human and physical complexity by the minute. The camera continues its
back-and-forth arcs and pans as others react to the story of Crimson sending
her maids to beat Jasmin. At one point the arcs reveal even more of the left
side of the table, exposing another adjacent chamber with lamps on tables
in the background. At this point a flower girl, speaking to a man seated in
front of her, drops a hint as to Master Hong’s actual position of power: “Are
you just saying this to try to impress Master Hong?” (Embarrassed, the man
quickly dismisses all this talk as ridiculous.) But soon this too is lost in the
resumption of the drinking game. The camera continues its arcs and pans
until finally it returns almost to its original position, moving just as it was
moving as the shot opened. Master Hong now leads yet another round of
frivolous drinking games, and the image fades slowly to black.
In effect, this opening long take introduces just as much a world as a narrative. While three key characters are given at least a degree of prominence
(Wang, Pearl and Hong), these principals are once again embossed in a larger
environment of innumerable incidental details. Only in retrospect can one
pick out the few truly significant moments. The staging, the lighting, various
comments and even the camera movements all provide clues, but not clues
everyone could possibly pick up on. (Subsequent viewings, however, make
one wonder how one could have missed all this!) The film never makes clear
what Pearl got Wang to do at this point; nor is it made clear whether he went
straightaway to Crimson’s enclave. No indication is given as to how much
time has elapsed between this banquet and the subsequent scene in that
enclave, since Hong is already there as well. The settings, the camera movements and shot scales may all be radically new for Hou, but the stylistic
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strategies employed, and most importantly, that same effect of experience
coming before understanding and meaning, reveal an old Hou in new form.
This opening shot, arguably the acme of Hou’s indirect narration, has to rank
as one of the most densely and yet brilliantly wrought in the annals of film
history; this long take is almost a film — even a world — onto itself.
As mentioned before, the film seemingly fractures into four separate
enclaves, each handled with a title, two shots sandwiching an ellipsis and
bookmarked by fades, implying that these are four narrative threads of relatively equal weight. In truth, however, there is a narrative spine: the failed
love of Master Wang and Crimson. By contrast, the last enclave with Jasmin
only serves as a catalyst for the eventual break-up of Wang and Crimson.
Jasmin otherwise has little role to play. Emerald and Pearl, and the men they
either have in tow or by their sides, reveal a different set of priorities and
calculations. Pearl has a special status since she is the actual daughter of a
madam in a flower house. She uses this status to her full advantage, pulling
strings everywhere, and often in league with Master Hong. Several scenes
with them show how they orchestrate all this. By contrast, Emerald’s status
is based on the forcefulness of her personality and her dogged determination to forge her own independence. Moreover, she tries to teach others how
to do the same, even her own Madam whom she scolds for being taken
advantage of by her own lovers. Eventually her freedom is bought by Mister
Luo, even though they show no apparent passion for each other. However,
Luo, often amused by Emerald’s frankness and boldness, does actually
have some respect for her. (One scene that was shot, but was not included
in the final cut, shows her acting in a very filial manner towards Luo’s late
parents, causing him to love her even more.)69 For both women, pleasure is a
part of business, even a tool of business. Through their storylines a political
economy underpinning this world manifests itself, something that neither
Wang nor Crimson could ever quite face, or willfully ignored. Indeed, since
these two storylines become even more prominent during the last half hour
of the film, they serve to suggest a larger context to the failed love between
Crimson and Wang, alternative results coming from alternative choices.
Without these two storylines this would be a rather impoverished world by
Hou’s standards; with them included as they are, we have a philosophy, not
of history, nor of nature, but of the underpinnings human civilization.
Compared to the Wang/Crimson storyline, the style in these two storylines is more straightforward and “businesslike,” a virtual metaphor for
what is actually occurring. Both storylines are just as likely to have scenes
during the day as at night, something that never happened with Crimson
and Wang until after their relationship falls apart (and then only briefly in
one shot). Moreover, daytime is often when business is discussed, such as
when Luo refuses Emerald’s demands for buying her freedom, or later when
he apparently gives in and an inventory is being done of her possessions.
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When Hong and Pearl hash out an agreement for Shuren and Jade, the
daylight is almost blinding compared to the rest of the film, coming through
the windows on the left.
By contrast, the two most powerless figures in the film — Master Wang
and Crimson — receive all the privileges of Hou’s style. For starters, the
first two long takes with Crimson and Wang are much longer than the paired
long takes found in the other three enclaves. Then there are fine-tuned distinctions created by the lighting: compared to the other three enclaves and the
opening banquet scene, the lighting in Crimson’s enclave literally does have
an almost reddish glow to it, delicately counterpointed with a spot of gold
to be found coming from the lamp on the middle table. After the introductory scenes in the four enclaves, Hou first returns to Crimson and Wang in a
long take of over 4.5 minutes, which opens and closes with fades. However,
he introduces this scene with a one-off stylistic device in the film as a whole:
a “brief,” nineteen-second close-up of a precious hair pin on a table, also
bracketed by fades (figure 28). This being the only close-up in the entire film
is significant when considering Hou’s original plan to use several close-ups
of inanimate objects, something he claims would have provided necessary
“ventilation” to an otherwise enclosed setting. While editing, however, Hou
instead opted for fades to allow the film to “breath” — the only exception,
of course, being this close-up of this hairpiece.70 Camera movements form a
stylistic cornerstone in this film, but the most prominent movements tend to
be more lateral in nature, often pans which metamorphose into arcs, whether
to the right or to the left, as we saw in the opening shot. When we return
to Crimson’s enclave for a third time, however, the predominant camera
movement is a track-in, not lateral movement. Moreover, the framing, along
with the staging and lighting, create a visual game of hide-and-go-seek
with Crimson through three wooden doors opened in the same direction in
striking angles in the foreground, and a fourth door on the right opened in
Figure 28
A “breath” in Flowers of Shanghai, the lone close-up in the film.
No Man an Island
Figure 29
Privileges of style from Crimson and Master Wang: a slow track in towards three
half-opened doors.
the opposite direction (figure 29). The prominence of these doors is further
enhanced by a low-angle light coming from off-screen right, which illuminates certain parts of the doors, but leaves shadows on other sections. Later
Wang and Hong arrive, and their subtle movements occlude and reveal her
languid changes in position in the background. There is a wide range of
shifting moods, as Crimson goes from sullen, to angry, to accommodating.
By the end of this long take, Wang says he has something to tell her, but the
image then fades to black, and the next shot shows them later on, happily
eating ham congee together. (Food, as always, covers a multitude of sins.)
Once again the camera slowly tracks in on them. No other scene in the film
uses multiple doors, track-ins and staging in this manner. Thus, this scene
stands out as much as the previous one introduced by the hairpiece. Yet like
everything in this film, these are whispers, not shouts — there are no closeups, no analytical editing to make everything patently clear; the style only
provides hints, suggestions and seductive allusions.
Thereafter the film seems to get “sidetracked” for the next fifteen
minutes by two more banquets, and a two-shot sequence of Emerald and
Luo sandwiched in between. The first of these banquets implies that all is
well since Master Wang and Crimson seem to happily participate. The
second is entirely another matter. This is the aforementioned scene where
the outside world intervenes briefly. The table clears out as most everyone
walks to the window to see what the outside commotion is about — everyone
except Wang, who remains seated there sullenly. (The camera remains
with him as well.) Clearly something unspecified in the preceding ellipsis
has returned Wang to his earlier, dour state. After this third banquet, the
film returns again to Crimson’s enclave. Once more this narrative strand is
privileged by stylistic techniques not used in the film otherwise, in this case
multiple shots that retain temporal continuity, a point-of-view shot and a
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“missing” fade. A drunken Wang storms in to the reception area, apparently
not noticing that another man’s hat is there. The camera then tracks, arcs and
tilts as Wang makes his way to the bedroom door and looks underneath the
panel (figure 30). The image fades to black, implying another ellipsis as has
been the norm thus far, yet the fade in to the next shot reveals otherwise.
A brief twelve-second, hand-held point-of-view shot shows what Master
Wang sees: crimpled clothing on the ground and legs laden in red silk as
hands try to gather some items in silence (figure 31). This shot also ends in
a fade to black. Suddenly a dull banging on wood is heard. For the first and
only time in the film, the shot begins as a straight cut from black with no fade,
catching Master Wang as he stands up. This third shot lasts 49 seconds, and
features some of the fastest camera movements in the entire film as it tries to
frame Wang as he violently trashes the room and storms out (figure 32). This
ends with a fade to black and a slower fade out on the soundtrack.
Figure 30
An inebriated Master Wang gets up to look under the door.
Figure 31
What Master Wang sees (the lone POV shot in Flowers of Shanghai).
No Man an Island
Figure 32
Master Wang violently reacts to what he saw beneath the door.
Two scenes later is the final scene with Wang and Crimson together.
Wang has been advised to settle matters with Crimson, since he has obligations. For this reason, Master Wang pays a final visit to her. Two significant
details emerge: for the first time with these two characters, this scene occurs
during daytime; in addition, Crimson is dressed in white unlike her more
colorful costumes previously. A fade out and fade in leads to the next shot,
which shows them together later on in the same room, only now in the
evening. Crimson is seated at the table whereas he is behind her smoking a
pipe. Dishes on the table indicate that they have just finished eating. That the
two cannot speak to each other or even look at each other shows how frosty
this meal has been. Wang is visibly cold and indifferent. Crimson is visibly
depressed. As the music stops and the oil lamp passes off-screen left due to
the arc, the camera stops and she finally speaks, trying to convince him that
she did not have an affair as he thinks. He says it does not matter either way.
She finally says that everything she has she owes to him, and if he is going
to abandon her, then she may as well die. The image fades to black. Their
relationship effectively over, the film continues for another thirty minutes,
and the detritus of that affair still can be found. Master Wang is given a
send-off for his return to Guangdong in the final banquet scene. He appears
happy. Yet in the next two scenes we discover from offhand comments that,
not only has Crimson been reduced to humble means, but even Jasmin has
been unfaithful to Wang. Thereafter Master Wang is simply gone for the last
twelve minutes of the film. Meanwhile, the film seems to forget Crimson
until the final shot where she is alone with the actor she had an affair with.
They have just finished a meal and she is preparing a pipe. He comes over
and sits next to her, looking at her significantly as if wanting to ask her what
is wrong. But she never looks back at him, and not a word is exchanged. She
expresses the same cold indifference to her lover that Wang had shown to
her the last time they had met. For one last time, the image fades to black and
the final credits roll.
Goodbye to All That
As is often the case with Hou, a more careful scrutiny of Flowers of
Shanghai reveals a much simpler storyline than it first seems. Denying that he
is a formalist, Hou nevertheless expertly employs a set of formal devices to
very unusual effect: taking what could have been a straightforward narrative,
he turned it into a dense, lyrical weave where the significant is lost among
a plethora of beckoning incidentals and gaping ellipses. Hou Hsiao-hsien
may be a narrative filmmaker, but he is equally poetic, by evoking deeper,
subtler, profounder feelings; by rendering the exquisite contours of human
experience and environments not under their control; by delaying understanding only for the persistent and the patient; and by doing all of this with
a certain distance that neither completely absorbs nor completely alienates.
Flowers of Shanghai is a most unusual Hou film, yet it is still undeniably a
Hou film. The question only remains as to what deeper significance underlies all this dazzling formal detail.
Hou’s “Chineseness”
If one were to survey film critics and scholars as to who is the “most Chinese”
director in the world today, no doubt Hou’s name would come up frequently.
However, this is much easier assumed than demonstrated. How exactly do
we define a Chinese director, or a Chinese film style? Even if that is possible,
how much do the most commonly accepted traits of a Chinese cinematic
style fit Hou’s stylistic and narrative proclivities? Moreover, what do we do
with the diverse periods of Hou’s career, each which show some dramatic
differences? Can any definition of a Chinese style account for these dramatic
changes? I have already addressed these issues elsewhere in some detail.71
Still, so central is this question to this study that many of those points need
to be reiterated. After all, this is not a pedantic question of formalism; this
is fraught with profound political and cultural implications. We should not
treat this lightly, nor answer too quickly.
Let us start with what Hou will always be most known for: the long take.
Hou himself has never claimed that his long takes are very Chinese. (As we
have seen, the humble origin of this tendency was initially to overcome the
limitations of performance in a parsimonious film industry.) Nevertheless,
others have implied that somehow the long take is a very Chinese trait,
even though this assumption has never been put to any real test. Certainly
the most famous, and arguably the most accomplished, classical Chinese
film, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948), is a long-take film (somewhat),
measuring at just over 22 seconds per shot. Yet this was hardly exclusive
to Chinese cinema of the 1940s, given the worldwide propensity towards
longer takes even in more commercial contexts than is the case today. Even
the American master of forceful montage, Alfred Hitchcock, got into the
act with his audacious long takes in Rope (1948), averaging 7.3 minutes per
No Man an Island
shot (!) and Under Capricorn (1949), at 44 seconds per shot,72 numbers which
Fei Mu never came close to.
Given how widely long takes have been used throughout history, not
only in European art cinema, but even in rare recent Hollywood examples
such as Children of Men and There Will Be Blood, the long take alone cannot
prove Hou’s “Chineseness” — it has to be long takes of certain distinctive
qualities. This is where the problems really emerge. What has distinguished
Hou’s long takes above all else? Without a doubt it is his pronounced
tendency to couple his long takes with a mostly static camera, at least up to
1993. This truly does defy what most long-take directors have done throughout history, where often camera movements and long takes become inseparable. Unfortunately, most who have tried to pin down a Chinese-style long
take have said that the mobile camera is particularly Chinese, ignoring how
much this is a transcultural norm. There is little doubt that this idea became
established with Lin Niantong, who bases this on a Chinese aesthetic concept
used to describe the Chinese handscroll: “you,”73 which means “to swim,”
“to float,” “to waft” or “to drift.” According to Lin, you is one of the highest,
most central concepts of traditional Chinese aesthetics. When translated into
film, the clearest expression of this concept is ample camera movement.74
If there is any candidate for ‘you,’ or the idea of a floating or drifting camera,
they are the long takes in Flowers of Shanghai. The quality of the camera
movements in this case (especially their fluidity and slowness) truly are different from that found in most other films. Once again, however, this cannot
be strictly based on tradition. The visual tradition in China with the most
cinematic qualities is the handscroll. The camera movement that would
most replicate viewing this art form would be a lateral track from right to
left. (The Chinese hanging scroll, which is more vertical in orientation, would
seem to imply a tilt, or perhaps a vertical crane or pedestal shot.) As we have
seen, the predominant camera movement in Flowers of Shanghai is arcing in
both directions, which produces distinctive visual effects not to be found in
either a Chinese handscroll or a hanging scroll.
Many scholars echo Lin’s stance on the mobile long take, suggesting
that this is similar to Chinese painting with its “multiple perspectives” and
“elastic framing.”75 To be fair, however, there is a minority which has suggested that somehow “stillness” could be a Chinese aesthetic concept as
well.76 However, this only compounds our problems, since this would mean
not only excluding Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, it also means we have to
exclude Hou from 1995 onwards, including Flowers of Shanghai. Was Hou a
very Chinese director from roughly 1983 to 1993, only to suddenly stop being
Chinese in 1995? Or if we side with the majority view, does this mean we
have to dispense with Hou at his most distinctive: namely his New Cinema
films, plus City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster?
Goodbye to All That
Either way, the presence or absence of camera movement in Hou’s long
takes does not explain Hou’s putative “Chineseness” much at all. We have to
look for other distinctive qualities. Although harder to measure, two things
about Hou’s long takes do stand out both before and after 1995: the density
and depth of his mise-en-scène, and the increasing audacity of his lighting.
Luckily, there is more agreement on what properly constitutes a Chinese
mise-en-scène. More than one author has brought up the putative “relative
flatness” of the mise-en-scène and the “lack of chiaroscuro” in the lighting
in Chinese films. These issues are interrelated since lighting is the primary
means by which cinematographers sculpt the image to create the illusion of
three-dimensional depth on a two-dimensional screen. Inversely, avoiding
chiaroscuro would thus lessen the sense of depth and accentuate the flatness
of the image. Ni Zhen explains the traditional origins of this as follows:“The
spatial consciousness and composition of classical Chinese painting exerted
a direct influence on the imagistic structure and organization of cinematographic language in early Chinese films . . . which features a flatness of
composition, horizontal extension, and even lighting.”77 Hao Dazheng also
says that the ancient Chinese, when observing nature, “were more interested
in horizontal expanse than in depth,” and that classical Chinese cinema
(roughly from the 1920s to the 1940s) translated this longstanding practice
into film by employing flat lighting that avoided chiaroscuro.78
Hou, however, has always done the exact opposite by employing every
means possible to increase the illusion of depth, including increasingly
chiaroscuro lighting schemes. In the 1980s, Hou would often accentuate the
viewer’s perception of depth via complex staging in depth, such as when
various people cross over in front of Shizuko in the hospital hallway in City
of Sadness. Starting with The Puppetmaster, however, Hou begins to utilize
pronounced mixtures of light and shadow that even Western observers find
extreme. (In Good Men, Good Women, for example, things are pushed to the
point of visual obscurantism.) Some might counter that in Flowers of Shanghai
the faces are now more visible and evenly lit. Yet the lighting of the faces in this
film is more soft and diffused, than flat and even. There are very distinctive
planes of light and shadow between those seated in the banquet scenes and
those standing behind them. (In the background areas the shadows become
even deeper yet.) In the various enclaves, the shadows and the directional
lighting become even more prominent. Not only are the results stunning,
the sense of depth is enhanced as a result. Moreover, Hou does not rely on
lighting alone. His stated motivation for elevating the camera in Flowers
was not to create a more “Chinese” look, but to increase the sense of depth
in cramped settings.79 In deciding on arcs over lateral tracks, Hou further
augmented our sense of depth, most of all with those indelible oil lamps
whose spatial configurations to each other, and to the camera, constantly
shift. In short, Hou adores depth and almost never misses an opportunity to
No Man an Island
expand it. According to the definitions of a Chinese style, this makes him a
virtual traitor to his own culture.
While the most salient traits of Hou’s aesthetic seem to defy all attempts
at defining a Chinese style, there are other traits such as distancing, the preponderance of eating scenes, or even the lyrical-poetic overriding the narrative in his films which should remind us that in some ways he may in fact be
Chinese. But all of these still have to be qualified. First, Hou has varied his
distancing over the course of his career, and moved his camera in closer for
Flowers of Shanghai. Second, even the large number of eating scenes, arguably
the most universal distinguishing trait of all Chinese-language cinemas,
is not explained by Hou in cultural terms, as we saw in our discussion of
City of Sadness. Finally, Hou has hardly been alone in world cinema with
his poetic qualities. One can find numerous examples in the West which
have also emphasized the poetic over the narrative, something even those
trying to isolate the Chineseness of Hou have admitted.80 What stands out is
Hou’s peculiar manner of imposing the poetic on the narrative: this is a bold,
personal move on his part, one that makes most other Chinese filmmakers
(including Fei Mu and Chen Kaige) quite conventional by comparison. More
importantly, no matter how poetic Hou is, he continues to make featurelength narrative films in a poetic fashion. A more strict application of traditional Chinese poetry would arguably be to make shorter visual poems — in
other words, short experimental pieces. Once again, however, Hou does not
allow his aesthetic to be hemmed in by such cultural strictures.
In the end, to deconstruct the question about Hou’s “Chineseness” is not
to eradicate the question of culture, nor is it to impose a universal, humanist
paradigm on a unique body of work. Nor does it mean we have to conclude
with Berenice Reynaud that somehow “there is an essential contradiction
between cinema and the Chinese pictorial tradition” (emphasis mine).81
Not only do all cultures find ways of using cinema for their own ends, all
cultures also deal with the same basic questions of food, sex, marriage,
survival, and so forth. On the other hand, each culture also reflects a peculiar
set of circumstances which change with time. Cultures either adapt, or resist,
or do both. Thus, the problem with saying that a film or a director’s style
is very “Chinese” is that it is not culturally specific enough: there are many
Chinese cultures scattered across history, and there is no less than four
distinct Chinese cultures today: mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and
the Chinese Diaspora communities. In other words, a film like Flowers of
Shanghai, so unexpected, so exquisite, is not merely a testament to individual
genius, it is a testament to the possibilities of a culture when all bets are off,
all former fetters and certitudes are lifted. Moreover, it is a testament not so
much to traditional Chinese culture, but to an island always living under
the shadow of China, creating yet another version of China, a version less
predictable, but infinitely more interesting.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:06 GMT from JHU Libraries
Hou in the New Millennium
If anything, the story of Hou Hsiao-hsien serves as a cautionary tale. Often
conclusions and generalizations are just too easy to come by; just as often they
overlook the more tangled mesh of historical reality of which we can achieve
a fragmentary understanding at best. Perhaps the most viable conclusion is
to not conclude, but to let things remain open-ended. Not that no generalizations can be made. Even the most vociferous detractor and the most
fervent admirer might agree that the films of Hou do represent an exceptionally unique body of work, even if not to everyone’s taste. The problem is
how to account for this uniqueness beyond the usual auteurist traps, how
to properly contextualize all this. To parse the vicissitudes of culture outside
the whims of history is a mistake — for there is no culture outside of the
vagaries of history. Moreover, if cultures are ultimately collective means of
survival and adaptation, this implies that the most successful cultures are
not those rigidly defined for time immemorial; rather it is those which are
the most contradictory and the most difficult to define. Indigenous intellectuals are often obsessed with the iterations or deconstructions of grand
oppositions such as “East versus West,” “tradition versus modernization.”
But the average denizen in Asia today does not seem to worry much about
such stark, binary terms. Hou is one example of this phenomenon: although
beloved by intellectuals the world over, he himself is not really an intellectual; although his audience is not chiefly those he represents, he is more
in tune with their artful daily Taiwanese practices of surviving in a world
without clear definition and certitude. He quietly and indirectly proffers this
ongoing experience through nearly every frame and scene. Yet too often we
still do not look or listen carefully enough.
If there is anything else to be learned from Hou’s story, it is that culture
and history combined, while necessary, are still not sufficient. Neither are
unified; both undergo subtle local variations. Sometimes the regional differences are pronounced, such as is the case in Taiwan versus the rest of China.
We have explored how central the very notion of experience is in the case of
Hou, yet that is largely because he grew up and learned his craft in Taiwan.
Perhaps one safe conclusion to be made, one implied throughout this study,
No Man an Island
is that Hou owes just about everything to Taiwan and the “Taiwanese
Experience.” Consider where Hou could have ended up. Being born in
southern China, and moving to Taiwan when not even two years old, Hou’s
story is but one small footnote of the Chinese Diaspora, a phenomenon
which has profoundly affected large sectors of the globe. One cannot see
quite the same opportunities for Hou had his family moved instead to the
Chinese communities of Malaysia, Indonesia or even Singapore. Not only
would the thematic issues in such situations be radically different for Hou,
there would not have been the same level of institutional support to nurture
a career such as this.
Of course, Hou’s father could have remained in mainland China. What
would the chances of Hou’s career being the same had he grown up there?
First, assuming that he survived such crises such as the Great Leap Forward
and the Great Cultural Revolution, Hou would have still missed out on the
wealth of experience he accrued in the 1970s in the Taiwanese film industry.
To be sure this was a very constrictive commercial environment in Taiwan,
with added political constraints, but it was also an industry that more often
than not made over a hundred films per annum. Many of the traits of Hou’s
now widely revered aesthetic, most of all the use of loose outline scripting,
improvisation, daring lighting schemes — and of course the long take —
have their humble origins in his trying to overcome the practical limitations
these conditions entailed. One could certainly imagine Hou as being of the
same tenor of many of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s in China — after all,
Ah Cheng’s novel became Chen Kaige’s The King of Children (1987). But since
Chinese film production came to a virtual standstill for such a long time
under Mao, Hou would have faced a different set of problems to overcome,
most of all the question of which models to follow after the long interregnum. He would have had to start almost from scratch much like everyone
else did in the late 1970s. Since he would have to come out of something
like the Beijing Film Academy, his education would have been more formal,
more abstract. Hou certainly would have heard of the “master shot” by the
time he had directed his first feature film. On the other hand, he would not
have already been the assistant director for well over a dozen films by that
point; in other words, he would have lacked the crucial, and entirely homegrown daily grind, that hands-on experience upon which he was able eventually to forge his own path.
Admittedly there was one other place where Hou could have gotten just
as much day-to-day filmmaking experience, if not more so, virtually situated
in the backyard of his birthplace: Hong Kong. Once again, however, not only
would the thematic concerns have been different, so would the aesthetic
parameters Hou would have encountered. Unlike in Taiwan, Hong Kong’s
film industry was not on the verge of a commercial crisis in the early 1980s.
It was the opposite, which only added to the woes of Taiwanese cinema.
Hou in the New Millennium
Hou could have learned his craft on Hong Kong sets, not in the classroom,
just as he did in Taiwan. But within a healthy film industry Hou would not
likely have been able to experiment with long takes and distancing the way
he did. It appears that, no matter what culture or continent, whenever an
industry is in crisis directors tend to gain more ascendancy since producers are more willing to try anything until some “formula” works. (Even
Hollywood underwent such a period in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, until
the blockbuster formula became well established.) Of course, many will
bring up one counter-example: Wong Kar-wai. Yet it has been argued that
even Wong Kar-wai, as innovative as he became, is just as much a product of
the commercial milieu in Hong Kong as a rebel against it.1 Hong Kong could
have made room for a Hou of certain distinction, but likely a very different
Hou than we know today.
Still, “experience” has been the operative term in this study in just about
every sense of the term, including the experience of living in a particular
place at a particular time. In this sense of the term, no place provided experiences quite like post-war Taiwan. As Chu Tien-wen described in chapter 1,
the Taiwanese Experience was especially acute for the children of recently
arrived mainland parents. The Taiwan they experienced firsthand was
diametrically at odds with both the China their parents spoke of and the
official propaganda spewed forth by the KMT government, that the island
became almost forbidden fruit right before their eyes, a source of endless
fascination which eventually filled volumes of fiction and endless reels of
film. Hou became especially immersed in that world due to a number of
additional factors: coming from a family both waishengren and Hakka, living
in the south surrounded by benshengren speaking a strange dialect, Hou from
an early age mastered that dialect so well that many in Taiwan mistakenly
have identified him as a benshengren. Hou’s mastery of Taiwanese is no small
matter. First off, this was done simply as a means for survival, arguably the
most consistent theme of his films. More importantly, language becomes his
first major thematic breakthrough in the New Cinema. The exclusive use of
Taiwanese in his chapter of The Sandwich Man, done four years before the
lifting of martial law, was proof enough that Taiwan — as it is, not how it
somehow “should” be — was now the centerpiece. Hou’s and other New
Cinema films thereafter all confirmed this remarkable cultural shift.
Of course, Hou was not alone. The importance of the New Cinema also
lies in a remarkable coalescence of talent which aided and abetted Hou’s
career, and eventually got him on a more permanent path of festival cinema.
At the top is Chu Tien-wen, who deepened Hou’s work to no end, starting
with her introduction of Shen Congwen. Yet there is also the long-term
impact of the likes of Du Duzhi and Mark Lee, arguably the best sound
man and best cinematographer in Asia respectively. With talent like this at
his side, there is little wonder why these films are often so exquisitely shot
No Man an Island
coupled with richly layered sound designs. Such quality became imperative
for filmmakers from Taiwan, who otherwise would not have garnered so
much attention abroad.
Still, cinema is too above the radar for such trends to occur without
some official sanction. For decades the government stridently attempted to
squelch any sense of Taiwan being unique or distinct. Conceivably the KMT
could have kept this fiction going even longer — had the ROC somehow kept
its UN seat, had the US not withdrawn recognition, had incidents like the
Jiangnan Incident of 1984 not occurred, or if martial law had been extended
even a few more years. Equally important is the government which in the
long run undercut its own film industry in favor of Hong Kong. Change
any of these contingencies, and Hou himself might have missed out on his
chance to become the leader of a movement which indirectly communicated
to the world that there is a place such as Taiwan, a place not to be confused
or conflated with its ancestral homeland across the straits. Hou was just the
right age at the right time.
Nevertheless, Hou and company had to contend not only with the government, but also with the world at large. These films did not announce their
underlying messages, taking every step imaginable to not appear as propaganda with their oblique and unvarnished portrayals of Taiwanese reality.
Given the precarious status Taiwan still finds itself in to this day, where the
official line for most is that this is still Chinese soil, this was a task particularly suited for one of Hou’s temperament, not someone more direct and
“critical.” This becomes even more apparent after the lifting of martial law
in 1987, which allowed an unearthing of historical taboos that even many
Taiwanese were only dimly aware of. That Hou handled the Japanese Era,
the 228 Incident and the White Terror so delicately, and so carefully, indicates
not so much concerns about how the KMT might react, but how everyone
might react.
There is one other aspect of Hou’s career which belies his Taiwanese
roots: his ability to reinvent himself more than once. Hou has changed in
startling ways over his career — a comparison of his commercial trilogy
with his later historical works is astounding enough. Even comparing City
of Sadness and The Puppetmaster with Good Men, Good Women and Flowers of
Shanghai shows how unpredictable he can be. Hou has an uncanny ability
to change in ways that shocks even those who think they know him best —
except there is nothing uncanny about it. Asia in general has shown a
remarkable ability to change in the last few decades in ways without comparison in the history of the West. Taiwan is almost the Asian avant garde of
change, not due to any special collective talent, but to the especial historical
conditions we have discussed in the previous chapters. Considering all of
the regime changes, the traumatic and abrupt overnight shifts in power, the
forced ambivalence which continues to this day, Taiwan should be properly
Hou in the New Millennium
recognized and commended for its continued ability to adapt and survive in
what should have been impossible conditions. This was true in the 1970s and
1980s. This is still true even in the new millennium.
Within Taiwan, Hou of the new millennium is an extra-cinematic media
figure, not a director everyone still talks about. This directly ties in with all
the twists and complications to be found in Taiwan during the last decade.
In the year 2000, there was a monumental regime change with the election of
the DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, as president of the ROC. This officially
ended over five decades of KMT rule, and was widely welcomed across the
island. Before long, however, many soured on the new government, finding
it incapable of breaking the impasse with mainland China, and arguably
more likely to provoke the PRC. Many felt that the new government was
blocking closer economic ties across the straits, something many Taiwanese
supported. Moreover, many have found the DPP administration no less susceptible to the egregious corruption so commonplace among the old guard
of the Nationalists. Chen was re-elected in 2004 by a razor-thin margin,
which was abetted by an assassination attempt on his life which many feel
was staged. Not long after, President Chen’s approval ratings plummeted to
levels which would have made President Bush in his second term seem all
the political rage. Some have polled this rating at less than 10%, while even
the DPP admitted that it is at most only at 33%.2 The first clear evidence of a
dramatic shift among the electorate was elections at the local level in 2005,
where the DPP fared badly. This was a bad omen for the party, since ironically these were the same sort of elections that initiated the rise of the DPP in
1989, not long after the release of City of Sadness.
The elections in early 2008 only confirmed how badly most Taiwanese
viewed the DPP, including the majority of benshengren. By a 58%-to-41%
margin, the KMT candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, returned the old Nationalists
to their former role as the ruling party. This was bolstered even more by a
roughly three-quarter majority in the legislative yuan. Outsiders not familiar
with Taiwan might find this result shocking, given the KMT’s checkered and
sometimes brutal past. But this is not the KMT of old. Starting in the 1970s, the
composition of the party changed dramatically when it opened its doors to
the benshengren majority. And nobody further pushed the cause of Taiwanese
Independence than Lee Teng-hui, the Taiwanese-born president — and head
of the KMT — from 1988–2000. When Ma Ying-jeou was mayor of Taipei,
he openly sanctioned “Comrade Day” in the capital city, an odd phrase to
the uninitiated, yet even odder when you realize that “comrade” is the local
slang for gays. (So much for the Confucian patriarchal certitudes the old
KMT had once enforced, even through films directed by the likes of Li Xing.)
In today’s Taiwan, such an “outlandish” action is a non-issue. What does
matter to everyone is still Taiwan’s future vis-à-vis mainland China. The
KMT in 2008 made a convincing case that they can deal with the mainland
No Man an Island
Chinese in a less provocative manner and with greater diplomatic flexibility.
Moreover, they advocate more direct economic ties with China. The crux of
the matter is simple and still unchanged: given present conditions, and the
hostility the mainland government displayed towards Chen’s eight-year
reign, and given how Chen’s administration could seemingly do nothing to
lessen tensions, nor even rule cleanly in Taiwan itself, the KMT seems to
offer the best chance of maintaining the current status quo of neither reunification nor independence, coupled with increasing economic integration
with China.
This context explains Hou’s own public persona over these same
eight years. Hou is very typical of most Taiwanese, whether benshengren
or waishengren: he shows no party loyalty, forming one small part of a vast
middle of independent voters which would be a nightmare for American
political strategists. However, Hou has recently dabbled in political activism
for the first time since supporting a short-lived political party in the early
1990s. Before the 2004 presidential election, Hou became the main spokesperson for a new group called “The Alliance for Ethnic Equality.”3 What
concerned Hou and others most of all were ethnic tensions between the
waishengren and the benshengren now being exploited by politicians for
immediate political gain during the 2004 election.4 In doing so, Hou has not
simply become a member of the “Blue” camp, led by the KMT; nor was he
thereby opposing the “Green” camp, led by the DPP. Hou declares that he
is “100% non-Blue, non-Green,” reminding people that in the past he had
opposed the KMT. What he fears presently, however, is a new “disheartening threat” from very different quarters.5 This notwithstanding, members of
the Green camp soon accused Hou of taking “a false middle stance” since he
in the past had supposedly stood with the former GIO head, James Soong,
an independent “Blue” candidate in the 2000 election, and even for supposedly receiving funds from the mainland government to make films — two
charges which proved to be unfounded.6 Interestingly, Hou’s main line of
defense to these charges were his own past films: to demonstrate where he
truly stands, Hou offered copies of City of Sadness, A Time to Live, A Time to
Die and other films to the spokesperson for the president, Wu Nairen, who
had leveled such charges at him.7
Hou’s more recent films, however, do not possess such domestic cachet
as Hou the public figure. This is a marked change from the past. Up to City of
Sadness, Hou’s films were often the topic of local discussion, often in relation
to the fate of the Taiwanese film industry and Taiwan itself. City of Sadness,
of course, became the center of a major political controversy (also related to
the key election that same year). Hou’s most recent films, by contrast, are
hardly as controversial as Hou himself, for the reason that the demise of
the Taiwanese film industry has become a historical fact rather than a crisis
to be ameliorated. The DDP-led government’s film policy simply continued
Hou in the New Millennium
that of the old, mainly in the form of ineffectual subsidies. One incident
illustrates how the “new” Taiwanese government believed everything could
be solved by money alone, and much less than what is actually required.
Upon the international success of Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2003, the prime
minister in Taiwan met with Ang Lee and asked him to make the Taiwanese
equivalent to Hero: a biopic about the Ming general, Koxinga, who is considered the father of Taiwan. He offered Lee an unprecedented sum of
NT$100 million, or a little over US$3 million. Ang Lee answered that to
produce something similar to Hero would require four times that amount,
or well over US$10 million. The prime minister was aghast: such a proposed
budget would have exceeded all the money put into the Assistance and
Guidance grant system over the last decade and a half.8 Needless to say, the
project never got off the ground.
This incident exposes how little any administration has understood the
actual economies of scale involved in filmmaking, or about the amount of
institutional support that is necessary. Meanwhile, Taiwan is now arguably
the most Hollywood-dominated market in all of Asia, albeit for multiple
reasons which cannot be blamed on the government alone.9 Still, some
note the recent success of South Korea in protecting its domestic market
while creating a system of large-scale investment and market savvy that
has appealed to audiences throughout Asia. The government in Taiwan,
however, perpetuates a calculated, do-nothing policy based on Taiwan’s
peculiar geopolitical situation. In 2001, Taiwan was officially admitted to the
WTO, a major diplomatic coup for a country with such dubious international
status. Most WTO members still claim a “cultural exception” for cinema
to some extent, France most of all. However, the Taiwanese film industry
apparently was a sacrificial lamb in order to curry the favor of the Americans
during the negotiations. In order to honor these tacit agreements, the new
Taiwanese government soon lifted all restrictions on the number of prints
per film in Taiwan.10 This only further aided Hollywood and its multiplexes,
something that became evident when an unprecedented number of prints
for Lord of the Rings entered Taiwan, underselling every local theater with
prices the latter could not compete with.11 By 2004, Hollywood distributors
were pulling in close to 90% of the total box office in Taiwan.12 Meanwhile,
building on the success of the state-of-the-art Warner Village which opened
in eastern Taipei in 1998 (at the time the single largest movie complex in
all of Asia), today there are Warner Villages all over the island, dominating
exhibition in each locale.
Hou clearly does not make his own films to suit the commercial dictates
of the Warner Villages now peppered across his home island. Nevertheless,
he has on occasion stated that he does not make films for film festivals
either.13 The timing suggests otherwise. Since 1998, Hou has released four
films at roughly two-year intervals, and always getting a completed version
No Man an Island
done by May, just in time for Cannes. Cannes has always escaped Hou’s
grasp, whether the prize for best director or the Palme d’Or. (Hou did
receive a Special Jury Prize in 1993 for The Puppetmaster, largely due to the
singular efforts of Abbas Kiarostami.) In addition, Hou has a new company,
Sinomovie, which in part is designed to give young people a chance at
making their own work. Meanwhile he was the driving force in a new art
theater opened in the former residence of the American ambassador in
Taipei. But one theater and a couple of small production/distribution companies do not an industry make, continued evidence of how much cinema
remains a cottage industry in Taiwan today. Even Taiwan’s most celebrated
director is little seen in his own market.
But what of his most recent films? If anything, Chu Tien-wen’s prediction
of “twist and turns” has only intensified. Two of the four films, Café Lumiere
(2003) and Le Ballon Rouge (2007), do not take place in Taiwan, but in two of
Hou’s most favorable markets: Japan and France respectively. Only two of
the four, Millennium Mambo (2001) and Three Times (2005), were accepted into
the competition at Cannes, which is no small feat, but still not the top prize
Hou seems to pursue. Only one of the four, Three Times, delves into historical
material. Hou’s films are still highly elliptical, and rather challenging even
for the seasoned viewer of art cinema, but they do not seem to break as much
strikingly new ground. We should analyze each of these works briefly.
Millennium Mambo (2001)
Hou and Chu Tien-wen have claimed that Millennium Mambo somewhat
resembles a modern-day version of Flowers of Shanghai since both films
depict people unable to escape a space they are not fully aware of.14 At the
same time, however, Hou also says that the title itself symbolizes a “new
rhythm and new developments” within Taiwan in the new millennium.15
Meanwhile, Mark Lee describes it as “a song in praise of youth done primarily in a documentary style.”16 These rather vague statements are difficult to
reconcile with each other. Hou himself cannot quite fully explain what his
purpose for making this film was, even admitting in a television interview
that he was often wracked with doubts about shooting this sort of material,
that maybe only young people can really make films about young people,
since they are not yet too self-aware.17
Yet Hou himself does not seem entirely self-aware in this case. Clearly
he has become deeply enmeshed with these young people, and this film
in particular has a close connection to the opening of the new Sinamovie
foundation and website (www.sinomovie.com) in 2001, which is designed
for the so-called “E Generation.” The original plan was to quickly shoot
this film and five additional ones, all in digital, which would then be left on
the website for anyone to edit as they see fit. However, Hou opted to not
Hou in the New Millennium
shoot it in digital on the advice of Mark Lee who argued that the transfer of
digital to film stock in the end would be too expensive.18 Then there is how
Hou compiled his material. Two years before the film came out he began to
join Jack Kao and Lim Giong in the actual night life seen in the film. In these
settings Kao really did come off as a noble older brother who would guide
these seemingly aimless youth,19 much like Kao’s character in the film. Hou
claims he kept his distance, simply observing this supposedly alien world,
listening to the life stories of young people as they struck up conversations
with him.20 On the other hand, he also admits to trying Ecstasy in order to
understand what they were experiencing,21 casting doubt on how much
requisite “distance” Hou actually achieved. Chu Tien-wen admits as much
in the interview with Michael Berry, conducted shortly before the premiere
at Cannes: “Hou Hsiao-hsien has always had an easier time filming subject
matter in which there is a historical distance. But when it comes to contemporary Taiwan, he is too close and has trouble finding the right perspective
to capture his story.”22
In this case, his perspective, along with his purpose, appears muddled.
Even the attempt at a faux history, having the voice-over of a “future” Vicky
in 2011 speak of her “past” in 2001, referring to herself in the third person,
fails to ameliorate this seeming lack of distance. Certain stylistic changes
reflect this. This film affirms the continued commitment to the mobile long
take evident since Good Men, Good Women. At just over 97 seconds per shot,
more than 80% have overt camera movements. However, these are more
random and haphazard than its immediate predecessor; none of these movements rival the slow arcing game of revealing a larger world such as seen in
Flowers of Shanghai. Many noted the use of close-ups in this film, yet these
are often only brief moments of longer takes. The more consistent new trait
is an abnormally shallow depth of field, to the point where out-of-focus foreground elements resemble the visual gimmicks of the Qiong Yao films in
the 1970s. Most striking is a scene of Vicky and Hao-hao making love about
eighteen minutes into the film, where much of their faces and bodies are
obscured by surreal colors and flashing lights (figure 33). This trait seems
almost a tacit admission that Hou, along with his camera, are so close as if
lost in this world.
Perhaps the greatest difference between this film and Hou’s previous
ones, including Flowers of Shanghai, is that in this case these are not people
trying to survive the twists of fate they have no control over; instead it is
merely lifestyle choices. Hou has for most of his career avoided even a hint
of villainy in his characters. Now he has Hao-hao, a stalking, violent, abusive
boyfriend who intentionally disrupted Vicky’s education so they would stay
together, who refuses to work, who steals and pawns his father’s Rolex,
and generally does nothing even slightly redeeming in any scenes in which
he appears. Vicky, played by Shu Qi, does not garner much sympathy
No Man an Island
Figure 33
Millennium Mambo (2001): the return of Qiong Yao gimmicks?
either: she is clearly unhappy being with Hao-hao, yet inexplicably is “hypnotized” by him as if “under a spell,” for some reason staying in the relationship until she spends NT$500,000 of her own money. (To her credit, she
does eventually leave Hao-hao for someone who genuinely cares for her,
yet one wonders what took her so long.) Millennium Mambo also repeats the
tendency seen in Good Men, Good Women: to create stark contrasts which are
almost didactic, in this case generational and cultural in nature. The older
Kao seemingly is the only one with any sense of direction despite his membership in the underworld, as if he were a stand-in for Hou’s self-appointed
role. Meanwhile, Taipei is starkly contrasted to the pristine, snow-swept
landscapes of Hokkaido, Japan. Even the apartment in Taipei is like the
nightclubs: its lighting is surreal, enhanced by an overly warm glow clashing
with the intentionally blue color temperature seen through the windows.
Japan is depicted both naturalistically and nostalgically, from the old woman
at the food stall to the movie billboards in Yubari. Hou claims that he likes
Taipei,23 yet he seems to like Yubari more because it is so much like Fengshan,
the village he grew up in.24
At best, this film represents an ambitious, abortive project stopped in its
first stage, which was too rushed as it was. Had the larger plan panned out,
this would have been only the first of up to ten films all trying to capture
changes in Taiwan as they happened, all of which would be re-edited once
more in the year 2011.25 This is an understandable project considering how
central change is to the contemporary Taiwanese experience, but it is not
surprising that it was not realized. Instead, Millennium Mambo is forced to
stand alone as confirmation that the present continues to elude Hou’s effective capture on film. This is Hou at his most uncertain.
Hou in the New Millennium
Café Lumiere (2003)
Hou’s next film is the result of a fortuitous mistaken identity. Shochiku,
the longtime employer of the late Japanese master, Yasijuro Ozu, desired to
commission a film to honor the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth on
December 12, 2003. Few were surprised that their choice was not another
Japanese director, but Hou Hsiao-hsien. One commentator expresses the
conventional wisdom that Ozu “used long takes to allow freedom to his
actors; Hou Hsiao-hsien is considered the director who has most carried on
the Ozu legacy.”26 The problem is, contrary to what many think, Ozu was
a highly editing-based director, unlike Hou. Moreover, even though Hou
himself often speaks of Ozu, he does so not because he can identify with
him, but because he envies how successfully Ozu captured contemporary
Japan, something Hou has been unable to do with contemporary Taiwan.27
Hou himself says many make this comparison only because Hou has used
the Japanese-style houses which actually exist in Taiwan; otherwise he and
Ozu are very different. (For example, Hou notes that he does not use Ozu’s
pronounced low camera position.)28 Still, this did not prevent him from
accepting the commission, and the result is Café Lumiere.
One can argue that Café Lumiere is true to the spirit of Ozu, but not the
letter. This film is shot in Japan, with Japanese actors, speaking only Japanese.
This film is also a sort of updating of the primary focus of Ozu — the Japanese
family — only now it involves a daughter’s pregnancy out of wedlock. (The
father of the child is Taiwanese, but he is never seen.) Moreover, it does
have that sense of Ozu-like mystery involving its protagonists: what are the
true feelings between Yoko, the writer, and Hajime, the owner of a secondhand bookstore? Much like Setsuko Hara in Ozu films past, neither offers
enough visible evidence for us to venture much more than a guess. All
this notwithstanding, Café Lumiere does not replicate the central aesthetic
features Ozu is best known for. For example, this film remains staunchly
Hou-like with an average shot length of 66 seconds per shot. (Ozu never
pushed beyond 20 seconds per shot.) Moreover, this film is a lost opportunity of sorts for Hou to return to his earlier form. Ozu’s camera, especially
late in his career, was resolutely static. Yet Hou does revert to his own
earlier incarnation in this film: more than half of the shots contain noticeable
camera movements, and roughly another fifth have at least slight reframings.
Thematically, Café Lumiere represents an updating of Ozu, but stylistically
not at all. Moreover, it provides further evidence that Good Men, Good Women
remains a point of no return for Hou.
That being said, Café Lumiere has to rank as one of Hou’s most successful forays into contemporary subject matter, even if it is not Taiwan. Even
without the temporal distance, Hou does have cultural distance, no matter
what similarities Japan and Taiwan undeniably share. Furthermore, Yoko is
No Man an Island
on an investigative quest to unearth historical traces of a Taiwanese figure
once residing in Japan, yet finding only fragments, suggestions, much like
Hou’s own excavations of Taiwanese history. The film also displays flashes
of Hou’s subtle brilliance. When Yoko explains to her father and stepmother
why she is not marrying her Taiwanese boyfriend, despite carrying his child,
Hou carefully stages a three-shot in her apartment. The father is in a medium
long-shot on the left side of the table, while the daughter is more towards
the right and frontal. Just to the right of her and close, the stepmother’s head
is obliquely placed in the relation to the camera, only temporarily blocking
our view of Yoko. Particularly effective here is how the father stops eating
midway as his daughter broaches this unpleasant topic, yet to the end he
says nothing about it (figure 34). Hou accomplishes this without recourse
to emphatic cut-ins. The most notable moment is during a long take on a
Tokyo train. The camera pans away from Yoko, who is not looking out, to a
window showing an adjacent train passing by in the same direction, only
slightly faster. Through that window on the other train we can see Hajime
looking out of his train, and yet he is equally unaware of his close proximity
to her. Perhaps symbolizing a missed opportunity for both, this shows that
even unexpected opportunities like Café Lumiere are proof that the unpredictable Hou is still an interesting Hou. As difficult as it is to define compared to
the past, it is still more difficult to dismiss him.
Figure 34
Ozu-like subtlety via different stylistic
means in Café Lumiere (2003).
Three Times (also known as The Best of Times) (2005)
Three Times is either a success or failure, depending on the criteria. It was
entered in the competition at Cannes in 2005, yet Hou was reportedly disappointed by it not taking the top prize. The film reaffirms that Hou still is the
master of historical material, yet it also suggests that present-day Taiwan
will always elude his capture. Hou’s intention here seems transparent
enough. In the promotional materials he says he hoped to film the fragmentary memories which stick with him, such as when he was in a pool hall
Hou in the New Millennium
in his youth. The literal Chinese title is “the best times,” yet Hou qualifies
the superlative: “‘the best’ not because we can’t forget them, because they
are things that have now been lost. The reason they’re the best is that they
exist only in our memories. I have the feeling that this is not the last film I’ll
make in this vein.”29 This arguably explains the successful first third of this
film which takes place in southern Taiwan in 1966, taken directly from Hou’s
own youth. However, it does not quite explain whose memories are invoked
in the second or third parts of this cinematic triptych, which take place in
Taiwan in 1911 and 2005 respectively. At best, Hou can only imagine what
comprises the patchy memories of generations not his own: the last third in
particular do not feel like memories at all.
It is understandable why many have tried to decipher the deeper
meanings of this tripartite structure. One Taiwanese writer suggests a deeper
cultural meaning to the three sections: the first represents the American
influence on Taiwan’s culture, seen most of all in the choice of music; the
second instead focuses on Chinese culture in Taiwan; the third, by contrast,
is a Japanese interpretation of contemporary Taiwanese youth culture since
they seem obsessed with death.30 While suggestive of the first two sections
(but not without some qualifications), this use of Japanese culture appears
too schematic in trying to explain the last portion of the film. More consistently, observers have noted how the first third of the film offers reminders of
The Boys from Fengkuei, the second of Flowers of Shanghai, while the third of
Millennium Mambo.31 Yet even this may be too schematic. It would be more
accurate to describe the three disparate parts as Hou’s reprisals and reflections on three distinct types of subject matter he has long grappled with:
the largely autobiographical material predominating in the New Cinema
period, followed by the more distant historical backdrops of City of Sadness,
The Puppetmaster, Good Men, Good Women (in part) and Flowers of Shanghai,
and ending with the always elusive subject matter of contemporary Taiwan
previously attempted in Daughter of the Nile, Good Men, Good Women (in part),
Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo. Consciously or not, Hou is
seemingly taking stock of his entire career, as if this was intended to be his
last film.
The first third of the film, in 1966, does conjure up memories of Hou’s
New Cinema period. Nearly every thematic element can be traced to his
feature-length works between 1983 and 1986. Most prominent are the ample
images of pool halls, which can be found in all four of these earlier films. The
looming draft plays a role in more than one of Hou’s New Cinema films as
well. The boat on Kaohsiung harbor reminds one of similar shots in Boys; the
role of letters reminds us of a key motif in Dust in the Wind; the early image
of Chang Chen on a bicycle is very similar to images of the young Hou in
A Time to Live, A Time to Die. The final two scenes involve food and trains
No Man an Island
much like Dust. Even the female boss of the pool hall is a faint reminder of
the female boss of the print shop in the same film.
Yet this is not strictly a return to an earlier Hou; it is more like Hou’s
idealization of his own cinematic past. This time he uses recognizable stars
(Chang Chen and Shu Qi), not non-professionals. The ASL for this portion
of the film is just over 39 seconds per shot, yet the camera cannot stay still
in over 85% of them — an inverse of his New Cinema style. Even more significant is how little dialogue is used. The soundtrack instead is dominated
by the music of the era, mostly American, but also includes one popular
tune in Taiwanese. Moreover, unlike the abortive romances in earlier New
Cinema films, this time the protagonist persists in his dogged pursuit of a
young woman until he wins her. This is not realism; this is a creative and
nostalgic reconfiguration of the past. Hou admits as much in the comment
quoted above.
Much the same can be said for the other two parts. The second section
amalgamates the films which dealt with more distant historical eras
(figure 35). Like City of Sadness and the The Puppetmaster, it deals with the
domestic realm in historically significant times — in this case the Chinese
revolution of 1911, which did not change anything in Taiwan. Over forty
dialogue titles were used to overcome the difficulties of speaking an older
version of Taiwanese, a reminder of the dreamlike flow of certain sections of
City involving the deaf-mute Wen-ching. Likewise, Shu Qi’s world as a courtesan do not just resemble Flowers of Shanghai, her playing of a traditional
instrument connects obliquely to the traditional arts seen in The Puppetmaster.
Meanwhile, the present-day Taiwan of 2005 still reprises the same aimless
youth of Daughter of the Nile; Good Men, Good Women; Goodbye South, Goodbye
Figure 35
This image from Three Times (2005) is a seeming amalgamation of images from both
City of Sadness and Flowers of Shanghai.
Hou in the New Millennium
and Millennium Mambo, including extended shots of the young couple on a
motorcycle, a familiar trope for Hou when trying to convey the present. More
quickly edited than any recent Hou film (36 second per shot even excluding
dialogue titles), once again there is enough to indicate not only how much
this is a Hou film, but also how difficult it is for Hou to ever return to an
earlier stage of his career.
The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
By the time many of you read this study there will likely already be another
Hou film on the horizon, most likely a swordplay piece about a legendary
swordswoman, Nie Yanniang, something Hou has desired to make for most
of this decade. Yet the Red Balloon itself is not so much an arbitrary as a fitting
end. To be sure, this represents Hou’s first film to take place outside of Asia,
in present-day Paris. It also failed to make the competition at Cannes in 2007,
shown only in the festival’s Un Certain Regard. Still, this is the first Hou work
to garner a semi-regular (albeit very limited) release in the United States,
including the IFC Center in New York and the Landmark Theater chain
elsewhere. The upshot of this remains to be seen, but the mostly positive
American reviews, plus the film’s multiple-week runs in such art venues,
suggest that this could be Hou’s breakthrough in the United States where he
is still little known.
Despite its Parisian setting, its French star, Juliette Binoche (Suzanne),
and Chu Tien-wen’s absence as a screenwriter for the first time since Hou’s
early commercial period, this film still displays salient connections to the
Hou studied in these previous pages. True to old form, Hou had not even
seen Lamorisse’s classic short until commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay to
remake it. J. Hoberman reports that Hou did not write down any dialogue
for the actors,32 indicating that a cornerstone of Hou’s modus operandi was
transplanted to a new milieu. Hou pursues the long take with a renewed
vigor, clocking in at around 75 seconds per shot, much longer on average than
his previous film. True to the later Hou, around 90% of these are mobile long
takes: even the most prominent static shot, showing Suzanne in a prolonged
phone conversation in a moving car, includes the ever-moving reflections
on the windshield. The most notable long take occurs in Suzanne’s cluttered Paris apartment, exhibiting a remarkably dense layering of action and
details. As Manhola Dargis describes it: “Out of this chaos — Simon playing,
Suzanne yelling, the piano tuner tuning, and Song simply moving among
them — Mr. Hou creates the world.”33 This harks back to Hou’s interior
settings in his best films, including City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and
Flowers of Shanghai, which are also complete worlds unto themselves. Even
Suzanne’s profession, a puppeteer, belies a strong connection to Hou’s past
work: she interprets a Chinese puppet play into French, yet she learns this
No Man an Island
from a Chinese master, played in the film by Li Tianlu’s real-life son. Then
there is the food, and the marked ellipses falling between mere glimpses of
life fragments which together make up a much larger picture imagined by
us, but not seen . . . all unmistakably Hou.
One can safely speculate that had Andre Bazin lived long enough, he
would have championed Hou as he championed Jean Renoir, Orson Welles
or the Italian neo-realists. But how Bazinian is Hou? Moreover, what would
Bazin have said about Hou’s remake of the 1956 original, a film Bazin once
wrote about? Even as late as 1989, Hou apparently was unaware of who
Bazin was, forced to consult with Chu Tien-wen when asked about possible
connections between his films and the famed French film theorist.34 There
is no denying that Hou is arguably the most Bazinian filmmaker today
in his dogged pursuit of the long take, but there is one point where Hou
diverges from Bazin, and that is the role of the filmmaker. Bazin called the
original Red Balloon “a documentary of the imagination” because it did not
rely on montage, but on the “spatial density of something real” to create
the imaginary — in this case a seemingly sentient balloon which follows a
young boy through Paris.35 This is consistent with Bazin’s underlying ontological assumptions about cinema, where the best filmmakers, according to
him, do not undercut the cinema’s uncanny ability to record phenomenological reality in all of its ambiguity. Here, however, Hou demonstrates his
own awareness that there is always that intervening creative force even
when one avoids the machinations of montage. Hou employs a stand-in for
himself in the form of Song, a real-life Chinese film student in Paris who is
not only a film student in the film, but also a nanny to Simon, Suzanne’s son.
There is no back story to Song in this film other than that she is involved
in certain projects, including a current remake of the Red Balloon. She never
is really involved in the muted dramas of Suzanne’s life, only observing as
an outsider. The film also suggests there are limits to what she (or Hou) can
observe: despite its seeming omnipresence, Song never notices the crimson
balloon even when it reflects on glass outside the flat. (She is too busy looking
at her footage on the computer screen.) More significantly, Song reveals to
Suzanne how the medium itself does not just record, but manipulates, such
as the digital erasure of those who maneuver the balloon for the camera.
Bazin likely would not have been so comfortable with these reflexive
acknowledgements. Nevertheless, unlike in Good Men, Good Women, in this
case the self-reflexivity is done with great subtlety, and without didacticism
or blunt forcefulness. Moreover, the film succeeds because Hou once more
finds that requisite distance, in this case, cultural. As Hoberman notes, “Hou
appears to have accepted his distance from the material — and worked with
it. Flight of the Red Balloon is explicitly an outsider’s movie, full of odd perspectives and founded on dislocation.”36 Hou has always worked best from
Hou in the New Millennium
a distance, that same perspective he first discovered with Shen Congwen.
What he observes next remains to be seen.
Hou Hsiao-hsien: More Than an Island
For arguably the greatest cultural ambassador Taiwan has ever known, it is
surprising that four of the last six films directed by Hou do not even take
place there. Yet like the island he hails from, Hou is nothing if not unpredictable, and this unpredictability has only intensified in the new millennium.
Moreover, nothing from here on out will minimize his lasting importance.
Hou has already left his own legacy extending well beyond the shores of
Taiwan, significant not only for Asian cinema, but also world cinema. Hou
should be recognized not only for how he has handled certain thematics,
most of all historical ones, but also for being the progenitor of a new modern
pan-Asian style which has no Western counterpart.
There is no end to the directors with whom Hou could be compared:
the Italian neo-realists, innumerable new waves which preceded him, even
other long-take masters such as Renoir, Antonioni or the later Dreyer. Yet
since this study has largely argued that Hou has been at his best with conveying the experience of history indelibly by means of the long take, we can
best compare him to a rarified group of directors throughout history who
have also shown a proclivity for historical subject matter wedded to the long
take: Kenji Mizoguchi, Miklos Jancsó and Theo Angelopoulos. Consider first
the crudely measurable seen in the chart. (See p. 180).
While not a complete sampling of the other three directors, this at least
indicates one way Hou’s career stands out. The eight films not directed by
Hou, scattered over fifty some years, coming from three different directors
and cultures, each with his own distinctive and noteworthy long-take style,
and yet they converge when it comes to camera movement, since most of
them have camera movements in at least two-thirds of their shots. This is the
norm for long-take films in general. Hou, on the other hand, bucks this trend
completely up to 1993. The Puppetmaster is the most extreme since its average
shot length is nearly double that of City of Sadness and yet it has the same low
percentage of shots with any camera movement. As such, Hou’s long takes,
being on average so much more static compared to the other three directors,
take on an added saliency. Only starting with Good Men, Good Women does
Hou seem to join the others in this rarified long-take tradition.
However, there is more to it than even this. Angelopoulos, Jancsó and
Mizoguchi seemingly discovered that a long-take style, coupled with a lot
of camera movement, does not just compensate for a relative lack of editing,
it also creates an expansive sense of history, allowing one to feel the breadth
of the historical events conveyed. Of the three, Jancsó is the most extreme in
this regard, for rarely does his camera rest even for a moment. Since he tends
No Man an Island
Hou’s Long-Take Style and That of Other Notable Long-Take Directors
Film Title
% of shots
47 Ronin
Utamaro and His Five Women
Life of Oharu
The Red and the White
Traveling Players
Hungarian Rhapsody
The Sandwich Man
The Boys from Fengkuei
A Summer at Grandpa’s
Voyage to Cythera
A Time to Live, A Time to Die
Dust in the Wind
Daughter of the Nile
Landscape in the Mist
City of Sadness
The Puppetmaster
Good Men, Good Women
Goodbye South, Goodbye
Flowers of Shanghai
Millennium Mambo
Café Lumiere
Three Times
The Flight of the Red Balloon
to avoid individual characters, he finds ways of staging his long takes that
at times can be quite close, but at other points be spectacular extreme long
shots with a vast array of human figures. In The Red and the White, a single
shot can show the white oppression and a red counterattack, all captured
in a sweeping camera that constantly shifts the focus of attention from one
group of players to the next, or from one series of actions to the next, all
the while allowing enough to be seen to understand the progression of the
events conveyed. Angelopoulos may not move the camera as much as his
Hungarian counterpart, yet he is no less prone towards the spectacular.
Typically, Angelopoulos will coordinate a large number of actors who move
in accordance with wherever the camera will be at any one moment. This
means the camera will suddenly shift from following one character to following another, sometimes with a 360° arc in a single shot. One notable example
is in Traveling Players where a new year’s celebration in 1946 becomes an
elaborately staged interplay of song and dance that expresses the political
Hou in the New Millennium
conflicts of the time in Greece. In Landscape in the Mist, likewise, the camera
utilizes a 360° pan plus a half arc to follow various members of a troupe of
actors who, one at a time, recite different episodes of Greek history while
walking on a beach. Both Jancsó and Angelopoulos, then, tend to utilize this
expansive, mobile long-take style for didactic ends, often conveying political
conflict in dialectical terms within single takes.
Mizoguchi is more complicated and less didactic that his European
analogs. Yet Mizoguchi also has his own flair for the expansive and the
spectacular, often having shots that seem to expand endlessly along a lateral
plane, only to suddenly expose enclaves in great depth as well. Much of
Mizoguchi’s staging is determined by the architecture in which he shoots.
(Perhaps no director in history has ever mastered such large sets the way
he has.) In 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi constantly plays with visibility by means
of both flatness and depth, often having a flat panel open to reveal a deep
space behind it. Furthermore, despite so many camera movements, there are
still prolonged stretches of stillness, not only for the camera, by also for a
large array of characters as well. All of this, however, is much more than a
play with the parameters of the long-take style: Mizoguchi tends to focus
on individuals who often find themselves at odds with the stringent social
labyrinth that literally inhabits these intricate spaces that seem to stretch
to infinity. In many scenes, the principal players involved will be talking
nearby in the foreground, and yet in the background someone else might
be eavesdropping. The very tension in his style — between movement and
stasis, flatness and depth, sudden violence and serenity — renders the situations of his characters eminently palpable, all of them bounded by a clearly
proscribed social space. In doing so, Mizoguchi in this case provides not so
much a diachronic history of the Japanese past as he provides a synchronic,
idealized depiction of a social structure underpinning that history.
Hou most differs in that his relatively static long takes provide a very
compact historical space instead. Densely staging countless human figures,
many of whom move in and out of the frame, compounding this with
innumerable inanimate objects, Hou’s shots tend to be quite claustrophobic,
almost suffocating. (Even Hou’s landscape shots tend to feel closed rather
than open.) As a result, Hou presents a cached, domestic version of history
witnessed from the vantage point of the home, putatively the safest refuge.
This reveals characters, not at their most heroic or most historically conscious, but in their most intimate, even vulnerable moments. Even with its
ever-moving camera, Flowers of Shanghai continues this tendency by other
means: swaying back and forth, the camera in this film can only go so far,
and it is forever closed in by settings arguably the densest of Hou’s entire
career. Once again, Hou offers a history as it is lived and experienced, for
the first time, in very immediate terms. All of his other choices, including his
highly elliptical narratives, conspire towards this effect.
No Man an Island
No matter how much the two differ overall, Hou perhaps most closely
resembles Andrei Tarkovsky’s historical sense in The Mirror (1974). This work
covers two of the most tumultuous eras in Russia’s history: Stalinism and
World War II. The only evidence of the former, however, is a sequence where
a mother fears for her life over a possible misprint in an article she wrote.
World War II is seen not from the battlefield, but from the home front, and
by means of intense childhood memories and dreams — of a red-haired girl,
a burning house, spilt milk on a wooden floor, and a mother mysteriously
gallivanting amongst decaying walls showered by both fire and water. Even
more striking are the newsreel shots. Newsreel footage is the epitome of
historical records in visual form, yet Tarkovsky intentionally chooses the forgotten, intimate moments. At one point we see disheveled soldiers plodding
their way through water and muck. Suddenly they and the horse cart with
them slide helplessly down a river bank. Such an unheroic, human moment
would never have appeared in an official Soviet newsreel of the time, but
it fits perfectly in Tarkovsky’s world. And so would it fit in Hou’s world
as well. Although he uses no rejected archival footage as such, Hou makes
every painstaking effort to find those moments that standard, official histories run roughshod over. These are the outtakes of history, those moments of
the mundane, the neglected instances serving no purpose in official histories.
Hou defiantly suggests that in history, everything — every little thing —
matters. For this reason, his historical films are not merely representations of
history; they comprise a philosophy of history.
The historical vision created by Hou may be inimitable, and thus his own
personal legacy. The most noticeable aspects of his style are another matter.
Over a quarter century ago it was hard to find anyone who would so consistently employ a static camera and the long take — not even Andy Warhol
or Chantal Akerman did so quite this consistently over a ten-year period.
Today, however, it has become almost cliché in Asia among aspirants towards
festival cinema. Unintentionally Hou has helped spawn a pan-Asian style
much as his Hong Kong counterpart, Wong Kar-wai.
Hou himself was never a “purist”; the static camera was never an end in
and of itself. Nevertheless, just as Hou was abandoning his signature static
camera with Good Men, Good Women other Asian directors picked up the
mantle in a more literal fashion. The first evidence was the Japanese director,
Hirokazu Kore-eda, and his 1995 film, Mabarosi, which averaged 25 seconds
per shot and yet has camera movement in only 6% of them. Lee Kwang-mo’s
Springtime in My Hometown (1999), from South Korea, averages nearly
50 seconds per shot, and yet only 2% of them have any camera movement
whatsoever. More recently is Syndromes and a Century (2006) from the Thai
director, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. At roughly 38 seconds per shot, less
than 20% have any movement, and those that do move are often calculated arcs and lateral tracks which move at an almost excruciatingly slow
Hou in the New Millennium
pace. Almost identical figures can be found in the 2004 work, The Beautiful
Washing Machine, from Malaysian director of Chinese descent, James Lee —
at just over 43 second per shot, less than a fifth have any camera movements. The most consistent in pursuing this unusual long-take style have
been the Malaysian-born Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming-liang, and the South
Korean director, Hong Sang-soo. Both directors have even made long-take
films where literally every single shot is perfectly still. Hong’s The Power of
Kangwon Province (1998) does not contain a single camera movement despite
an average shot length of just over 33 seconds per shot. Tsai’s What Time Is
It There? (2001) averages more than a minute per shot and yet once again
there is not even the slightest movement in any of them. Even in mainland
China there is Jia Zhangke, who acknowledges Hou’s influence. Jia is not a
literal disciple of Hou’s once static camera: the monumental Platform (2000)
captures the vagaries of a peripatetic musical troupe from the end of the
Maoist era through the dramatic changes of the 1980s. Clocking in at just over
68 seconds per shot, Jia still manages to move the camera in roughly half of
them. Yet Jia remain true to Hou’s historical sensibilities, steeped in the same
quotidian spirit in historically turbulent times with such memorable shots as
that of a boiling tea kettle towards the end. Once again, Hou’s presence was
being felt everywhere in Asian cinema, even in “enemy” territory.
This conscious appropriation by Asian directors is not merely an aesthetic phenomenon of concern only to pedantic film scholars; this is but one
indication of a much larger cultural phenomenon in East Asia. One of the
more unexpected results of globalization is regional counterflows which run
against the supposed one-way street of Westernization. Asians today are just
as likely to consume and borrow from other Asians as from the West, if not
more so. Asian popular culture in particular is now rife with trends defying
longstanding geopolitical animosities. Despite tensions across the Straits of
Taiwan, for example, Taiwanese popular music has been the rage in mainland
China for quite some time, while Chinese serial dramas are watched by many
Taiwanese. The Japanese may be generally despised throughout Asia, but
this has done nothing to stem the popularity of Japanese pop music, clothing
styles and animation throughout the region. Most recently there has been a
“Korean Wave” as seen in the regional popularity of its movies, television
programs and music. All these trends indicate the emergence of a new panAsian identity in popular culture. This particular pan-Asian style in cinema
inspired by Hou shows how this is occurring even outside of the mainstream
in the festival realm.
This suggests that modernization does not automatically mean
Westernization in Asia — indeed, as globalization accelerates, Westernization
is ironically on the wane in certain cultural realms. This is not to deny that
intellectuals at a certain stage (such as those of the May Fourth movement in
China) felt compelled to reject their own traditions and emulate the West
No Man an Island
in order to compete; nor does this deny that these cultures at large appear
to be more Westernized at certain stages. But even that seems to give way
to a more dynamic and protean mix which neither tradition nor the West
can fully account for, suggesting that we are no longer talking about clearly
defined oppositions, or a “clash of civilizations.” Moreover, it suggests
that we should proceed with caution when trying to foist fixed, timeless
definitions of “Asian culture,” or better yet — Asian cultures. What is most
notable about East Asia is not the tenacity by which they hold onto “timeless
values,” but their dynamic flexibility, their willing cultural impurity, their
unflinching adaptability. Furthermore, this is a cultural manifestation of a
repeated record of breathtaking change which suggests why Asia overall has
fared better than either Latin America or Africa in weathering the very real
challenge of the West. No wonder then, that the most successful commercial
cinemas outside of Hollywood in history — namely India, Japan, Hong Kong
and Korea — are all Asian. This does not mean they do not treat their own
modernization with a great deal of ambivalence or concern — Hou’s largely
negative portrayal of the present is evidence enough of deep misgivings. Yet
in the process of modernizing, the Asians are creating new traditions entirely
modern in form — a modernization all their own, for better or for worse.
Taiwan in particular shows how unpredictable the Asian situation is.
Consider how Taiwan has changed in such dramatic ways. The KMT almost
completely reversed its economic policies after the 228 disaster in 1947, the
upshot of which was an economic miracle that spread the wealth better than
any Western country ever has. Politics took much longer, but Taiwan went
from a place under strict martial law to one of the most democratic places
on earth, wreaking havoc with the once commonplace assumption that a
Confucian society and democracy are incompatible. Consider the religious
revival in Taiwan of indigenous religions, and consider how much Taiwan
has preserved certain aspects of traditional culture which became lost in the
Cultural Revolution in China, and the realization sets in that much of the
past is still a part of the present on the island. Yet this does not mitigate how
modernized Taiwan is as well. Hou clearly understands these larger social
and cultural dynamics at work. In a 1993 interview, he declares that just
as once Buddhism (a foreign religion from India) slowly became a part of
indigenous Chinese tradition, beginning with the impressive carvings at the
Dun Huang caves, so will Western culture someday become a part of Chinese
tradition, even if it takes hundreds of years. Significantly, he calls Taiwan
the contemporary Dun Huang of this future cultural transformation.37
In short, Taiwan offers a model of modernization which China seems
poised to follow. Some in Taiwan see their entire island as a socio-political
avant-garde of sorts. The Taiwanese are not rejecting China outright — they
are just not accepting China in its present form. They are taking a wait-andsee attitude because they feel since they are able to do it, why not China?
Hou in the New Millennium
China going the way of Taiwan, and not vice versa, is arguably not the worst
scenario in this world’s uncertain future. For this reason alone, we should no
longer dismiss Taiwan because it is not an officially recognized nation state.
We should instead take it very seriously.
So we return to square one: that an island like Taiwan could produce
a director like Hou Hsiao-hsien should no longer come as a surprise, but
is almost to be expected given that Hou is both Asian and Taiwanese. Hou
and the island of Taiwan are inseparable and inconceivable without each
other. As a result of an unusual historical confluence, Hou becomes one of
the oddest yet most significant stories in the history of world cinema. Often
misconstrued as beacons of tradition, Hou’s films up to 1995 are anything
but that; what struck many as inexplicable changes in his more recent works,
including his audacious toying even with his own stylistic identity on the
festival scene, make perfect sense when we remember that Hou is Taiwanese.
At some point we have to dispense with our preconceptions, our prognostications, even our ready-made prejudices. Moreover, we have to recognize
there are also convergences among all these very real cultural and historical
differences, that the Taiwanese Experience is different and unique, but not
an incomprehensible, collective “Other.” After all, we all share something
which the films of Hou remind us of — we are all partakers of experience
at this very moment, those moments of everyday life which will never enter
into the annals of “History” proper. Even if the pundits and their tomes do
not pay heed, that does not render these moments any less important. Maybe
what is most important is not when one lives, or why one lives, but that one
simply lives.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:07 GMT from JHU Libraries
Updated Conclusion
Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin (2015)
When this study first appeared in 2009, The Flight of the Red Balloon had
premiered at Cannes two years earlier. Of the three films Hou made after
Millennium Mambo in 2001, only Three Times in 2005 had been entered into
the actual competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Three Times was also the
only of these three films that had been shot in Taiwan: produced entirely in
Japan, Café Lumiere (2003) came away empty-handed at Venice; despite being
shot entirely in Paris, The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) was “relegated” to the
Cannes sidebar, Un Certain Regard, where it also received no awards. It was
almost as if the more “global” Hou had become, the less global notoriety he
received. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career now seemed to be in partial eclipse.
Global film culture played a small role in preventing a total eclipse from
occurring. Conferences and screenings at University of California, Berkeley
(2010), University of Toronto (2010), and even the Toronto International
Film Festival’s Lightbox (2013), all helped maintain some visibility. Hou and
Chu Tien-wen personally attended conferences dedicated to him in Nagoya,
Japan (2011), and most recently in Belgium (2015), immediately after the
premiere of The Assassin at Cannes. Hou and his entourage also generously
gave time to be interviewed in a recent anthology, Hou Hsiao-hsien, edited by
Richard Suchenski (which complements this study well).1 That anthology is
associated with a retrospective (“Also Like Life”: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien)
that has been traveling globally, also curated by Suchenski through Bard
College’s recently founded Center for Moving Image Arts. The timing of
this retrospective, coupled with the recent conference in Belgium, belies a
healthy academic cottage industry offering ancillary support to Hou’s more
rarified festival career, something Hou recognizes.
Nevertheless, there remained a creeping sense that a partial eclipse
might turn into a total one. Questions abounded about whether Hou’s next
film, The Assassin, would ever materialize: the scripting phase had only
commenced in September of 2009; test shooting only began in September of
2010 in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara. Yet principal shooting would
be delayed for another two years until October of 2012. Even then there
was multiple reports of problems and delays: production stopped twice in
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
2013, and it was rumored that money had run dry, which Hou and company
denied.2 The shooting of The Assassin only concluded in January of 2014, yet
even this was soon followed by yet another year plus of post-production,
which meant Hou’s long-awaited wuxia film would not premiere until May
of 2015 at Cannes.
The end result is nothing short of astonishing, if not breathtaking:
a wuxia film unlike any before it, a Hou film unlike any before it. For many,
the premiere at Cannes marked the glorious return of a master to the global
festival stage. Competing at Cannes alone defies the odds: for the 2015
edition, 1,854 films from around the world were submitted for the Cannes
competition.3 Out of that mass of films, a mere nineteen were selected. This
not only means that roughly a third of the world’s output is submitted to
Cannes every year, it also means that, all things being equal, one has roughly
a 1/100 chance of even being selected. Hou has never won the top prize, that
elusive Palme d’Or, but this marks the seventh Hou film to be entered into the
competition at Cannes, a world record Hou shares only with Robert Altman.
(In all likelihood, Hou is going to break that record.)
Festival prizes, on the other hand, are a crapshoot, since they always
depend on the maddeningly unpredictable dynamics of any jury’s composition. If anybody knows this firsthand, it is the late Iranian director, Abbas
Kiarostami, who happened to be on the Cannes jury in 1993, and whose
dogged persistence was the only reason The Puppetmaster won the Jury
Prize. In one interview, Kiarostami expresses how unsatisfying it is to be on
a festival jury even though he has done it multiple times. For starters, no
award can truly measure how well a film will stand the test of time. More
importantly, often the top prizewinner is a compromise because nobody
could convince others of their own personal favorites.4 Had it been up to
the critics, in all likelihood The Assassin easily would have won the coveted
Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015. The day before the awards were announced,
Liberacion even wrote that in their minds The Assassin was their Palme d’Or
winner. Moreover, if it does not win, the jury better sneak out the back
way!5 While recognizing the utter unpredictability of festival awards, even
industry-oriented Variety speculated that the film might win the top prize
towards the end of the festival.6 This is not to say that many understood
the film: most Chinese report it being difficult to follow in terms of plot,
even language; most non-Chinese report it being impossible to comprehend.
Thus, the actual 2015 jury at Cannes did not bode well for Hou: led by the
Coen brothers, among the stars were Sienna Miller and Jake Gyllenhaal,7
that latter who said during a festival interview, “It’s the story that counts.”8
By that criteria Hou did not stand a chance of winning the Palme d’Or, since
“story” is often the least of his concerns. Yet even this star-studded, narrative-bound jury could not deny this work represents something extraordinary—whatever this film was. They awarded Hou the prize for best director
No Man an Island
instead, the highest honor Hou has won at Cannes since the Jury Prize for
The Puppetmster in 1993. The prolonged eclipse was finally over.
Even more important, however, is the actual film. The 200-plus shots
that make up The Assassin are not only arguably among the most beautiful that Hou and his team have ever created, they are also among the most
beautiful ever seen anywhere. The Assassin is the acme of audacity by one of
the most audacious directors in the history of world cinema. Although now
in his sixties, Hou intentionally presented himself the ultimate directorial
challenge, to prove that he is still one of cinema’s true masters willing to go
out on a limb that few dare. The Assassin is also the most expensive Hou film
to date by a wide margin. Furthermore, it was shot in some of the remotest
locations imaginable for a story that takes place during the Tang dynasty
(AD 618–907) over a thousand years ago. Few directors have dared touch the
Tang dynasty, Hou explains: “the historical and cultural background of the
Tang dynasty is very complex, which is why traditionally a lot of filmmakers
stayed from portraying this period.”9 Hou, on the other hand, is not one to
shy away from challenges; he clearly relished this particular challenge and
pursued it tirelessly.
Still, what does The Assassin tells us about Hou or Taiwanese cinema?
Does this film force us to reassess or revise what has already been said in
previous pages of this book? Despite some surprises, and certain appearances
to the contrary, The Assassin largely confirms what had been said in the first
edition of this book. For starters, the title of this book remains apt. No Man
an Island is an abbreviated reference to the poem by John Donne (1572–1632)
that has come to mean no one ever goes it alone. This is a metaphor too
good to pass up in the case of Hou Hsiao-hsien, and not merely because he is
from the island of Taiwan. Rather than a traditional auteurist study, this has
been a contextual analysis of one of the most renowned cinematic directors in
the world today. The implicit argument is that if one wants to understand any
“auteur,” it is not sufficient to look at the works, the accomplishments or the
“man” or “woman,” so to speak. One must further delineate what confluence
of contextual factors made any of that possible, that is, we must lay out how
much historical luck is inevitably involved. That we can no longer isolate
monocausal factors (i.e. the auteur) is now uncontroversial in both film and
cultural studies: anything is now fair game — culture, politics, economics,
industry, ideology, and so on — all examined from a historical perspective. For
any auteur such as Hou, global or not, there seem to be three indispensable ingredients: (1) historical luck; (2) sufficient institutional support; and
(3) an enabling entourage. None of that has changed for Hou since this book
first appeared; The Assassin in fact reaffirms this.
That notwithstanding, the core question of national identity has to be
addressed since this is arguably the most vexing issue for any director from
Taiwan, Hou most of all. Some might be tempted to argue that Hou has finally
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
abandoned Taiwan in favor of China with The Assassin; after all, Hou is now
exploring the Tang dynasty no less, often considered the pinnacle of Chinese
civilization. Moreover, Hou is now delving into the quintessential Chinese
genre — if there ever was one — the wuxia pian (often inadequately translated as “swordplay” in English). In truth, however, there is no “essence,”
no definitive “Chineseness” to be found. This is a film that purposely situates
itself on the margins, something to be expected from a Taiwanese director.
Hou himself makes this very clear in recent interviews in Chinese:
Taiwan cannot escape the inevitability of having the face up to China. Thus,
if we want our own special trait, in the end that has to be that the Taiwanese
perspective is a perspective from the margins, the frontier. And in having
a very different perspective, we can see some things about China more
clearly. That is the very important direction Taiwanese cinema will provide
in the future.10
This is precisely the perspective offered by The Assassin: this is China
from the margins, not from some elusive core. Rather than focusing on
the pivotal turning point during the mid-Tang dynasty that every Chinese
knows, namely the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763), The Assassin focuses on
some of the obscure, lingering effects of this event decades later that relatively few Chinese are aware of. Instead of focusing on the Tang court in the
capital, this film focuses exclusively on a remote garrison on the hinterlands
with an ambivalent and protean mix of Han and non-Han culture. Rather
than being true to the tropes of the wuxia as a popular Chinese genre, this
film turns that genre on its head by focusing on an assassin who decides not
to assassinate. Rather than making a more narratively conventional film as
many fear Hou would be forced to do due to the strictures of genre, Hou
instead pushes even farther into the remote shadowlands of sheer visual
poetry. The Assassin is an exotic film, to be sure, but it is decidedly not chinoiserie — it is exotic most of all to Chinese eyes, an exercise in extreme cultural
defamiliarization. The Assassin in the end is an exercise in poetic liminality
that is only possible by Hou Hsiao-hsien, a director hailing from Taiwan.
Only this can explain the peculiar choices Hou faced when making this film,
or the circuitous path this film’s production actually took, or finally both the
structure and style of this film in its finished form.
Hou’s Choices: North or South?
Given the complexity of cinema as an art form, every director in history
is presented with myriad choices to make. This does not merely mean an
endless array of choices in terms of narrative (for most directors, that is)
and/or style, but also refers to the fact that the parameters determining those
choices are invariably shaped by both technology and economics combined.
For this reason, large institutions of various stripes are virtually unavoidable,
No Man an Island
and these institutions both enable choices and yet constrain them as well.
No director can escape this fact, including Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Hou, however, is a special case in many ways, because directors rarely
have as much freedom as he has to make the films that he truly wants to
make. This special luxury afforded to him is largely a fortuitous historical
accident, as the previous pages of this book have shown. Hou’s constant
since the mid-1980s has been the international film festival, since Hou
Hsiao-hsien is a “festival director” par excellence. It was historical anomalies
that begat Hou’s career as a festival director starting in the 1980s. The New
Cinema was a direct result of institutional changes in Taiwan, but it was
never a planned movement. It was a desperate “try anything” policy in the
midst of a growing industrial crisis. It most certainly was not designed with
film festivals in mind, something confirmed recently by Hou, Chu Tien-wen,
Peggy Chiao, and even Winston Lee, who was in charge of cinema affairs
in the GIO at the time.11 Moreover, while institutions in Taiwan may have
jump-started Hou’s career, they simply could not sustain it. Thus, for Hou
the core institution has always been a global network of film festivals.
Film festivals themselves are largely a historical accident. Marco Mueller
(who was crucial for Hou back in the 1980s) notes how the film festival was
“born in the original sin of fascism” in Venice in the early 1930s, in part
as a way to extend the tourist season.12 Festivals evolved into something
very different over the decades, serving both art and commerce equally.
Today, they have spread globally with no end in sight. Key for Taiwan were
newcomers that emerged in the late 1970s, most of all the Festival des 3
Continents in Nantes, France. In retrospect, everybody now recognizes that
the key breakthrough occurred in 1984 at Nantes when Hou won the Golden
Montgolfiere — the top prize. Yet the appearance of The Boys from Fengkuei
at Nantes in 1984 was the result of a chance meeting that occurred earlier
that year in Hong Kong; there, Chen Guofu convinced Olivier Assayas, then
writing for Cahiers du cinema, to also see some films from Taiwan. Assayas was
impressed by what he saw — The Boys from Fengkuei most of all — and
wrote about it in Cahiers not long afterwards. This in turn led the Jalladeau
brothers, founders of the Festival des 3 Continents, to include Boys in the
festival in November of that same year, where it then won the top prize.13
Hardly anybody at the time, not even Hou, fully realized what a pivotal
moment that was. Three decades later, however, right after the best director
prize at Cannes, Hou and Chu Tien-wen would be in front of a packed house
at the CINEMATEK in Brussels for a master class conducted by none other
than Assayas himself. It was a fitting homage to a still living history, one
largely sustained by the institutional bedrock of international film festivals.
The Assassin, however, is unique in Hou’s career because this film could
not afford to rely on film festivals alone. Moreover, since Hou’s previous film
came out in 2007, there were two very profound changes that the director
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
had to face head on at the time, one more local (or regional) in nature, the
other truly global in scope. On the one hand, Hou had to recognize the
exponential growth of the mainland Chinese market between 2007 and 2015,
a consideration for every Taiwanese filmmaker today. On the other hand,
Hou had to face up to the fact that not only were most films still shot on
analog film stock back in 2007, they were also exhibited in celluloid as well.
By 2015 the digital age was already in near full global swing — the most significant technological shift since the coming of sound in the late 1920s. These
two monumental changes loomed large over every choice Hou made with
The Assassin. In the end, Hou responded with a deft mixture of audacious
defiance and compromise.
The sheer size of the mainland market has grown exponentially in recent
years and now appears to have exceeded the size of the North American
market.14 This became a decisive factor in how this film would be made.
In early 2013, Stephen Cremin wrote an article in Film Business Asia in which
he argues Taiwanese filmmakers are at a crossroads that requires them to go
either “north” or “south.” In effect, this means that every Taiwanese filmmaker faces a Hobson’s choice: either remain “south” in Taiwan and make
very low-budget films that have only local flavor and limited box office
appeal, or go “north” and aim for bigger budgets and audiences in China
proper via co-productions.15 Small budgeted films such as Night Market Hero
(2011) can afford to remain “south,” but Hou clearly could not afford to not
include China in this film, given its US$15 million budget. Thus, he unsurprisingly went “north.” Of course, this inevitably raises political issues in
Taiwan, especially since doing co-productions with China requires abiding
by the PRC’s own rules. Hou in turn defends himself on economic grounds,
pointing out that the size of Taiwan’s market is less than half the size of
France’s, but the size of France only equals that of Fujian Province in China.
He credits Hollywood for long having a head start in a well-coordinated
banking and financial infrastructure coupled with a large unified market. But
should China ever do the same, he adds, it could one day match Hollywood
given the sheer size of that market.16 In the end, the economic risk involved
forced Hou to bank on mainland China, not just for locations, but also for
money: half of the budget came from Chinese sources while the rest came
from Taiwan, South Korea, Canada, and Europe.17
At the Cannes press conference, Hou noted that having US$15 million
was a real luxury he might never have again, especially if this film could
not recoup its investments for multiple sources around the world.18 As a
result, the key linchpin is not film festivals, but the actual commercial market
in mainland China. This was the first Hou film to be released in mainland
theaters since it was a co-production with China. It remains to be seen whether
he will ever have such a luxury again. The incomplete figures from Box
Office Mojo.com indicate that The Assassin has made nearly US$9.5 million
No Man an Island
in the mainland market and another US$1 Million in the Taiwanese market.
These are impressive figures for an art film, but not for a genre film, which
this film technically is as well. The film made a mere US$600,000 in the
North American market in a very limited release. The combined figures
indicate that the film has made just under US$12 million worldwide to date,
or roughly 80% of its production budget.19 It is still possible that The Assassin
will at least make back it production budget and break even since Japan
and France — two countries in which traditionally Hou’s films have fared
best — are not included in these statistics. (There are no figures from those
two markets or from several others as well.) Still, given the vagaries and
complexities of financing and distribution deals, in all likelihood the film
will need to far exceed its production budget before all of those investors can
be paid off. Hou may be one of the world’s greatest living art cinema directors; yet clearly he has to keep his eye on the bottom line regardless, taking
an economic risk unlike any he has ever taken before. He may never quite go
“north” in this same manner ever again, and already he is planning a much
lower budgeted film for his next project.
The ascendancy of the Chinese market was not the only new factor at
play, however. The Assassin marks the first Hou film to be released in the
brave new digital era. Inevitably, this meant this film would be projected
in digital form via a DCP (Digital Cinema Package). Even today, there are
still outliers around the world who resist digital on the production end, and
Hou proved to be no exception. However, the greatest resistance to digital
was not necessarily coming from Hou, but from his director of photography,
Mark Lee, who had personally said on the set of the film in 2012: “Being
asked to shoot in digital is just like being asked to paint with a ball point
pen.” Hou exhibited more ambivalence on this issue, even though this was
largely because he thought the digital takeover was inevitable. Since it had
to be scanned into digital form anyway for post-production, which cost a lot
of money, Hou even said it was likely his next film would simply be shot in
digital to begin with.20
The biggest surprise with this film is not the choice of film stock per se,
since others have made similar choices in recent years. Most striking is the
original plan to use only a 16 mm Bolex camera. As a director, Hou has been
given more freedom, and he often feels that he has to impose limitations on
himself for the sake of creativity. Long known for the long take, Hou felt that
he had already reached the limits of the long take with Flowers of Shanghai
in 1998. (The crude numbers bear this out.) This is why the Bolex appealed
to him. A wind-up Bolex not only limits one to 16 mm film stock, it also
limits one to shooting only 20 to 30 seconds at a time.21 One can only imagine
how different this film would have been had they stuck to this original plan
of shooting with three Bolexes running simultaneously. According to Hou
himself, the Bolex proved unworkable as an actual production method, most
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
of all for Mark Lee who had trouble seeing through the eyepiece during early
test shooting. Since it was difficult to find others who could use the camera
(and they needed three operators), the idea was scrapped in favor of 35 mm
instead, of which Hou and crew shot a whopping 500,000 feet by the end.22
Tao Hungyi, the cinematographer who had introduced Hou to the Bolex,
offers another explanation for why the Bolex was not used: investors simply
found it unacceptable. Even then, the Bolex left a legacy on the finished
result since the film resists using a wide-screen format in favor of the Bolex’s
1.37:1 ratio.23 To wit, Hou was willing to compromise only so far.
Delays and Detours
Difficulties in funding and using Bolexes hardly explain why it took so long
for The Assassin to be completed; even having 500,000 feet of film stock at
one’s disposal only tells a small part of a much more complicated story.
So who or what was really to blame for the great interregnum between 2007
and 2015? Hou gave the fallback explanation in a 2015 interview: it was
because of his prolonged duties as heads of both the Taipei International Film
Festival and the Golden Horse Film Festival. In truth, however, Hou only
has himself and this film to “blame” for this eight-year lacuna in his career.
Never had so much painstaking care been put into a Hou film before
production even began. Hou himself engaged in exhaustive research on
the Tang dynasty, followed by seemingly interminable discussions with
his scripting trio (Chu Tien-wen, A-Cheng, and Xie Haimeng) that lasted
almost three years in total. Yet in the end, the script that everyone received
was barely a dozen pages or so, according to Xie Xinying, the actress who
played the concubine, Huji.24 For the production designer, Huang Wenying,
this film represents a career-defining milestone, an opportunity of a lifetime
that she took full advantage of. Starting in 2006, she began to travel all
over the world to research everything that could shed light on the multifaceted and often elusive cultural complexities of the Tang dynasty. This
required not only research at Taiwan’s Palace Museum, but also trips to
mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, India, and even Uzbekistan.25
In the end, the research for this film, the endless trips abroad to purchase
props and costumes, all the energy and money expended on getting every
last detail right, far exceeded what had been done in any previous Hou film,
including Flowers of Shanghai.
This exemplifies what makes Hou such an intriguing paradox. For all
the attention to detail and the endless preparation that entails, when it comes
to both shooting and editing, there is no telling where things will go. Hou
relies heavily on a variety of people to achieve that vision without offering
precise instructions on how to do so. Like himself, everyone has to find their
No Man an Island
way, yet somehow they have to meet Hou’s exacting standards in the end.
Huang Wenying describes working with Hou as follows:
When it comes to work, Hou happily respects professionalism. Therefore,
when building sets, designing or preparing costumes for the actors, he will
almost always trust you, and will never interfere too much. But that is the
inevitable heavy burden of working with him. Because if he knows it is
not good enough, he will not shoot it; even if he does shoot it, he will still
not use it in the end.26
According to Tu Duu-chih (Du Duzhi), the sound designer, Hou dislikes
“rehearsals, repetitions of the same scene, or specifying the movements of
the actors.”27 Mark Lee notes that working with Hou is challenging since
“he does not use precise scripts or detailed storyboards.”28 Liao Ching-sung,
the producer, suggests there may be a hidden method to all this seeming
spontaneity: “Actually, Hou is a meticulous perfectionist camouflaged by a
quasi-casual attitude. He tends to say, ‘it doesn’t matter,’ but it all matters.”29
How all of these come together in the end is mysterious, almost intimidating, given the actual results. In the end, Hou will only include those things
in the final cut that fit his vision. Pascale Wei-Guinot perhaps summarizes
this best with the following quote: “Hou Hsiao-hsien — the ever working
artist, the always changing man. Cinema, the collective art, yet the seed of a
single person.”30
If pre-production alone does not fully explain why this film took so
long to complete, the sheer variety of locations may offer more clues. To the
location manager, The Assassin was either a dream job or a logistical nightmare, depending on how one looks at it. Most of the interiors were shot in
Taiwan. Although some of the exterior scenes were shot in Yilan County on
the east coast of the island, most of the exteriors were shot in Hubei Province,
Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, and Hebei’s Zhuozhou Studio in China, while in
Japan locations were used in Kyoto and Himeji. (Nara was only used for test
shooting back in 2010.)
At first glance, it is surprising that a film set entirely in ancient China
would even need locations in Japan and thus Japanese investors as well.
Of course, Taiwan is much too young to have anything remotely resembling
Tang dynasty architecture; yet surprisingly, this is no less true for mainland
China. The film required some exterior shooting in Japan because Japan
has preserved many Tang features, architecturally speaking.31 Xie Haimeng,
Chu Tien-wen’s niece and one of the three screenwriters of the film, describes
the sheer joy of shooting in Japan. The Japanese in general are remarkably
respectful of the film crew on location; they are also consummate professionals. Hou prefers to have his film stock developed in the same country where
the film is shot. However, properly developed film stock is now a dying art,
and much is unusable as a result. But in Japan the results were “beautiful
beyond belief” according to Xie, far surpassing what they got elsewhere.32
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
Shooting in China proved to be a prolonged, more difficult, and less
pleasant affair. For starters, Hubei and Inner Mongolia were remote locales
with relatively primitive conditions. Despite its difficulty of access, over
80,000 feet of film stock was used in one Hubei location (大九湖) alone.33
Unpredictable climate became a constant factor. True to form, Hou adapted
to such unpredictability: for him, shooting a “script” means understanding
the objective reality of the situation, even if it is snowing, or if there is fog.
Otherwise, one is limited by what one can do.34 Clearly the struggles in this
regard were worth it in the end, given the actual landscapes in the film.
Yet it was not merely the breathtaking yet difficult mainland locations
that posed challenges, according to Xie Haimeng. At a temple on the top
of Wufu mountain — a famed tourist attraction — shooting became next to
impossible when throngs of tourists showed little regard to the film crew
(one tourist even shot back when explained what the film was about: “Who
the hell is Nie Yinniang anyway!?”). The contrast with what the crew had
experienced in Japan was stark, and it offended many on the set. Yet Hou
remained patient with the tourists. Instead, he blamed the officials who had
promised that this location would be closed for their use. In the end, they
shot as much as they could when the tourists were having their lunch.35 Even
actors proved to be more difficult in China. Hou does not want actors to
“act,” nor does he ask actors to become their roles. Instead, he wants the
roles to match the actual people acting, to let something real come through
about actors as people. Mainland actors, being used to constant instruction on how to “act” every step of the way, found this difficult to adjust
to.36 In Inner Mongolia they had additional problems with extras who still
insisted on wearing glasses or using cellphones while riding horses in Tang
dynasty garb.37
After a month of difficult shooting in Hubei, the principal shooting of the
interiors began in December 2012 on the old CMPC lot in Taipei. Hou and
his crew decided to build not one, but two, full-scale structures that cost over
US$320,000.38 As Huang Wenying explains, Hou opted for the construction
over an existing interior soundstage because he did not want to be restricted
by a place with no natural light to work with.39 Tang interiors are decidedly
different from those of later Chinese dynasties, as their boundaries between
exteriors and interiors, and between the “rooms” within, are all remarkably
fluid (relying mostly on movable screens and hanging silks partitions to
divide up the space). This afforded several distinct advantages for making
the film: the two full-size structures would be sufficient for nearly all the
interiors in the film since the space could be transformed easily by moving
around screens and silk cloths. The structures also provided ample flexibility
for setting up cameras and lighting instruments. Anyone who actually saw
the settings would be struck by how “Japanese” they seemed. In fact, the
Japanese have preserved elements of the Tang dynasty so well that certain
No Man an Island
details of the interior settings had to sacrifice historical accuracy in order not
to appear “too Japanese” to a modern audience.40
By accident, I had the good fortune of being on the Taipei set of The
Assassin for two days in December 2012. I was given full access to the set
and was allowed to take pictures of everything and everyone except Shu Qi.
Being able to see Hou actually working on a set for the first time, I realized
that what I witnessed was entirely typical, based on all the accounts I have
read by others (most of all, the detailed record published by Xie Haimeng
about The Assassin).
The second day of my visit was the first day of actual shooting in Taipei.
The actors, including Shu Qi, had an 8:30 a.m. call time, but there was no way
of telling when shooting would actually begin. It was clear from everyone’s
behavior that prolonged waiting was the norm on a Hou set. Xie Haimeng
notes in her book that Hou never sits in the director’s chair because, to him,
the chair always creates a hierarchal divide between the director and the
crew, which he dislikes.41 In truth, however, it was also because Hou constantly observed things from multiple angles and at times quietly instructed
Huang and the crew to work on the minutest detail here and there. He was
meticulous to a fault with the mise-en-scène since there seemed to be no end
to the adjustments. Meanwhile, Mark Lee repeatedly looked through the
camera eyepiece, often pointing to something with the continuity person.
Liao Ching-sung was merely observing while Tu Duu-Chih was waiting
calmly as if he had been through this a hundred times before. Shu Qi made
a brief appearance (in black costume). Having realized that it would still
be awhile, she calmly returned to the dressing room. Hou said very little to
me on that second day since I made certain to remain in the background. Yet
in passing he did make one very telling comment: “It is always like this.”
It was hard to say what exactly he was waiting for: Was it the perfect ray of
light, or the perfect configuration of the minutest details? One would expect
any film set to be hectic, but a Hou set is pure Zen; one could have easily
meditated on the premises. (Xie Xinying was struck by this quality as well,
noting that on a Hou set it was almost as if whoever spoke first lost.)42 The
only time Hou ever shouted was when it was time to break for lunch. The
first take still had not commenced. Since I had to leave for home, I bid my
farewell before the camera ever began rolling. Lightning-fast efficiency is not
the first word that comes to mind when describing how Hou shoots — it is
more like prolonged and persistent patience that few are capable of. How
these films are made are very much like the films themselves.
It would still be another thirteen months before shooting was completed. Then post-production, arguably the most mysterious phase of a
Hou film, began. There are no detailed descriptions of the editing process
as a whole for Hou Hsiao-hsien, because almost no one is able to observe
it from beginning to end. Hou himself talks about editing, not in terms of
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
plot or narration, but mostly in vague, general terms of why certain scenes
are rejected because they lack that certain “something.” As Chu Tien-wen
notes, Hou often refers to the words of Robert Bresson when talking about
the convoluted process of making a film: a film lives in one’s mind during
pre-production, but then it dies once it has been written down in script
form; the film comes back to life again on the set, yet it dies once more when
placed on film stock. The film then undergoes a second resurrection when it
is being edited.43 Yet the second “resurrection” proved particularly arduous
in this case, since post-production took almost a year and a half to complete.
In Brussels, Chu pointed out that the film had gone through four major edits
before something resembling the original idea or flavor was finally found.44
The final result is nothing short of astonishing, even overwhelming. Yet it
also defies easy comprehension or analysis.
Structure and The Assassin: A Simple Tang Tale Told Obliquely
In July 2015, a month before The Assassin was released in Taiwan, INK
Literary Monthly dedicated an entire issue (no. 143) to Hou Hsiao-hsien and
his latest film. The subtitle on the cover could be translated as follows: “The
Director Who Least Tries to Please the World in the Last Thirty Years.” One
article in this issue includes this well-known quote from Hou for which
he is sometimes criticized: “Only with your back to the audience will your
creativity begin.”45 If there was ever an opportunity for Hou to “please” a
general audience, it would have to be the short Tang dynasty tale about the
female assassin named Nie Yinniang on which this film is loosely based.
Moreover, it is ostensibly a wuxia genre film in which the lines between
heroes and villains are usually demarcated clearly. Hou does not set out
to “displease” an audience but, to him, to “please” an audience means to
make things simple, easy, and predictable; it means following the well-worn
tracks and tricks of the trade that most films use. Hou instead defies all
of these, taking audiences not on the roads less traveled, but often on the
roads never really traveled before. That is what makes Hou Hsiao-hsien
“Hou Hsiao-hsien.” Many point to Hou’s rarified style as being the main
culprit for the difficulties that his films pose for most audiences. In truth,
however, it is not so much the style as the overall narrative structure that
makes this film challenging even for seasoned Hou fans. Xie Haimeng summarizes Hou’s attitude towards narrative structure as follows:
From the first page reading Tien-wen’s script for Dust in the Wind it is not
difficult to discover that from Dust in the Wind all the way to The Assassin,
Hou has never compromised. That script shows how much was planned
and scripted out compared to how it was edited in the end, and how every
part was radically different. Hou does not like careful, tight structure, does
not like intentional arrangements, does not like linear narration, does not
No Man an Island
like breaking things down into shots, does not like overly designed things,
does not like the interfering hand . . . This always comes back to the same
point: being so unwilling to be dramatic, perhaps it is impossible to ever
make him shoot a commercial film.46
As we have seen, Hou’s best films reveal a deeper structure underneath
what appears to be merely free-flowing episodes of everyday life: Dust in the
Wind reveals a dense weave of quotidian motifs that echo each other throughout the film; City of Sadness is structured around a family table on which the
effects of history, not the causes, are slowly shown; Flowers of Shanghai is
structured around the four enclaves that only meet at robust table gatherings. Xie Haimeng’s detailed account of both the scripting and the making
of The Assassin has an aptly poetic main title: 行雲紀. There are two possible
interpretations in English: “Chronicle of a Moving Cloud” or “Chronicle of
Traveling with a Cloud.” Either way, the metaphor of a “cloud” echoes one
that her aunt, Chu Tien-wen, had used two decades earlier to describe the
editing of The Puppetmaster, as we saw in the previous chapters. In the case of
The Puppetmaster, this metaphor captures the deeper structure of the finished
film in which the past, the present, and the future seemingly flow into one
another with no clear divisions between them. In the case of The Assassin,
however, the metaphor seems more applicable to the unpredictable vagaries
of actually making of the film than to the structure of the finished product.
Hou’s films always involve radical permutations from script to final
edits, but in the case of The Assassin there is a radical reworking of the
original story to script also to contend with. Many of the characters in the
original Tang tale are real historical figures, such as Tian Ji’an, played by
Zhang Zhen (Chang Chen) in the film. Tian Ji’an was the head of Weibo in
the early 800s; Weibo was a garrison outpost set up on the borderlands by
the Tang court after the An Lushan Rebellion in the mid-700s. Designed to
help quell future rebellions, Weibo became the most powerful of several
such outposts that together posed a real threat to the court itself, and was too
powerful for the court’s comfort. The eponymous character (in Chinese that
is) Nie Yinniang, however, is purely fictional. In the original story she was
kidnapped by a Buddhist nun at a much younger age, not taken away with
her parents’ permission as occurs in the film. Moreover, in the original story
Nie Yinniang was never betrothed to Tian Ji’an. In the story she also returned
to Weibo at a much younger age, and most importantly, she was initially an
assassin for Tian Ji’an. Her mission is to kill another garrison leader named
Liu Changyi who is faithful to the Tang court, and thus a problem for Weibo.
However, Nie Yinniang comes to admire Liu Changyi and decides not to
assassinate him. She returns to Weibo and leaves a lock of her hair to indicate
to Tian Ji’an that she is breaking ties with him. She returns to Liu Changyi to
warn him that two other assassins of Tian Ji’an — Jing Jing Er (the masked
assassin in the film) and Kong Kong Er (the white bearded warlock in the
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
film) — will arrive to kill him. Nie Yinniang kills Jing Jing Er, but she knows
Kong Kong Er is too strong. Thus she devises a way to make Kong Kong
Er think he has killed Liu Changyi when the opposite is true. Part of this
plan includes a fantastical Kafkaesque transformation by Nie Yinniang into a
beetle that hides inside of the body of Liu Changyi.47
The script for the film virtually turns this original short tale on its head.
Of particular importance now is Princess Jiacheng, Tian Ji’an’s mother who
is dead when the film begins, and is only seen in flashbacks in which she
plays the zither and tells the story of the melancholy bluebird (a story that
Nie Yinniang repeats much later on). Princess Jiacheng is the daughter of the
eighth Tang emperor; she was married off to Tian Xu (Tian Ji’an’s father) in
an attempt to forge stronger ties between the court and Weibo. In the film,
Nie Yinniang is taken away by a Daoist nun, rather than a Buddhist nun,
since Daoism is stronger in court circles. The nun happens to be Princess
Jiaxin, twin sister of Princess Jiacheng. (Both roles are played by the dancer,
Sheu Fang-yi.) In order to protect the young Nie Yinniang, Princess Jiacheng
and the Nie family ask the nun to take her away. The reason for this is that
Princess Jiacheng has practically raised Nie Yinniang as one of her own, and
has even planned for Yinniang and her own son, Tian Ji’an, to be married.
However, political considerations prevail and Tian Ji’an is instead married
to Tian Yuanshi, the daughter of another garrison commander. Tian Yuanshi,
however, proves to be a Trojan horse for the Yuan family, as she is trying to
slowly take over Weibo. Moreover, she — not Tian Ji’an — is the one who
in the film commands the assassin, Jing Jing Er, and the hoary warlock,
Kong Kong Er, who implants curses on people by using paper cutouts.
Of particular importance to Tian Yuanshi (as Tian Ji’an’s wife) and Kong Kong
Er is the fact that Tian Ji’an’s favorite concubine, Huji, is secretly pregnant.
This poses a threat to the succession of Tian Yuanshi’s own children to lead
Weibo in the future. Meanwhile, in a fit of anger, Tian Ji’an forces his own
uncle, Tian Xing, into exile for advising too much caution in dealing with the
court. Yet he seems to know that his own wife and the Yuans will try to take
advantage of this situation; he therefore also sends Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s
own father, along for protection. Sure enough, Tian Yuanshi does send the
assassin Jing Jing Er to try to take down Tian Xing. The assassination forces
Nie Yinniang to leave the city to protect her own father and Tian Xing. There
she receives help from a Japanese stranger known simply as the Mirror
Polisher, who becomes her friend. Meanwhile, Kong Kong Er tries to deal
with the pregnant Huji with a magic spell. Nie Yinniang returns to save Huji
as well and informs her once betrothed Tian Ji’an that Huji is pregnant.
It is a complicated story, but it is not impossible to follow provided each
character’s situations and motivations are adequately explained — which
the published script does for the most part. Moreover, it is a linear story
with a clear chain of cause and effect, one that is anchored by the journey
No Man an Island
of Nie Yinniang back to Weibo, then away from the Weibo court to save her
father, then back to Weibo again to save Huji, and finally leaving Weibo to
help her true friend, the Mirror Polisher, on another journey. This is not a
mere journey of an assassin on a mission, however. Hers is a journey into the
inner life of Tian Ji’an: she first sees him in a public setting with his advisors,
but she manages to penetrate Tian Ji’an’s most intimate setting when he
visits Huji — the woman he has true affection for — at night. Yet even here,
the divide between Tian’s political life and private life is blurred: he confides
with Huji about the exile of Tian Xing, and at that same time they discover
the jade pendant which is a reminder that another personal relationship has
been disrupted by political expediency. That pivotal moment motivates not
only Nie Yinniang’s journey to protect her own father, since she overhears
this, but also her return to save Huji, whom she comes to admire.
Despite being much more elliptical than the script, the completed film
is surprisingly linear for the most part. The only shifts in the story order
are the flashbacks of Princess Jiacheng’s zither playing, which takes place
when Nie Yinniang first returns home to her family after a thirteen-year
absence. But such a flashback is not so unusual even in a more conventional
film. So what is the “problem”? Why do so many viewers express total
bewilderment when watching this film for the first time? The answer lies
not in the lack of linearity per se, but in the extreme use of ellipses. Hou
claims that such elliptical obliqueness was not by design, but was the result
of having shot over 500,000 feet of film stock.48 The published script includes
sixty-eight scenes plus three introductory segments before the credits. The
finished film includes only forty-one of those scenes plus the three in the
pre-credit sequence, which are all in black and white. It is not entirely clear
how many of those sixty-eight scenes were shot. In any case, Hou deemed
nearly 40% of these scripted scenes unworthy of the finished product. In a
joint interview, Xie Haimeng describes two scenes that were shot and which
would have better explained character motives, including most of the Daoist
nun’s and why she sent Nie Yinniang to Weibo to assassinate her own cousin.
One of these scenes includes an argument between her and her twin sister
Princess Jiacheng over the best way to deal with a rebellious garrison like
Weibo. Princess Jiacheng argues that it can be controlled from within, and
she is able to do so while she is still alive. The nun, on the other hand, argues
that it is better to kill one man than to allow a thousand to die. Hou simply
says in the interview that these scenes were taken out because they were
no good.49
Given the difficulties in developing film stock to a certain standard in
the digital era, it is possible that some scenes simply failed to make the visual
grade. But if there is anything to be learned from this study, it is that Hou is a
director who loathes explaining much of anything. Even many of the scenes
included were heavily whittled down in terms of dialogue when compared
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
to the script. (This is especially true of scenes involving Nie Yinniang and her
father, or of the underlying political machinations discussed in the Weibo
court.) Hou is a cinematic sculptor-poet who whittles plot and narrative
down to something that hardly qualifies as the bare essentials: explanations
become mere whispered suggestions and hints; cause and effect give way
to cryptic poeticism; understanding surrenders to pure atmosphere. In this
way, a simple tale from the Tang era gives way to a most oblique cinematic
epic. Once more, basic understanding was sacrificed in the name of pure
Style and The Assassin: Mise-en-scène as Star
Some suggested that in the first edition of this book this author relied too
much on crass statistics. Yet it was never argued that numbers such as
“average shot lengths” and the “percentage of shots with camera movements”
tell us everything. It just so happens that shot durations and percentages are
one of the few things in cinema that are actually measurable. Still, statistics
such as these remain a blunt instrument, and sometimes they do not tell us
much at all. In the case of Hou Hsiao-hsien, while these numbers do not tell
us everything, they do reveal something. First, Hou was never a literalist
with either the long take or the static camera that he became so identified
with. Recently, one can find directors who uses long takes with much longer
durations than those in any of Hou’s films. For example, the German film
Victoria (2015) was shot in a single, uninterrupted two-hour-plus long-take
shot in the early morning hours in Berlin. Another German film, Stations of
the Cross (2014), shows an even greater dedication to the static long take than
Hou does in The Puppetmaster, since eleven of the fourteen shots are 100%
static. That notwithstanding, Hou’s pursuit of long takes does exhibit an
unusual trajectory not seen in any other career: up to 1993, the longer his
takes became, the more static they were as well. This merely demonstrates
the rarified path that Hou has taken as a director. Nevertheless, Hou recognizes limits to both the long take and the static camera; he has largely
dispensed with the latter since 1993, and he felt he reached the limit of the
former in 1998 with Flowers of Shanghai.
By Hou’s standards, the crude numbers for The Assassin are unremarkable. In just over 100 minutes there are 225 shots, which means an average of
“only” 27 seconds per shot, which is even less than Dust in the Wind in 1986.
Even if we take out all the action sequences covered in eighty of those shots
(most of which have camera movement as to be expected), the remaining
145 shots still average just under 40 seconds per shot, a figure just under
City of Sadness in 1989. Of those 145 non-action shots, 45% are completely
static or mostly static, a figure much lower than Hou’s films from the mid1980s to the early 1990s. This brings up a core point about Hou Hsiao-hsien:
No Man an Island
what truly makes him special as a director is not measurable; it is even difficult to analyze adequately. The only thing that the numbers tell us about
The Assassin is how little time in this wuxia film is spent on actual action.
In the classic wuxia films, action scenes can be interminable and continue for
several minutes. In The Assassin there are seven separate battles involving
Nie Yinniang; the combined action in those seven scenes barely fills out five
minutes and twenty seconds out of the entire film, which is only a few seconds
more than a single battle in King Hu’s Touch of Zen, the famed fight in the
bamboo grove.
Hou has repeatedly said that he is making a wuxia film that respects
“gravity.” While he adores King Hu, his true inspiration is the realism in
Japanese samurai films instead, not the fantastical antics that are usually
abetted by wire work.50 The action in this film, however little there is, is much
closer to samurai films than the classic wuxia films. The classic one-on-one
duels in samurai films are often based on a prolonged stasis, a quick burst
of action, followed by more stasis in the immediate aftermath. The brief
encounter between Nie Yinniang and Jing Jing Er in the woods is closest to
that model, but most of the fights are over rather quickly. The seven battles
in which Nie Yinniang engages are the most quickly edited sequences in
Hou’s entire career — when combined, they average about four seconds
per shot. They are also among the most “conventional” in Hou’s career.
These scenes include most of all the series of shot/reverse shot used in the
rooftop encounter between Nie Yinniang and Tian Ji’an. The total end result,
however, is anything but conventional — not as a film, not as a wuxia genre
piece, not even as a work by Hou Hsiao-hsien.
If the action itself is not the main feature of The Assassin, unlike the
typical wuxia film, then who or what is? Hou repeatedly suggests that what
he most likes to capture is people. Moreover, he sings praises to no end about
Shu Qi as the star of this particular film. Yet Shu Qi has but nine lines in the
entire film, a shockingly low number for an eponymous character. Shu Qi
herself said it best at the press conference in Cannes that Hou did not just
want to capture people on film, but also “clouds, wind, fire, water, and even
air,” all of which made it difficult for actors to know what he was after.51
In other words, for Hou it is not so much people that he is after, as people in
a particular milieu, existing in a certain environment. Thus, in this film it is
not people who are stars per se: mise-en-scène itself is the true star.
A question arises as to how much this mise-en-scène owes to traditional
Chinese painting, since Hou, Mark Lee, and Huang Wenying employed
exhaustive research and tried to find out what the Tang era looked like.
There are two opposing strains in traditional Chinese painting: the court
painters who used vibrant colors and rendered most human actions from
a particular angle, mostly in urban settings; and the scholarly painters who
used subdued colors and monochrome schemes of lonely hermits engaging
Updated Conclusion: Hou Hsiao-hsien and The Assassin
in Daoist refuge in nature itself. By contrast, the interiors in this film look
nothing like those court paintings of the past; the exteriors do not look like
anything that any painter — or cinematographer — has ever captured before.
In Hou’s films of the past, the landscapes, while beautiful, are all undeniably real. These particular landscapes are almost hyperreal, perhaps because
such remote landscapes have been rarely used before. To invoke Chinese
landscape painting is not misguided to be sure: Mark Lee talks about inspiration from a more recent landscape painter name Fu Baoshi (1904–1965) in
relation to this film.52 But inspiration by a painting tradition should not be
conflated with imitation. Yes, there are the cragged rocks, the mists, and the
human forms dwarfed by nature. But the most famous landscape shot in this
film comes at the end when Nie Yinniang returns to see the Daoist nun on the
top of a mountain. Remarkably towards the end of this long take, white mist
emerges from the mountain valley below. Lee reports that people think that
the crew just waited for such moments to occur and shoot. In truth, however,
they could not afford to wait; the shot was a fortuitous accident because
Hou tacitly trusted Lee to capture the right image.53
However, it is difficult to argue that the spectacular landscapes surpass
the interiors in The Assassin which, combined with the costumes, props, and
music, expose a deeper cultural undercurrent that neither the plot nor the
dialogue reveals. As was the case with Flowers of Shanghai, the role played
by the novelist Ah Cheng is of particular significance. He makes clear
that during the Tang there was a real cultural admixture between the Han
Chinese and the “Hu” (the non-Han people mostly from the north who
interacted and intermarried with the Han extensively). Therefore, there
were “Han-like Hu” and “Hu-like Han,” especially in an area such as Weibo
on the northern frontier.54 The Assassin seemingly relishes in such cultural
hybridity by placing it at the center. The most privileged scenes in the film
in terms of style all involve Tian Ji’an and Huji, his favorite concubine of
Hu origin. Two scenes involving this supposedly “minor” character are particularly unforgettable. The first occurs just before and after Tian’s rooftop
encounter with Nie Yinniang, both sections comprised of long takes of
roughly three minutes in duration. In the foreground are layers upon layers
of diaphanous veils that sometimes open up with the aid of soft winds, while
at other times the veils almost obscure our view of Tian and Huji. In addition,
these veils seemingly reflect some flickering candles nearby off-screen,
creating an otherworldly feel. Meanwhile Nie Yinniang herself is hidden in
yet more veils close by, at which point she leaves the jade pendant to make
Tian Ji’an aware of her identity. Equally unforgettable is the dance scene of
Huji and Tian Ji’an just before Huji is attacked by the spell of Kong Kong Er.
One of the few Hou scenes that ever required rehearsal, the dance and the
music by Lim Giong is decidedly exotic by current Chinese standards, since
it is much closer to Middle Eastern tones and rhythms than purely “Han
No Man an Island
Chinese.”55 Cultural purity surrenders to something much more interesting
and unexpected.
However different The Assassin is from any previous work by Hou and
his crew, in the end this film is quintessential Hou Hsiao-hsien. Instead of
following the familiar contours of “Grand” history of the greatest dynasty
in Chinese history, Hou explores the marginal, quotidian contours of that
history, privileging the most private moments of history that were never
recorded to begin with. The Assassin should rank as a monumental achievement on the part of Hou Hsiao-hsien, arguably one of the greatest in his
career; it certainly posed more challenges for him and yet everyone rose to
the occasion. This film is an additional chapter of Hou’s film career, in which
he looks at history, culture, and people from a perspective unlike any other.
While The Assassin warrants an updated conclusion in this book, in all likelihood this will not be the final word by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Perhaps future
films will necessitate further updating of this living study of one of the most
peculiar yet illustrious directorial careers in the history of world cinema.
The Assassin does not make definitive conclusions about Hou any easier.
In fact, the opposite is probably true. But that in itself is reassuring. If there
is anything to be said about Hou Hsiao-hsien, it is that he is a director of
endless surprises. No telling what he will think of next.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:07 GMT from JHU Libraries
春日在天涯,天涯日又斜,鶯啼如有淚,為濕最高花。“The sun on the horizon,
the horizon sun is oblique; the bird call is like a tear, the highest wet flower.”
Michael Berry (interviewer), and Tianwen Zhu (editor), Zhu hai shi guang《煮
海時光》: Hou Xiaoxian de guang ying ji yi [Boiling the sea: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s
memories of shadows and light] (Xinbei Shi: INK, 2014).
Godfrey Cheshire, “Time Span: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” Film Comment
vol. 29, no. 6 (November/December 1993): 56–62.
2. Jean-Michel Frodon, “On a Mango Tree in Feng-shan, Perceiving the Time
and Space around Him,” in Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 (Chinese Edition of French
Original by Cahiers du Cinéma) (Taipei: Chinese Film Archive, 2000): 22–25.
3. Jacques Pimpaneau, “The Light of Motion Pictures,” Cahiers (Chinese Edition):
4. James Udden, “Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Poetics of History,” Cinemascope 3
(Spring, 2000): 51.
5. Ni Zhen, “Classical Chinese Painting and Cinematographic Signification,”
Douglas Wilkerson, trans., in Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts
and Cinema of China and Japan, Linda Ehrlich and David Desser, eds. (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1994): 75.
6. Li Tuo, “Narratives of History in the Cinematography of Hou Xiaoxian,”
Positions 1:3 (1993): 805–14.
7. Meng Hungfeng 孟洪峰, “A Discussion of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Style,” in Passionate
Detachment: Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien 戲戀人生:侯孝賢電影研究, Lin Wenchi
林文淇, Shen Xiaoying 沈曉茵, Li Zhenya 李振亞, eds. (Taipei: Maitian, 2000):
8. J. Hoberman, “The Edge of the World,” Village Voice (July 14, 1987): 62.
9. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, “When Will Taiwan Keep Step with Taiwanese Cinema?”
Commonwealth Magazine 天下雜誌 (January 1, 2000): 123.
10. “First Annual ‘Village Voice’ Film Critics Poll,” Village Voice (January 4, 2000): 41.
11. Yeh Yueh-yu, “Politics and Poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Films,” Post Script
vol. 20, nos. 2 & 3 (Winter/Spring & Summer, 2001): 68.
Notes to pages 4–8
12. The best summary of this critical paradigm is still Roy Armes’s Third World Film
Making and the West, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
13. Yeh Yueh-yu 葉月瑜, “Taiwanese New Cinema: Nativism’s ‘Other’,” Chung-wai
Literary Monthly 中外文學 27: 8 (January, 1999): 60.
14. Wilt Idema and Lloyd Haft, A Guide to Chinese Literature (Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 1997): 85.
15. Idema and Haft feel that “Neo-Daoism” is a misleading term, and think it better
to call this a reworking of Confucianism that occurred with the now widespread
availability of the Daoist classic the Zhuangzi and the Yijing (better known as
the I-Ching, or “The Book of Changes”) (Idema and Haft, 26). Arthur F. Wright,
in his Buddhism in Chinese History, on the other hand, says Confucianism was
“utterly discredited” with the fall of the Han, and from AD 250 on Daoism was
the dominant philosophy. See Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (New York:
Atheneum, 1969): 17–24. Either way, it is clear that Confucianism had to make
radical adjustments to new historical conditions in order to eventually reassert
its ideological supremacy.
16. Wright, 67–70.
17. John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer and Albert Craig, East Asia: Tradition and
Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978): 149–50.
18. Arthur F. Wright says for this system to work it was imperative that these
scholars drew from more than just the writings of Confucius to develop a cosmic
system of relationships — human and otherwise — that formed an all-encompassing system by which one could rule (Wright, 11–15).
19. Craig Clunas, Art in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 136.
20. Patricia Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (Cambridge: University
of Cambridge Press, 1996): 89.
21. Ibid., 88.
22. Clunas, 54–56.
23. Li Zehou, The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics (Hong Kong: Oxford
University Press, 1994): 154.
24. Ibid., 142. And yet Li Bai does follow one very longstanding tradition in Chinese
art: an affinity to alcohol, even saying once, according to Du Fu, that he was
“a genius at wine.” (See ibid., 141.) It should be noted that Hou is an adept
perpetrator of this tradition as well, albeit he often adds the modern touch of
karaoke singing.
25. Ye Xie, “The Origins of Poetry,” in Readings in Chinese Literary Thought,
Stephen Owen, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992): 511.
26. Hsieh Ho, in Early Chinese Texts on Painting, Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, eds.
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985): 30.
27. Su Shih, in ibid., 224.
28. Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1997): 13–16.
29. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, in introduction to Passionate Detachment: 26; “Great
Changes in a Vast Ocean: Neither Tragedy nor Joy,” Performing Arts Journal
vol. 17, no. 50/51 (May/September, 1995): 52.
30. Peggy Chiao, interview by author, March 10, 2002, Middleton, Wisconsin.
31. Chu Tien-wen 朱天文, interview by author, June 2, 2001, Sogo Department Store
Coffee Shop, Taipei, Taiwan.
Notes to pages 8–18
32. Hou Hsiao-hsien, HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, prod. by Peggy Chiao and
Hsu Hsiao-ming, dir. by Olivier Assayas, 96 min., Arc Light Films, 1997.
33. Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢, interview by author, June 20, 2001, Sinomovie
Company Office, Taipei, Taiwan.
34. Abe Mark Nornes and Yeh Yueh-yu, A City of Sadness, website at http://
35. Yeh Yueh-yu and Darrell Davis, Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005): 133–76.
36. Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2006): 29–38.
37. David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2005): 186–237.
Chapter 1
Song Guangyu 宋光宇, ed. The Taiwan Experience 台灣經驗, 2 vols. (Taipei:
Tung Ta, 1994).
Chen Ruxiu 陳儒修, Taiwanese New Cinema’s History, Culture and Experience 台灣
新電影的歷史文化經驗, 2nd ed. (Taipei: Wanxiang, 1997).
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, revised ed. (New York: Verso, 1983,
Melissa J. Brown, Is Taiwan Chinese? (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2004): 2.
Ibid., 5; Denny Roy, Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
2003): 242–45.
Li Xiaofeng 李筱峰, The Hundred Biggest Incidents of Taiwanese History 台灣史
100 件大事, vol. 1 (Taipei: Yushan, 1999): 30–31.
Ibid., 39–45.
Roy, 18.
Li, 57.
Roy, 31.
Ibid., 20.
Li, 91.
Ibid., 94–96.
John Copper, Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 1997):
Xiao Xinyi 蕭欣義, “The Sudden Change of Sino-American Views of Taiwan’s
Status in the 1940’s,” in Collection of Studies on the 228 Incident 二二八事件研究
論文集, Zhang Yanxian 張炎憲, Chen Meirong 陳美蓉, Yang Yahui 楊雅慧, eds.
(hereafter cited as 228 Studies) (Taipei: Wu Sanlien Foundation, 1998): 293.
George H. Kerr, Formosa Betrayed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965): 25.
Ibid., 20.
What is even more remarkable is that Hou and Edward Yang were born the
same year in the same county in Guangdong province, a Hakka enclave.
Chu Tien-wen 朱天文, interview by author, June 2, 2001, Sogo Department Store
Coffee Shop, Taipei, Taiwan.
Li Qiao 李喬, “The Significance of 228 in the Taiwanese Psyche,” 228 Studies, 403.
Notes to pages 18–24
21. Li Xiaofeng, vol. 2, 35; Xu Jielin 許介鱗, The Post-War Historical Records of Taiwan
戰後台灣史記 (Taipei: Wenying Tang, 1996), vol. 2, 4.
22. Ibid., 57–59.
23. Xu, 15–16.
24. Ibid., 25.
25. Xiong Zijian 熊自健, “Post-War Taiwanese Liberalism and the Thought of
Hayek,” in The Taiwan Experience, vol. 2, 27–65.
26. Li Xiaofeng, vol. 2, 91–92.
27. Chen Zhongxin 陳忠信, recorded in Violence and Song: The Kaohsiung Incident
and the Formosa Judgment 暴力與詩歌:高雄事件與美麗島他大審, Part 3 of the
Oral History of the Formosa Incident 珍藏美麗島口述史 (Taipei: Times Publishing,
1999): 98.
28. Copper, 115.
29. Shi Mingxiung 施敏雄 and Li Yungsan 李庸三, “The Directions and Structural
Changes of Taiwan’s Industrial Development,” in A Collection of Treatises on
Taiwan’s Industrial Development 台灣工業發展論文集, Ma Kai 馬凱, ed. (hereafter
cited as Industrial Development) (Taipei: Lianjing, 1994): 3.
30. Yu Tzong-shian, The Story of Taiwan: Economy (Taipei: Government Information
Office, 1999): 8.
31. Copper, 139.
32. Li Xiaofeng, vol. 2, 31–34; Xu, vol. 2, 95–98.
33. Xu, 118.
34. Shi and Li, 22, 24.
35. Copper, 122.
36. Ma Kai, “The Evolution of Taiwan’s Industrial Policies,” in Industrial Development,
37. Copper, 135.
38. Chen Zhengxun 陳正順, “Import-Substitution Industrialization: Discussion of
Conclusions and Research of Taiwan’s Situation,” Industrial Development, 84–85.
39. Copper, 126–27.
40. Ma, 147.
41. Lin Zonggang 林宗光, “The Taiwanese Identity Problem and 228,” in 228 Studies,
42. Xu, vol. 2, 69–71.
43. Li Xiaofeng, vol. 2, 14–15. Of course, the government did allow the Taiwanese
dialect films to be made, which may seem surprising. The fact is, the Mandarin
education was the cornerstone of the government’s attempt to suppress the
Taiwanese dialect. It was not at all averse in the meantime to using Taiwanese
for propaganda purposes as it knew many were already out of school and would
not learn Mandarin well. So long as the films did not violate any political taboos,
these films could still use Taiwanese as the chief language.
44. Liu Xiancheng 劉現成, Taiwanese Cinema, Society and State 台灣電影:社會與國家
(Taipei: Yangzhi, 1997): 34–36.
45. Ibid., 37; Lu Feiyi 盧非易, Taiwanese Cinema: Politics, Economics, Aesthetics (1949–
1994) 台灣電影:政治,經濟,美學,1949–1994 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998): 69–71.
46. Liu, 38.
47. Li Minghui 李明輝, “Confucianism and Kant in the Thought of Mo Zongsan,”
in The Taiwan Experience, vol. 2, 91–97.
Notes to pages 24–27
48. Jiang Nianfeng 蔣年豐, “The Existentialist Wave in the Post-War Taiwan
Experience: Sartre at the Center,” in The Taiwan Experience, vol. 2, 1.
49. Ibid., 2.
50. Chang Sung-sheng, Yvonne, Modernism and the Nativist Resistance: Contemporary
Chinese Fiction from Taiwan (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993): 12.
51. Ibid., 100.
52. Xu, vol. 2, 64–65.
53. Wang Jing, “Taiwan’s Hsiang-tu Literature: Perspectives in the Evolution of a
Literary Movement,” Chinese Fiction from Taiwan: Critical Perspectives, Jeannette L.
Faurot, ed. (hereafter Fiction from Taiwan) (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1980): 61–62.
54. Chang Shi-kuo, “Realism in Taiwan Fiction: Two Directions,” in Fiction from
Taiwan, 31.
55. Wu Mingren, “From Worship of the West to a Popular Consciousness,”
A Collection of Discussions about Nativist Literature 鄉土文學討論集, Yu Tianzong
尉天驄, ed. (hereafter Nativist Discussions) (Taipei: Yuanliu & Zhangqiao, 1978):
56. Wang Fan 汪帆, “Speaking of Modern People and Modernization,” in Nativist
Discussions, 37.
57. Jiang Xun 蔣勳, “To Irrigate a Cultural Flowering,” in Nativist Discussions, 49.
58. Chen Yingzhen 陳映真, “Literature Both Reflects and Comes from Society,”
in Nativist Discussions, 64.
59. Li Zhuo 李拙, “Directions of the Development of Twentieth Century Taiwanese
Literature,” in Nativist Discussions, 126.
60. Zhang Zhongdong 張忠棟, “Native Soil, the People, and Strengthening Oneself,”
in Nativist Discussions, 496.
61. Peng Xiaoyan 彭小妍, “The Nativist Debate in 1970’s Taiwan,” in The Taiwan
Experience, vol. 2, 68–69.
62. Xiang Yang 向陽, “Opening the Map to Consciousness: A Look Back at
Post-War Taiwanese Literary and Broadcast Media Movements,” in Discussions
of Contemporary Taiwanese Political Literature 當代台灣政治文學論, Zheng Mingli
鄭明娳, ed. (Taipei: Times Publishing, 1994): 88.
63. Song Guangyu 宋光宇, “A Discussion of the Development of Religion in Taiwan
over the Last Forty Years,” in The Taiwan Experience, vol. 2, 194.
64. Ibid., 200.
65. Ibid., 175.
66. Ibid., 184.
67. Hsiao, Hsin-huang Michael, “Coexistence and Synthesis: Cultural Globalization
and Localization in Contemporary Taiwan,” in Many Globalizations: Cultural
Diversity in the Contemporary World, Peter Berger, Samuel Huntington, eds.
(London: Oxford University Press, 2002): 63.
68. Sung, 188–89.
69. Brown, 239.
70. I owe these insights not to myself, but to fellow Fulbright scholar Sansan Kwan,
who was doing research for her dissertation on Cloud Gate the same year I was
doing research on Hou Hsiao-hsien. Many thanks to her for introducing me
to a key component in the Taiwanese cultural puzzle. Any naive or ignorant
comments here about modern dance and Cloud Gate found here are totally
my own.
Notes to pages 27–35
71. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, interview by author, March 10, 2002, Middleton, Wisconsin.
72. Li Tianduo 李天鐸, Taiwanese Cinema, Society and History 台灣電影:社會與歷史
(Taipei: Yatai, 1997): 42–45.
73. Ibid., 60–61.
74. Ibid., 106; Lu, 35–37.
75. Huang Ren 黃仁, The Film Era of Union 聯邦電影時代 (hereafter cited as Union)
(Taipei: National Film Archives, 2001): 35–36.
76. Li Tianduo, 109; Lu, 64–66.
77. Lin Zanting 林贊庭, Cinematography in Taiwan 1945–1970: History and
Technical Development 台灣電影攝影技術發展概述 1945–1970 (Taipei: Cultural
Development Office, 2003): 37.
78. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, Generational Reflections 時代顯影 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998):
79. Li Yongchuan 李泳泉, Taiwanese Cinema: An Illustrated History 台灣電影閱覽
(Taipei: Yushan, 1998): 17.
80. Huang Ren 黃仁, Film and Government Propaganda 電影與政治宣傳 (hereafter
cited as Government Propaganda) (Taipei: Wanxiang, 1994): 27.
81. Ibid., 8.
82. Ibid., 9.
83. Lu, 155.
84. Ibid., 163.
85. Liang Liang 梁良, Studies on the Three Chinese Cinemas 論兩岸三地電影 (Taipei:
Maolin, 1998): 133–34.
86. Lu, 76; Liang, 135.
87. Lu, 206.
88. Huang Zhuohan 黃卓漢, A Life in Cinema: Recollections by Huang Zhuohan 電影
人生:黃卓漢回憶錄 (Taipei: Wanxiang, 1994): 85–86.
89. Huang Ren, Union, 37–38; Lu, 77.
90. Lu, 79.
91. Ibid., 80.
92. Lin, 93.
93. Quoted in Wu Ling-chu (Sharon Wu), “Director Hsin Chi and the Golden Age
of Taiwanese Cinema,” Sinorama (February, 2001): 87–88.
94. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, Five Years That Changed History: A Study of the Grand Studio
改變歷史的五年:國聯電影研究 (hereafter cited as Grand) (Taipei: Wanxiang,
1993): 16–18.
95. Li Tianduo, 117.
96. Chiao, Grand, 18–19; Huang Ren, Union, 32; Liang, 19.
97. Lu, 120.
98. Huang Zhuohan, 121–22.
99. Chiao, Grand, 117–18.
100. Ibid., 57–59.
101. Huang Zhuohan, 154.
102. Liu Chenghan 劉成漢, Dianying fubixing ji 電影賦比興集 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1992):
275. Liu notes that the 1976 International Film Guide grouped Hong Kong and
Taiwan together.
103. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: BFI Publishing,
104. Lu, 113–14.
Notes to pages 35–47
105. Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢, interview by author, June 20, 2001, Sinomovie
Company Office, Taipei, Taiwan.
106. Ibid.
107. Ibid.
108. The title in Chinese literally translates as Intersection. From Hou’s own description of this film, it sounds like a British “Kitchen Sink” film. Nevertheless, Hou
has even discussed this with Tony Rayns and neither can figure out exactly
which film this is. (Interview with author, 2001.)
109. Hou, interview by author; Hou, interview by Emmanuel Burdeau in Hou
Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 (Chinese Edition of French Original by Cahiers du Cinéma)
(Taipei: Chinese Film Archive, 2000): 85.
110. Hou, interview by author; Burdeau, 85.
111. Ibid., 86.
112. Ibid., 89.
113. Lu, appendix 2a.
114. Ibid., 196–98.
115. Ibid., appendix 12.
116. Ibid., 137, 139.
117. Ibid., 189.
118. Ibid., 131.
119. Li Tianduo, 150–53.
120. Lu, 134.
121. Huang Ren, Government Propaganda, 176–77.
122. Ibid., 169.
123. Li Tianduo, 185.
124. Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, 2nd edition (London:
Starword, 1992): 265–66.
125. Ibid., 283. Salt, however, divides this up chronologically in a different manner
than I do here. From 1970 to 1975 he finds an average ASL of 7.0 for American
films, whereas from 1976–1981 it jumped up to 8.4 seconds.
126. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000): 129–31.
127. Hou, interview by author.
128. Ibid.
129. Edmond Wong 黃建業, In Search of Humanist Films 人文電影的追尋 (Taipei:
Yuanliu, 1990): 61.
130. Hou, interview by Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 55, no. 653: 163–64.
131. Unfortunately the other three Chen films from this period are not currently
available in Taiwan, so these conclusions are tentative at best.
132. Hou, interview by author.
133. Kang Tianyi 康典穎, in Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1983 中華民國
七十二年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1983): 12.
134. Hou, interview by author.
135. Hou, interview by Rayns, 163–64.
136. Hou, interview by author.
137. Zhan Hongzhi 詹宏志, “The Past and Future of the New Cinema,” in
Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, ed., The New Taiwanese Cinema 台灣新電影 (Taipei: China
Times Publications, 1988): 29.
138. Edmond Wong 黃建業, “A Look Back at the Cinema of 1983,” in Chen, 55.
Notes to pages 47–52
139. Zhan, 38.
140. Chu Tien-wen 朱天文 and Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, Dust in the Wind (Taipei: Yuanliu,
1992): 43.
Chapter 2
Yeh Yueh-yu and Darrell Davis, Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005): 7. This book provides an excellent overview of many directors and films not covered in this study, both
before, during and after the New Cinema, making it a must read.
Li Xiaofeng 李筱峰, The Hundred Biggest Incidents of Taiwanese History 台灣史
100 件大事, vol. 2 (Taipei, Yushan, 1999): 114–16.
Lin Bowen 林博文, “After the Death of a Professor,” in The Wild 80’s 狂飆八○,
Yang Ze 楊澤, ed. (Taipei: Times Publishing, 1999): 218; Xu Jielin 許介鱗, The
Post-War Historical Records of Taiwan 戰後台灣史記, vol. 3 (Taipei: Wenying Tang,
1996): 61.
Li, 125–27.
Ibid., 128–30.
Qi Gaoru 漆高儒, A Critical Biography of Chiang Ching-kuo 蔣經國評傳:我是台灣
人 (Taipei: Zhengzhong, 1997): 244.
Li Minghui 李明輝, “Confucianism and Kant in the Thought of Mo Zongsan,”
in The Taiwan Experience 台灣經驗, vol. 2, Song Guangyu 宋光宇, ed. (Taipei:
Tung Ta, 1994), 120.
Lin Yaode 林燿德, “Political Paths in the Labyrinth of the Novels: The Meaning
of 1980’s Taiwanese Political Novels and Related Issues,” in Discussions of
Contemporary Taiwanese Political Literature 當代台灣政治文學論, Zheng Mingli
鄭明娳, ed. (Taipei: Times Publishing, 1994): 163–79.
Chen Fanming 陳芳明, “Post-Modern or Post-Colonial?” in Writing Taiwan 書寫
台灣, Zhou Yingxiong 周英雄, Liu Jihui 劉紀蕙, eds. (Taipei: Maitian, 2000): 57.
Xu Shunying 許舜英, “From a Raven Tribe to a Generation of the Norway
Forest,” in The Wild 80’s, 97.
Ouyang Xuilei 歐陽水雷, “A Musical Pioneer — Luo Dalo,” in The Wild 80’s,
Lin Manhong 林滿紅, “Taiwanese Capital and Economic Relations across the
Straits, 1895–1945,” in The Taiwan Experience, vol. 1: 67.
Zhan Hongzhi 詹宏志, “The World Has Only One Taiwan,” China Times 中國
時報, Saturday, February 17, 2001: 23.
Lu Feiyi 盧非易, Taiwanese Cinema: Politics, Economics, Aesthetics (1949–1994)
台灣電影:政治,經濟,美學,1949–1994 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998): 127–28.
Zhou Botang 卓伯棠, “Discussion of Chinese Films,” Influence 影響, #2 (February,
1972): 38–45.
Huang Chunming 黃春明, “Discussion of Execution of Autumn,” Influence 影響,
#3 (June, 1972): 61.
Dan Hanchang 但漢章, “Discussion of Execution in Autumn,” Influence 影響,
#3 (June, 1972): 54–55.
“Review of Story of a Small Town,” Influence 影響, #23 (April, 1979): 56.
Dan, 51.
Edmond Wong 黃建業, interview by author, May 3, 2001, Taipei, Taiwan.
Notes to pages 52–59
21. Wu Qiyan 吳其諺, Memories of Underdevelopment 低度開發的回憶 (Taipei:
Tangshan, 1993): 20–21; Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, interview by author, March 10,
2002, Middleton, Wisconsin. Chiao says that it was not possible to control some
of these writers, and the “Cinema Plaza” was soon closed down after a short
period of existence.
22. Chiao, interview by author.
23. Lu, appendix 11a.
24. Ibid., 249.
25. Ibid., 238.
26. Ibid., 236.
27. Ibid., 245.
28. Xiao Ye 小野, The Beginning of a Movement 一個運動的開始 (Taipei: Shibao, 1990):
29. Minsheng Daily 民生報, July 22, 1980 and July 23, 1980.
30. Lu, 257–60.
31. James Soong 宋楚喻, “A Letter from James Soong,” True Beauty Movie Magazine
真善美電影雜誌 (July, 1981): 2–3.
32. Chen Ruxiu 陳儒修, Taiwanese New Cinema’s History, Culture and Experience 台灣
新電影的歷史文化經驗, 2nd ed. (Taipei: Wanxiang, 1997): 38.
33. Xiao Ye, 99–100.
34. Ibid., 104.
35. Ibid., 190.
36. Liang Liang 梁良, “Factors That Influence a Film’s Box Office,” Film Appreciation
電影欣賞, vol. 3, no. 2 (March, 1985): 23.
37. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, in The New Taiwanese Cinema 台灣新電影, Chiao, ed. (Taipei:
China Times Publications, 1988): 81; Lu, 310–11.
38. Wong, interview by author.
39. Chiao, interview by author.
40. Wu, 19–20.
41. Minsheng Daily 民生報, August 25, 1983.
42. Xiao Ye, 146–48.
43. Hou Hsiao-hsien, interview by Emmanuel Burdeau in Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢
(Chinese Edition of French Original by Cahiers du Cinéma) (Taipei: Chinese
Film Archive, 2000): 104; Hou, interview by author June 20, 2001, Sinomovie
Company Office, Taipei, Taiwan.
44. Hou, interview by author.
45. Chu Tien-wen 朱天文 and Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, Dust in the Wind 戀戀風塵,
new ed. (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1992): 36; Hou, interview by Burdeau, 101.
46. Chu, interview by author, June 2, 2001, Sogo Department Store Coffee Shop,
Taipei, Taiwan.
47. Hou, interview by Burdeau, 106.
48. Yeh and Davis, 152–53.
49. Chu, interview by author.
50. Yeh and Davis, 157–62.
51. David Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She,
Shen Congwen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992): 202.
52. Jeff Kinkley, The Odyssey of Shen Congwen (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1987): 147.
53. Ibid., 23.
Notes to pages 60–73
Ibid., 137.
Ibid., 166.
Ibid., 146.
Ibid., 74.
Zhang Liangbei 張靚蓓, “Before City of Sadness: A Talk with Hou Xiaoxien,” The
Journal of Beijing Film Academy 北京電影學院學報, vol. 13, no. 2 (1990): 69.
Shen Congwen 沈從文, Autobiography of Shen Congwen 沈從文自傳 (Taipei:
Lianhe Wenxue, 1987): 57–58.
Wang, 225.
Chu, interview by author; Hou, interview by author.
Yeh and Davis, 58.
These production companies are taken from the credits from the films themselves as seen in the Taipei Film Archives. The credits for films in Taiwan have
not always been compiled in a systematic manner, making these credits the best
source. There may be some discrepancies with other scattered sources of information, but it seems reasonably sure that the above are a representative sample
of the various production companies involved.
Xiao Ye, 137.
Jian Sucheng 簡素琤, “Between Words and Images: From the Nostalgic Childhood
Memories of Chu Tien-wen’s An-An’s Vacation to Transcendental Awareness of
the Soil in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Summer at Grandpa’s,” Film Appreciation 電影欣賞,
103 (Spring, 2000): 95.
Li Tianduo 李天鐸, Chen Beizhi 陳蓓芝, “A Sociological Investigation into the
Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s,” Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, (46) vol. 8,
no. 4 (July, 1990): 75.
Hou, interview by author.
Hou, interview by Burdeau, 99.
This was in those days a rite of passage for some youths in Taiwan. If a young
boy or man lost his virginity to a prostitute, he did not have to pay her. Instead,
she often paid him a token sum.
Du Duzhi 杜篤之, interview by Li Weiguo 李維國, Film Appreciation 電影欣賞,
(#99) vol. 17, no. 3 (May/June, 1999): 70.
Hou, interview by author.
Minsheng Daily 民生報, August 29, 1984.
Central Daily News 中央日報, October 20, 1985.
Zhang Changyen 張昌彥, “The Beginning of the New Cinema and Its
Development,” in Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1986 中華民國七十
五年電影年鑑 (hereafter cited as 1986 Yearbook) (Taipei: National Film Archives,
1986): 42.
Liang Liang 梁良, “Do Conservative Films Offer a More Certain Box Office?”
Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, vol. 3, no. 6 (November, 1985): 42–43.
Liu Chenghan 劉成漢, Dianying fubixing ji 電影賦比興集 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1992):
Chiao, interview by author.
Hou, interview by Peggy Chiao, 1986 Yearbook, 8.
Zheng Huipin 鄭慧蘋, “Hou Hsiao-hsien Returns Home: A Time to Live, a Time to
Die,” 400 Blows 四百季, #4 (June, 1985): 16.
Mark Lee 李屏賓, roundtable discussion, Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, no. 26
(March, 1987): 9.
Notes to pages 73–84
81. Hou, interview by Chiao, 9.
82. Ibid.
83. Huang Suqiu 黃素秋, “Behind A Time to Live, A Time to Die,” 400 Blows 四百季, #7
(October, 1985): 58–59.
84. Hou, interview by Burdeau, 100.
85. 1987 Film Yearbook 中華民國七十六年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives,
1987): 4.
86. Wu Chia-chi, “Festivals, Criticism and the International Reputation of Taiwan
New Cinema,” Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts, Darrell
William Davis, Ru-shou Robert Chen, eds. (London and New York: Routledge
Press, 2007): 77–78.
87. Ibid., 80.
88. Ibid., 79.
89. Edward Yang 楊德昌, “We are Lonely Runners on a Marathon,” Long Take 長拍鏡
頭, #3 (October, 1987): 17–19.
90. Xiao Ye, 194.
91. Wu Chia-chi, 80.
92. Chu Tien-wen, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Choice,” in Chu and Wu, Dust, 15–22.
93. Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, “Hou Hsiao-hsien meets Akira Kurosawa,” Generational
Reflections 時代顯影 (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998): 209.
94. Hou, interview by author.
95. Lee, 9.
96. Chu and Wu, Dust, 161–63.
97. Wu Zhenghuan 吳正桓, “Dust in the Wind,” Cinema in the Republic of China
Yearbook, 1987 中華民國七十六年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1987):
98. Charles Tesson, “Dust in the Wind,” Hou Hsiao-hsien, 174.
99. See, “Can’t Stand Direct Narration,” in Chu and Wu, Dust, 35–41.
100. “1987 Statement on Taiwanese Film,” Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook,
1988 中華民國七十七年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1988): 37–38.
101. Hou, interview by author.
102. Lei Bu Pa 雷不怕, “Watching Allies Become Foes,” Death of a New Cinema 新電影
之死, Mi Zo 迷走, Liang Xinhua 梁新華, eds. (Taipei: Tangshan, 1991): 48–50.
103. Huang Ren 黃仁, “A Report on Distribution,” Cinema in the Republic of China
Yearbook, 1984 中華民國七十三年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1984):
104. Lu, 296.
105. Bai Luo 白羅, “Should Film Become a Strategic Industry?” Cinema in the Republic
of China Yearbook, 1989 中華民國七十八年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film
Archives, 1989): 187–88.
106. Dai Lizhong, “This Year Was Edward Yang’s ‘Year of Triumph,’” 1988 Yearbook, 5.
107. Zhan Hongzhi 詹宏志, “On the Film Cooperative,” Long Take 長拍鏡頭, #9 (April,
1988): 23–27; Liao Jingui 寥錦桂, “This Is How He Got This Movie Made,”
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1990 中華民國七十久年電影年鑑 (Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1990): 30–31.
108. “A Time to Live, A Time to Die’s Television Rights Sell at a High Price in West
Germany,” 1989 Yearbook, 142.
109. Hou, interview by author.
Notes to pages 85–92
110. Alvin Lu, “Hou and Pop! Daughter of the Nile,” Cinemascope, 3 (Spring, 2000):
111. Independent Evening News 自立晚報, July 29, 1987; United Daily News 聯合報,
July 30, 1987.
112. Chen Ruxiu, 47–52.
Chapter 3
Denny Roy, Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca and London: Cornell University
Press, 2003): 20–21.
Melissa Brown, Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on
Changing Identities (Berkeley: California University Press, 2004): 43.
Ibid., 8.
Roy, 42.
Li Xiaofeng 李筱峰, The Hundred Biggest Incidents of Taiwanese History 台灣史
100 件大事, vol. 1 (Taipei: Yushan, 1999): 113–14.
Ibid., 127.
Ibid., 115–17.
Xu Jielin 許介鱗, The Post-War Historical Records of Taiwan 戰後台灣史記, vol. 1
(Taipei: Wenying, 1997): 1–3.
Ibid., 16–17.
Told by Li Weiguang 李偉光 in “Taiwan: A Tragic History,” (March 16, 1947),
New Historical Images of 228: Recently Unearthed Literature, Poems, Reports
and Critiques of the Incident 新二二八史像最新出土事件小說,詩,報導,評論,
Zeng Jianmin 曾建民, ed. (hereafter cited as New 228) (Taipei: Taiwan Social
Sciences, 2003): 306.
Zeng Jianmin 曾建民, “ For a Progressive Memorial,” in New 228, 8.
Ibid., 13–15.
Xiao Tie 蕭鐵, “Being in the Midst of the 228 Incident,” in The Truth about 228
二二八真相, Wang Xiaobo 王曉波, ed. (hereafter cited as 228 Truth) (Cross-Straits
Academic Publications, 2003): 75.
Zhi Zhi 致知, “Causes of Taiwanese ‘Riots,’” in New 228, 209.
Li Chunqing 李純青, “The Stone Ball in the Stone Lion: In Remembrance of the
Second Anniversary of the 228 Incident,” in New 228, 389.
Report on the 228 Incident 二二八事件研究報告, Lai Zohan 賴澤涵, chief ed. (hereafter cited as 228 Report) (Taipei: Times Publishing, 1994): 3–4.
Wang Xiaobo 王曉波, 228 Truth, 8.
George Kerr, Formosa Betrayed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965): 55.
228 Report, 20.
Chen Cuilian 陳翠蓮, “The Contractions between the Economies of Greater China
and Lesser Taiwan,” in Collection of Studies on the 228 Incident 二二八事件研究論
文集, Zhang Yenxian 張炎憲, Chen Meirong 陳美蓉, Yang Yahui 楊雅慧, eds.
(Taipei: Wu Sanlien Foundation, 1998): 57–58.
228 Report, 101.
Chen, 67.
Wang, 10.
New 228, 180.
Notes to pages 92–97
25. Lin Manhong 林滿紅, “Taiwanese Capital and Cross-Straits Trade (1895–1945),”
in The Taiwan Experience 台灣經驗, vol. 1, Song Guangyu 宋光宇, ed. (Taipei:
Tung Ta, 1994): 137.
26. He Hanwen 何漢文, “Preconditions for Taiwan’s 228 Incident,” in Collection
of Historical Materials for the 228 Incident 二二八事件資料集, Deng Kongzhao
鄧孔昭, ed. (hereafter cited as 228 Historical Materials) (Taipei-Banqiao: Daoxiang,
1991): 10.
27. Ibid., 16–18.
28. Ibid., 7–8.
29. Xu, 77.
30. He, 14.
31. 228 Report, 9.
32. New 228, 177–78.
33. Ibid., 304.
34. Wu Jingfu 吳敬敷, “Execute Chen Yi — Save Taiwan!” in 228 Truth, 148.
35. 228 Report, 54.
36. Kerr, 270.
37. 228 Report, 67–71; “A Statement by the Committee to Clarify the True Nature
of the Incident for Broadcast Networks in China and Abroad,” March 7, 1947,
in 228 Historical Materials, 271–77.
38. 228 Report, 71–72; Yi Shusheng 一書生, “How Taiwanese Speak of Taiwan,”
in 228 Truth, 267.
39. Tang Xianlong 唐賢龍, “An Inside Record of the Taiwan Incident,” in 228
Historical Materials, 94–95.
40. Xu, 88–89.
41. Kerr, 300–301.
42. Tang, 97–98.
43. 228 Report, 117–20.
44. Ibid., 222.
45. Qiu Niantai 丘念台, “My Sense of Shame Due to the 228 Incident,” in 228 Truth,
46. 228 Report, 263.
47. Ibid., 315.
48. Roy, n. 35, 73.
49. Liao Jingui 寥錦桂, “How He Shot This Film,” Cinema in the Republic of China
Yearbook, 1990 中華民國七十久年電影年鑑 (hereafter 1990 Yearbook) (Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1990): 30.
50. Hou, quoted in interview with Michael Berry, Speaking in Images: Interviews with
Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):
51. Liao, 31.
52. Ibid., 32.
53. Minsheng Daily 民生報, September 6, 1989.
54. Independent Evening News 自立晚報, September 12, 1989.
55. Chu Ming-jen, Minsheng Daily 民生報, September 7, 1989.
56. United Daily News 聯合報, September 16, 1989; China Times 中國時報,
September 16, 1989.
57. Huang Ren, Minsheng Daily 民生報, January 4, 1989.
58. United Daily News 聯合報, August 23, 1989.
Notes to pages 97–103
59. Independent Morning News 自立早報, September 1, 1989.
60. United Daily News 聯合報, September 11, 1989.
61. Weng Wenjing 翁文靜, “The Bayonet Is Mightier Than the Scissors,” The Journalist
新新文 (September 18–24, 1989): 77.
62. Independent Evening News 自立晚報, September 17, 1989.
63. Weng, 78.
64. China Evening Times 中國晚報, September 23, 1989.
65. Independent Morning News 自立早報, October 22, 1989.
66. United Daily News 聯合報, November 1, 1989.
67. Yeh Hua, “General Situation for 1989 Distribution of Guopian,” in 1990 Yearbook,
68. “Hou Hsiao-hsien,” Current Biography, vol. 60, no. 7 (July, 1999): 34.
69. Minsheng Daily 民生報, December 12, 1989; United Daily News 聯合報,
December 12, 1989.
70. Capital Morning News 首都早報, December 12, 1989.
71. China Evening Times 中國晚報, December 10, 1989; Independent Morning News
自立早報, December 13, 1989.
72. Independent Morning News 自立早報, October 19, 1989.
73. Hao Bocun 郝柏村, A Diary of Eight Years as Chief of Staff 八年參謀總長日記
(Taipei: Tianxia, 2000): 1523.
74. Mi Zo 迷走, “The Critical Fog Surrounding City of Sadness,” in Death of a New
Cinema 新電影之死, Mi Zo 迷走, Liang Xinhua 梁新華, eds. (Taipei: Tangshan,
1991): 110.
75. Capital Morning News 首都早報, December 25, 1989.
76. Chen Wen 陳文, “A Contemporary Call to Arms,” in Death of a New Cinema,
38; Lei Bu Pa 雷不怕, “Looking at a Friend Becoming a Ghost,” in Death of New
Cinema, 47–52; Chen Chuanxing 陳傳興, “A Ventriloquist’s National Anthem,”
in Death of a New Cinema, 68–70.
77. Wu Qiyan 吳其諺, “A Record of the City of Sadness Phenomenon,” in ibid., 83–87.
78. Wu, “Penetrating That Narrow Gap of History,” in ibid., 128.
79. Liao Binghui 廖炳惠, “A Deaf and Dumb Photographer,” in ibid., 130.
80. June Yip, Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema and the Nation in the Cultural
Imaginary (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004): 91.
81. Ibid., 99.
82. Rosemary Hadden, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness: History and the Dialogic
Female Voice,” Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Chris Berry and
Feii Lu, eds. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005): 63.
83. Lin Wenchi 林文淇, “‘Returning,’ ‘Motherland,’ ‘228’: Taiwanese History and
National Attributes in City of Sadness,” in Passionate Detachment: The Films of
Hou Hsiao-hsien 戲戀人生:侯孝賢電影研究, Lin Wenchi 林文淇, Shen Xiaoying
沈曉茵, Jerome Zhenya Lim 李振亞, eds. (Taipei: Maitian, 2000): 157–79.
84. Yeh Yueh-yu 葉月瑜, “Do Women Really Have No Way of Entering History?:
Another Reading of City of Sadness,” in ibid., 200.
85. Kent Jones, “Expecting to Fly: A City of Sadness,” Cinemascope, 3 (Spring, 2000):
86. Jin Hengwei 金恒煒, “City of Sadness: 228,” quoted from roundtable discussion
in 1990 Yearbook, 22–23.
87. Liao Jinkui 廖錦桂, “A Sad City, A Happy Golden Lion,” 1990 Yearbook, 9.
Notes to pages 103–115
88. Robert A. Rosenstone, “The Historical Film: Looking at the Past in a Postliterate
Age,” in Marcia Landy, ed., The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media
(New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000): 50–66.
89. Li Tuo, “Narratives of History in the Cinematography of Hou Xizoxian,”
Positions, 1:3 (1993): 814.
90. Chu Tien-wen 朱天文 and Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, City of Sadness 悲情城市 (Taipei:
Yuanliu, 1989): 83–198.
91. Surprisingly, these numbers are a higher percentage than Dust in the Wind,
which had movements in less than 20% of its shots, as we saw in the last chapter,
and the main reason is because on the whole the camera is slightly closer in City
of Sadness than in Dust in the Wind.
92. Tony Rayns, “Beiqing Chengshi (A City of Sadness),” Monthly Film Bulletin,
vol. 57, no. 677 (June, 1990): 154.
93. Hou, quoted in Law Kar, “Director’s Note [Daughter of the Nile],” in The 12th
Hong Kong International Film Festival (Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1988): 92.
94. Georgia Brown, “Island in the Mainstream,” Village Voice (April 25, 1989): 66.
95. David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2005): 213.
96. Ibid., 225–27.
97. Ibid., 186–87.
98. Mi Zo 迷走, “Are Women Unable to Enter History?” in Death of a New Cinema,
99. Berenice Reynaud, A City of Sadness (London: BFI, 2002): 83.
100. K. C. Chang, introduction to Food in Chinese Culture, K. C. Chang, ed. (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1977): 11.
101. E. N. Anderson, The Food of China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988): 199.
102. Richard W. Hartzell, Harmony in Conflict: Active Adaptation in Present-Day
Chinese Society (Taipei: Caves Books, 1988): 12–13.
103. Hou, interview by author.
104. Once again, David Bordwell is the only scholar to have really tackled such issues
that most have overlooked. In his lengthy final chapter on staging in depth in his
On the History of Film Style, he discusses a large number of strategies that can be
used to direct attention and create a sense of depth, some of which Hou is using
here (brightness, centrality, frontality and increasing size). Bordwell shows how
this is a phenomenon to be found in a variety of cultural contexts, practices
dictated largely by the medium itself and mechanisms of human perception. See
David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1997): 158–271.
105. Hou, interview by author.
106. Xie Jinrong 謝金蓉, “Interview with Xu Xiaoming, Director of Dust of Angels,”
The Journalist 新新文, #19 (June 19, 1992): 20.
107. Roy, 193.
108. Edmond Wong 黃建業, “Youth of a Chaotic Generation, Statues of Dust” in
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1993 中華民國八十二年電影年鑑 (Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1993): 13.
109. Wong, “A Look at the Future of Taiwanese Films from the Perspective of City of
Sadness,” 1990 Yearbook, 4.
Notes to pages 115–118
110. Huang Yingfen 黃櫻棻, “After the Mobile, Long Take: A Debate on the Aesthetic
Tendencies in Contemporary Taiwanese Cinema,” in Contemporary 當代, #116
(December, 1995): 78–83.
111. Lu Feiyi 盧非易, Taiwanese Cinema: Politics, Economics, Aesthetics (1949–1994)
台灣電影:政治,經濟,美學,1949–1994 (Taipei, Yuanliu, 1998): appendix 3,
chart a.
112. Huang Shikai 黃詩凱, “A Study on the Concentration Ratio of Taiwan’s Film
Market in the 1990s,” in Communication and Management Research 傳播與管理
研究, vol. 2, no. 2 (January, 2003): 161.
113. Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢, quoted in roundtable discussion, “Literary Film,
Film Literature,” Xu Xiuling 徐秀玲, ed., 1990 Yearbook, 113; Xie Renchang
謝仁昌, “A Report on My Life: Hou Hsiao-hsien Discusses The Puppetmaster,”
Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, no. 64 (July/August, 1993): 46.
114. Peggy Chiao, “History’s Subtle Shadows: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster”
(interview with Hou included), Cinemaya, 21 (Autumn, 1993): 6–7.
115. Hou, interview by author.
116. “1993 Statistics for the Taipei Box Office,” in Cinema in the Republic of China
Yearbook, 1994 中華民國八十三年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1994):
117. Independent Evening News 自立晚報, June 15, 1993: 20.
118. Shigehiko Hasumi 蓮實重彥, “Archeological Unconscious: A Discussion of City
of Sadness,” Zhang Changyan 張昌彥, trans., in Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, no. 73
(January/February, 1995): 87.
119. J. Hoberman, “Chinese Connection,” Village Voice (October 12, 1993): 50.
120. Independent Evening News 自立晚報, June 13, 1993: 15.
121. Hoberman, 50.
122. Li Tianlu 李天祿, quoted in The Puppetmaster: An Oral Record of the Memories of
Li Tianlu〔戲夢人生〕李天祿回憶錄, Zeng Yuwen 曾郁雯, ed. (Taipei: Yuanliu,
1991): 31.
123. Ibid., 77.
124. Chen Zhengzhi 陳正之, Taiwan’s Traditional Puppetry 掌中功名:台灣的傳統偶戲
(Taichung: Taiwan Provincial Government Publications, 1991): 253.
125. Li Tianlu, 99.
126. Ibid., 97.
127. Ibid., 118–19.
128. Chen, 193.
129. Ibid., 254–55.
130. Liu Huanyue 劉還月, Taiwanese Hand Puppetry 風華絕代掌中藝:台灣的布袋戲
(Taipei: Tai Yuen, 1990): 130–31.
131. Chen Zhengzhi, 250.
132. Li Tianlu, 230–33.
133. Ibid., 251.
134. Ibid., 252.
135. Ibid., 268.
136. Hou, interview in ibid., 298.
137. Li Tianlu in ibid., 253.
138. Lu Tonglin, Confronting Modernity in the Cinemas of Taiwan and Mainland China
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 109–15.
139. Chen Zhengzhi, 183.
Notes to pages 118–134
Liu, 35–36.
Ibid., 31.
Lu, 338–41.
Ibid., 54.
The final ASL includes two titles: the opening intertitle explaining the historical
background and the film title. I have included the opening title mainly because
of how the soundtrack makes it a part of the rhythm of the film as a whole.
United Evening News 聯合晚報, May 21, 1993: 17.
Bordwell, 220–21.
Nornes and Yeh website, “Style: Aligning Camera/Spectator along a Single
Nick Browne, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Puppetmaster: The Poetics of Landscape,”
Asian Cinema, vol. 8, no. 1 (Spring, 1996): 36–37.
Shen Xiaoying 沈曉茵, “Could They Be Vegetables?: Film Aesthetics and
Hou Hsiao-hsien,” Chung-Wai Literary Monthly 中外文學, 310 (March, 1998):
Li Zhenya 李振亞, “Geography of History/History of Geography: Making Space
and Memory in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die,” ibid.: 48–64.
Ye Hongwei 葉鴻偉, quoted in Huang Huiming 黃慧敏, “The Ideals and Realities
of Three Taiwanese Directors,” 1990 Yearbook, 85.
Hou, interview by Emmanuel Burdeau, in Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢 (Chinese
language edition of 1999 work by Cahiers du Cinéma) (Taipei: Chinese Taipei Film
Archive, 2000): 107.
Chu and Wu, 31.
Chapter 4
Chu Tien-wen 朱天文, Good Men, Good Women 好男好女 (Taipei: Maitian, 1995): 8.
Ibid., 17–18.
Fuyoko Kamisaka 上坂冬子, The President in the Mouth of a Tiger: Li Denghui and
Zeng Wenhui 虎口的總統:李登輝與曾文惠, Luo Wensen 駱文森, Yang Mingzhu
楊明珠, trans. (Taipei: Prophet Press, 2001): 111.
4. Ibid., 243–44.
5. Denny Roy, Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003):
6. Li Xiaofeng 李筱峰, The Hundred Biggest Incidents of Taiwanese History 台灣史
100 件大事, vol. 2 (Taipei: Yushan, 1999): 160.
7. Huang Shikai 黃詩凱, “A Study on the Concentration Ratio of Taiwan’s Film
Market in the 1990s,” Communication and Management Research 傳播與管理研究,
vol. 2, no. 2 (January, 2003): 161.
8. Wang Qinghua 王清華, “Distribution Situation for Foreign Films and Guopian
in 1998,” in Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1999 中華民國八十八年電影
年鑑 (Taipei: National Film Archives, 1999): 61; “Box Office Statistics for Guopian
in Taipei Area in 1998,” in 1999 Yearbook, 65–69.
9. Yang Yiping 楊翌平, “The Interconnections between the Assistance and Guidance
Grant and Guopian,” Dacheng Bao 大成報, September 16, 1998: 4.
10. Wang, 63.
11. Quoted in United Daily News 聯合報, July 21, 1998: 26.
Notes to pages 134–143
12. Zhong Mingfei 鍾明非, “Differences of Opinion on Loosening of Requirements
for Assistance and Guidance Grants,” Liberty Times 自由時報, September 25,
2001: 29.
13. Lan Bozhou 藍博洲, “A Story of a Covered Wagon,” A Collection of Short Stories
from 1988 七十七年短篇小說選, Zhan Hongzhi 詹宏志, ed. (Taipei: Maitian,
1988): 179–242.
14. Li, vol. 2, 39–40.
15. Lin, Sylvia Li-chun, Representing Atrocity in Taiwan: The 2/28 Incident and White
Terror in Fiction and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007): 101–12.
16. David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley: California
University Press, 2005): 219, 220, 224.
17. Lin, 103.
18. Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢, interview in New New Wave of Taiwan Cinema: 90’s
台灣電影九十:新新浪潮, Chiao Hsiung-pin, Peggy 焦雄屏, ed. (Taipei: Maitian,
2002): 96–98; Hou, interview by Emmanuel Burdeau in Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢
(Chinese Edition of French Original by Cahiers du Cinéma) (Taipei: Chinese Film
Archive, 2000): 104.
19. Lin, 54.
20. Hou, interview by Burdeau, 104.
21. Luo Pocheng 羅頗誠, “Good Men, Good Women: Lost in the Middle of History,
Reality and Illusions,” Imagekeeper Monthly 影響, #63 (July, 1995): 79.
22. Chu, 14–15.
23. Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢, interview by author, June 20, 2001, Sinomovie
Company Office, Taipei, Taiwan.
24. Chen Huaien 陳懷恩, interview by author, May 1, 2001, Chang Tso-chi Film
Workshop, Taipei, Taiwan.
25. James Udden, “‘This Time He Moves!’: The Deeper Significance of Hou Hsiaohsien’s Radical Break in Good Men, Good Women,” Cinema Taiwan: Politics,
Popularity and State of the Arts, Darrell William Davis, Ru-shou Robert Chen, eds.
(London: Routledge, 2007): 183–202.
26. Hou, interview by Burdeau, 117–18.
27. Kent Jones, “Cinema with a Roof over Its Head,” Film Comment, vol. 35, no. 2
(September/October, 1999): 46.
28. Chu, 38–39.
29. Chiao, 141.
30. Lin Manhong 林滿紅, “Taiwanese Capital and Economic Relations across the
Straits, 1895–1945,” in Taiwan Experience 台灣經驗, vol. 1, Song Guangyu 宋光宇,
ed. (Taipei: Tung Ta, 1994): 67.
31. Hou, interview by Burdeau, 120.
32. Lu Tonglin, Confronting Modernity in the Cinemas of Taiwan and Mainland China
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 157–72.
33. Chu Tien-wen 朱天文, Celeste Reve: A Complete Record of Flowers of Shanghai
極上之夢:〔海上花〕電影全紀錄 (Taipei: Maitian, 1998): 53.
34. Han Bangqing 韓子雲, Flowers of Shanghai 海上花列傳 (Taipei: Sanmin, 1998): 1.
35. Liu Jiemin 劉介民, “Political Interactions between the Literatures of China and
Taiwan,” in Discussions of Contemporary Taiwanese Political Literature 當代台灣政
治文學論, Zheng Mingli 鄭明娳, ed. (Taipei: Times Cultural Publishers, 1994):
36. Chu, Celeste Reve, 127.
Notes to pages 143–155
37. Ibid., 10.
38. C. T. Hsia, “Closing Remarks,” in Chinese Fiction from Taiwan: Critical Perspectives,
Jeannette L. Faurot, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980): 236.
39. Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang, Modernism and the Nativist Resistance: Contemporary
Chinese Fiction from Taiwan (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993): 178.
40. Hou, interview with Li Dayi 李達義, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cinematic Life,” Film
Appreciation 電影欣賞, 17, no. 3 (May/June, 1999): 81.
41. Eileen Chang, “From the Ashes,” in Written on Water, Andrew F. Jones, trans.
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005): 41.
42. Liang Liang 梁良, review of Flowers of Shanghai, Minsheng Daily 民生報,
October 1, 1998: 37.
43. Alain Bergala, “Flowers of Shanghai,” in Hou Hsiao-hsien, 203.
44. Kent Jones, “A Cinema with a Roof over its Head,” Film Comment, 35, no. 5
(September/October, 1999): 47.
45. Wang Zhicheng 王志成, review of Flowers of Shanghai, China Times 中國時報,
October 10, 1998: 42.
46. Richard Pena, “Signs in the East,” Film Comment, 34, no. 4 (July/August, 1998): 9.
47. Hou Hsiao-hsien, interview by Michael Berry, “Words and Images:
A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu Tien-wen,” Positions, 11, no. 3
(Winter, 2003): 692.
48. Nick Kaldis, “Compulsory Orientalism: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai,”
in Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Chris Berry, Feii Lu, eds.
(Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005): 130.
49. Hou, quoted in Chu, Celeste Reve, 25.
50. Hou, interview by Emmanuel Burdeau, 120–22; interview by author, 2001.
51. Hou, interview with Li, 80.
52. Chu, Celeste Reve, 10–11.
53. Huang Wenying 黃文英, interview by author, June 3, 2005, Sinomovie Company
Office, Taipei, Taiwan.
54. Hou, interview with Li, 81.
55. Gang Gary Xu, “Flowers of Shanghai: Visualising Ellipses and (Colonial)
Absence,” in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, Chris Berry, ed. (London: BFI,
2003): 104–5.
56. Chu, Celeste Reve, 145.
57. China Times 中國時報, October 3, 1998, 42.
58. Huang, interview with author.
59. Chu, Celeste Reve, 22, 46.
60. Ibid., 55.
61. Ibid., 50.
62. Ibid., 53.
63. Hou, in Chu, Celeste Reve, 20.
64. Hou, interview with Berry, 693.
65. Hou, interview with Li, 82.
66. Chu, Celeste Reve, 14.
67. Huang, interview with author.
68. Chu, Celeste Reve, 150.
69. Ibid., 123.
70. Ibid., 79.
Notes to pages 159–169
71. “Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Question of a Chinese Style,” Asian Cinema, vol. 13,
no. 2 (Fall/Winter, 2002): 54–75; Chinese Translation in Film Appreciation 電影欣
賞季刊 (Taipei, Taiwan), no. 124 (June–September, 2005): 44–53.
72. See David Bordwell’s enlightening discussion of Hitchcock’s use of the long take
in Poetics of Cinema (London: Routledge, 2008): 32–43.
73. 游.
74. Lin Niantong 林年同, Chinese Film Aesthetics 中國電影美學 (Taipei: Yunzhen,
1991): 41–49.
75. Douglas Wilkerson, “Film and the Visual Arts in China: Introduction,” in
Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and
Japan, Linda Ehrlich, David Desser, eds. (Austin: University of Texas Press,
1994): 41; Hao Dazheng, “Chinese Visual Representation: Painting and
Cinema,” in Cinematic Landscapes, 52; Ni Zhen, “Classical Chinese Painting
and Cinematographic Signification,” in Cinematic Landscapes, 73.
76. Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar, “Post-Socialist Strategies: An Analysis of
Yellow Earth and Black Cannon Incident,” in Cinematic Landscapes, 85–86; An Jingfu,
“The Pain of a Half Taoist: Taoist Principles, Chinese Landscape, and King of the
Children,” in Cinematic Landscapes, 122.
77. Ni, 69.
78. Hao, 47, 54.
79. Chu, Celeste Reve, 75.
80. Meng Hungfeng 孟洪峰, “A Discussion of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Style,” in Passionate
Detachment: Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien 戲戀人生:侯孝賢電影研究, Lin Wenchi
林文淇, Shen Xiaoying 沈曉茵, Jerome Zhenya Lim 李振亞, eds. (Taipei: Maitian,
2000): 43–45.
81. Berenice Reynaud, A City of Sadness (London: BFI, 2002): 79.
Chapter 5
For a more complete discussion see James Udden, “The Stubborn Persistence
of the Local in Wong Kar-wai,” Post Script, vol. 25, no. 2 (Winter/Spring, 2006):
67–79, and chapter 9 in David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and
the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Evelyn Chiang, “Chen’s Approval Rating Drops to Record Low, TSU Poll
Shows,” Taiwan News, May 17, 2006.
Gao Yozhi 高有智, “Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Tearing Apart Ethnic Groups Summons
Invalidated Ballots,’” China Times 中國時報, January 12, 2004: A6.
Hou Hsiao-hsien, quoted in “Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu Tian-hsin, Tang Nuo,
Hsia Chu-joe: Tensions in Taiwan,” New Left Review, 28 (July/August, 2004): 20.
Xu Guogan 徐國淦, Ge Dawei 葛大維, “Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Political Parties
Should Be Constantly Changed in Order to Pressure the System,” United Daily
News 聯合報, February 16, 2004: A15.
Zhang Shida 張士達, Gao Yozhi 高有智, “Let Them Ridicule and Revile as They
Like,” China Times 中國時報, February 19, 2004: A2.
Xiang Yifei 項貽斐, “Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘I’ll Send Wu Nairen City of Sadness,’”
United Daily News 聯合報, February 19, 2004: A4.
Tang Zaiyang 唐在揚, “Saving Guopian by Providing a Golden Goose,” United
Evening News 聯合晚報, December 20, 2003: 15.
Notes to pages 169–178
An excellent overview of these multiple factors can be found in chapter 4 of
Michael Curtin’s Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of
Chinese Film and TV (Berkeley: California University Press, 2007).
Feng Jiansan 馮建三, “Absurdities, Surprises and Hope: Notes and Reflections
on the Changes in Film Laws,” Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, 109 (Fall, 2001): 8–9.
Tu Xiangwen 塗翔文, “Lord of the Rings Incites a War between Local and Foreign
Theaters,” Liberty Times 自由時報, January 17, 2002: 30.
Wang Qinghua 王清華, “A Summary of Film Market in 2003,” Cinema in the
Republic of China Yearbook, 2004 中華民國九十三年電影年鑑 (Taipei: National
Film Archives, 2004): 79–80.
Hou 侯孝賢, interview with Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏, New New Wave of Taiwan
Cinema: 90’s 台灣電影九十:新新浪潮 (Taipei: Maitian, 2002): 101.
Hou, interview with Zhang Huijing 張惠菁, November 3, 2001, quoted in
Huang Ting 黃婷, E Generation Luxury Seat for Males and Females in Cinema
E 時代電影男女雙人雅座 (Taipei: Taiwan Jiaochuan, 2001): 41.
Huang Ting 黃婷, Film Notebook on Millennium Mambo: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Film
〔千禧曼波〕電影筆記 (Taipei: Maitian, 2001): 113.
Ibid., 146.
Hou, interview with Chen Wenqian 陳文茜, November 6, 2001, in Huang,
E Generation, 67–68.
Hou, interview with Michael Berry, Speaking in Images: Interviews with
Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):
Hou, interview with Zhang, 28.
Hou, interview with Chen, 67.
Hou, interview with Zhang, 28.
Chu Tien-wen, interview with Berry, 259.
Hou, interview with Zhang, 22.
Ibid., 39.
Hou, “Preparing to Live in the Present: An Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien,”
Lee Ellickson, Cineaste, vol. 27, no. 4 (Fall, 2002): 18.
Chen Shichang 陳世昌, “Hou Hsiao-Hsien Most Carries on Yasijuro Ozu’s
Legacy,” United Daily News 聯合報, July 25, 2003: D3.
Hou, interview with Chen, 69.
Hou, interview with Ellickson, 19.
Hou, quoted in Three Times (Taipei: Sinomovie Co. Ltd., 2005).
Huang Jianhong 黃建宏,“Using Images to Air Grievances about Change,”
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 2006 中華民國九十五年電影年鑑 (Taipei:
National Film Archives, 2006): 23.
Ibid., 21–23; Zhao Tinghui 趙庭輝, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Return to the Dream
World of the Subconscious: Three Times,” Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, 125
(October–December, 2005): 78–80.
J. Hoberman, “Flight of the Red Balloon Soars,” Village Voice (April 2–8, 2008): 53.
Manohla Dargis, “Another Balloon Over Paris, With Lives Adrift Below,” The
New York Times, April 4, 2008: E8.
Tsai Hungsheng 蔡洪聲, “Hou Hsiao-hsien, New Cinema, Chinese Traits,”
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1990 中華民國七十九年電影年鑑 (Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1990): 27.
Notes to pages 178–191
35. Andre Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” in Hugh Gray, ed.
and trans., What Is Cinema?, vol. 1 (Berkeley: California University Press, 1967):
36. Hoberman, 53.
37. Hou, interview by Xie Renchang 謝仁昌,“A Report on My Life: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Discusses, The Puppetmaster,”Film Appreciation 電影欣賞, #64 (July/August,
1993): 56.
Updated Conclusion
Richard Suchenski, ed., Hou Hsiao-hsien (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum:
SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien, 2014).
Stephen Cremin, “Hou’s Assassin Stops Production (Again),” July 31, 2013,
(accessed June 27, 2015).
Hong Wen 洪文, “Taiwanese Cinema Has Waited 14 Years! May Hou Hsiao-hsien’s
The Assasin Bring back a Prize from Cannes,” ETtoday 東森新聞雲, April 16, 2015,
http://www.ettoday.net/news/20150416/493936.htm (accessed June 27, 2015).
Ali Nour-Mousavi, “Judgement Kiarostami Style: An Interview with Abbas
Kiarostami on Judging Films at International Festivals,” Film International 15,
no. 60 (Autumn & Winter, 2009–2010): 104–5.
Didier Peron, “The Assassin, sabres emouvants,” Liberation, May 22, 2015: 14.
Guy Lodge and Justin Chang, “Cannes: Will ‘The Assasin’ Slay the Competition?”
Variety, May 23, 2015, http://variety.com/2015/film/news/cannes-film-festival-palme-dor-predictions-1201504140/ (accessed June 27, 2015).
Charlotte Pavard, “INTERVIEW—Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘It’s the Story that Counts’,”
Festival de Cannes, May 24, 2015, http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/theDaily
Article/61994.html (accessed June 27, 2015).
Aliza Ma, “Killer Technique,” Film Comment (September–October, 2015): 28–29.
Hou Hsiao-hsien, interview, “Basically You Need Limits before You Can Resist,”
BIOS Monthly 光陰的故事, August 3, 2015, http://www.biosmonthly.com/
contactd.php?id=6324 (accessed August 29, 2015).
Hou, interview by author, December 11, 2012, Taipei, Taiwan, CMPC Studio;
Chu Tien-wen, interview by author, December 11, 2012, Taipei, Taiwan, CMPC
Studio; Peggy Chiao, interview by author, December 10, 2012, Taipei, Taiwan;
Winston Lee, 李天礢, interview by author, December 4, 2012, Taipei, Taiwan.
Marco Mueller, interview by author, February 17, 2011, Berlin, Germany,
Alain Jalladeau, interview by author, November 23, 2012, Nantes, France,
Festival des 3 Continents.
Jacob Kastrenakes, “Movie Theaters in China Are Beating the US for the First Time
Ever,” The Verge, March 2, 2015, http://www.theverge.com/2015/3/2/8133813/
china-box-office-beats-us-first-time (accessed July 16, 2015).
Stephen Cremin, “Taiwan Cinema: North or South?” Film Business Asia,
March 20, 2013, http://www.filmbiz.asia/news/taiwan-cinema-north-or-south
(accessed June 27, 2015).
Notes to pages 191–199
16. Yin Junjie 尹俊傑, “The Assassin: Hou Hsiao-hsien Hopes Millions Will See It in
the Mainland,” CNA News 中央社新聞網, June 16, 2015, http://www.cna.com.
tw/news/acn/201506160387-1.aspx (accessed June 27, 2015).
17. Pi Kebang 痞客邦, “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ‘Psychological Wuxia’ Film Receives Best
Director Prize at Cannes,” 4Cbook 元點文創, May 25, 2015, http://wang4cbook.
pixnet.net/blog/post/277855429- (accessed June 27, 2015).
18. Hou Hsiao-hsien, “Cannes 2015 — The Assassin by HOU Hsiao Hsien (Press
Conference).” YouTube. May 21, 2015.
19. Box Office Mojo, The Assassin (2015), http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/
?page=intl&id=theassassin.htm (accessed June 2, 2016).
20. Ma, 33.
21. Xie Haimeng 謝海盟, The Assassin: Xing yun ji 刺客聶隱娘:行雲紀 (Taipei: INK,
2015): 136–37.
22. Ma, 29.
23. Hou Jiran 侯季然, “Finding More Limits for Myself,” INK Literary Monthly 印刻
文學生活誌 no. 143 (July, 2015): 153.
24. Xie Xinying 謝欣穎, “Xie Xinying Talks The Assassin: Huji Has Only Two Lines,
but This Was the Most Difficult Role,” Womany 女人迷, August 29, 2015, http://
(accessed September 15, 2015).
25. Huang Wenying 黃文英, Tang fengshang 唐風尚 (Taipei: INK, 2015): 39.
26. Ibid., 263.
27. Tu Duu-chih, “A New Era of Sound,” in Suchenski, 222.
28. Mark Lee, “Exploring Visual Ideas,” in Suchenski, 209.
29. Liao Ching-sung, “Finding the Right Balance,” in Suchenski, 216.
30. Pascale Wei-Guinot, “HHH ou la ‘distance adequate’,” INK 143: 187.
31. Xie, 144.
32. Ibid., 172–73.
33. Ibid., 118.
34. Ibid., 95.
35. Ibid., 88–89.
36. Ibid., 272.
37. Ibid., 213–14.
38. Pi Kebang.
39. Huang, 6.
40. Xie Haimeng, 250–51.
41. Ibid., 101.
42. Xie Xinying.
43. Chu Tien-wen, “Looking up at the Editing Table,” INK 143: 86.
44. Chu, interview by Olivier Assayas, “Master Class Hou Hsiao-hsien,” May 27,
2015. Brussels, Belgium.
45. Zhang Shida 張士達, “With Back to the Audience, a Hidden Blade Stops Killing,”
INK 143: 174.
46. Xie Haimeng, 126–27.
47. Emery, “A Historical Perspective on the Film: Explaining Nie Yinniang,” Parts 1
and 2, 故事, http://gushi.tw/archives/14452 & http://gushi.tw/archives/14746
(accessed October 10, 2015).
Notes to pages 200–204
48. Steven Zeitchik, “Why Hou Hsiao-hsien Made ‘The Assassin’ So Elliptical,”
L.A. Times, May 26, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/
moviesnow/la-et-mn-hou-hsiao-hsien-the-assassin-cannes-movie-20150526story.html (accessed June 27, 2015).
49. Yang Zhao 楊照, “Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Xie Haimeng,” INK
143: 40.
50. Ibid., 37.
51. Shu Qi 舒淇, Cannes Press Conference.
52. Ding Mingqing 丁名慶, “‘Present but Not Visible’ Vision: An Interview with
Mark Lee,” INK 143: 150.
53. Ibid., 151.
54. Xie Haimeng, 65–68.
55. Xie Zhongqi 謝仲其, “The Sounds of Cultural Origins and Passages: An
Interview with Lim Giong,” INK 143: 162.
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:07 GMT from JHU Libraries
Bilingual Filmography and Glossary
Films Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
(In chronological order)
Cute Girl (1980) 就是溜溜的她
Cheerful Wind (1981) 風兒踢踏踩
The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) 在河畔靑草靑
The Boys from Fengkuei (also known as All the Youthful Days) (1983) 風櫃來的人
The Sandwich Man (also known as The Son’s Big Doll) (1983) 兒子的大玩偶
Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) 冬冬的假期
A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) 童年往事
Dust in the Wind (1986) 戀戀風塵
Daughter of the Nile (1987) 尼羅河女兒
City of Sadness (1989) 悲情城市
The Puppetmaster (1993) 戲夢人生
Good Men, Good Women (1995) 好男好女
Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) 南國再見,南國
Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花
Flight of the Red Balloon (2001) 紅氣球之旅
Millennium Mambo (2001) 千禧曼波
Café Lumiere (2003) 咖啡時光
Three Times (also known as The Best of Times) (2005) 最好的時光
The Assassin (2015) 聶隱娘
Other Key Films Cited
(In chronological order)
Spring in a Small Town (1948) 小城之春
Together Forever (1951) 永不分離
Waking from a Nightmare (1951) 惡夢初醒
General of the Flying Tigers (1959) 飛虎將軍
Love Eterne (1963) 梁山伯與祝英台
Our Neighbor (1963) 街頭巷尾
Oyster Girl (1963) 蚵女
Beautiful Duckling (1965) 養鴨人家
The Beauty of Beauties (1965) 西施
The Sun Rises and Sets (1966) 日出日落
Bilingual Filmography and Glossary
Dragon Gate Inn (1967) 龍門客棧
The Road (1967) 路
The Winter (1967) 冬暖
Four Moods (1970) 喜怒哀樂
Goodbye, My Love (1970) 再見阿郎
The Ripening (1970) 葡萄成熟時
Touch of Zen (1970) 俠女
Execution in Autumn (1972) 秋決
The Heart with a Million Knots (1973) 心有千千結
China Behind (1974) 再見中國
Love in a Cabin (1974) 白屋之戀
Rhythm of the Wave (1974) 海韻
Cloud of Romance (1977) 我是一片雲
He Never Gives Up (1978) 汪洋中的一條船
Teacher of Great Soldiers (1978) 黃埔軍魂
Story of a Small Town (1979) 小城故事
The Source (1979) 源
Good Morning Taipei (1980) 早安台北
Love Comes from the Sea (1980) 美麗與哀愁
My Native Land (1980) 原鄉人
Riding a Wave (1980) 我踏浪而來
Taipei, My Love (1980) 台北吾愛
The Orientation (1980) 鄉野人
A Student’s Love (1981) 學生之愛
Land of the Brave (1981) 龍的傳人
The Battle for the Republic of China (1981) 辛亥雙十
The Coldest Winter in Peking (1981) 皇天后土
The Legend of Tianyuan Mountain (1981) 天雲山傳奇
Aces Go Places (1982) 最佳拍擋
All the Wrong Clues (for the Right Solution) (1982) 夜來香
In Our Times (1982) 光陰的故事
Six Is Company (1982) 俏如彩蝶飛飛飛
A Flower in the Rainy Night (1983) 看海的日子
Ah Fei (1983) 油麻菜籽
Growing Up (1983) 小畢的故事
Project A (1983) A 計劃
That Day, on the Beach (1983) 海灘的一天
Jade Love (1984) 玉卿嫂
Love in a Fallen City (1984) 傾城之戀
Old Mo’s Second Spring (1984) 老莫的第二個春天
Runaway (1984) 策馬入林
Taipei Story (1984) 青梅竹馬
Woman of Wrath (1984) 殺夫
Kuei-mei, A Woman (1985) 我這樣過了一生
My Favorite Season (1985) 最想念的季節
Han-sheng, My Son (1986) 我兒漢生
Reunion (1986) 我們都是這樣長大的
The Terrorizers (1986) 恐怖分子
Osmanthus Alley (1987) 桂花巷
Bilingual Filmography and Glossary
The King of Children (1987) 孩子王
Everything for Tomorrow (1988) 一切為明天
Full Moon over New York (1989) 三個女人的故事
A Home Too Far (1990) 異域
A Brighter Summer Day (1991) 牯嶺街少年殺人事件
Dust of Angels (1991) 少年也,安啦
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) 大紅燈籠高高掛
The Hill of No Return (1992) 無言的山丘
Hero (2002) 英雄
Key Names and Terms
Assistance & Guidance Grant 輔導金
Bai Jingrui (Pai Ching-jui) 白景瑞
benshengren (pre-1945 Taiwanese) 本省人
Chen Kunhou 陳坤厚
Chiao, Peggy (Chiao Hsiung-pin) 焦雄屏
Chu Tien-wen (Zhu Tianwen) 朱天文
CMPC (Central Motion Picture Company) 中央電影公司
DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) 民進黨
Du Duzhi (Tu Duu-chih) 杜篤之
GIO (Government Information Office) 新聞局
Grand Motion Picture Company (Guo Lian) 國聯
Guo pian (“national” films) 國片
“Healthy Realism” 健康寫實
Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢
Huang Wenying 黃文英
KMT (Nationalist Party) 國民黨
Kong, Henry (Gong Hong) 龔弘
Lee, Mark (Li Pingbin) 李屏賓
Li Hanxiang (Li Han-hsiang) 李翰祥
Li Tianlu 李天祿
Li Xing (Lee Hsing) 李行
Liao Qingsong (Liao Ching-song) 廖慶松
Ming Ji (Ming Chi) 明驥
Qiong Yao 瓊瑤
Sinomovie 三視影業
Soong, James 宋楚瑜
Union (Lian Bang) 聯邦
waishengren (mainlanders in Taiwan post 1945) 外省人
wenyi pian (dramatic, melodramatic or literary films) 文藝片
Wu Nien-jen (Wu Nianzhen) 吳念真
Xiao Ye (Hsiao Yeh) 小野
Yang, Edward 楊德昌
Zhan Hongzhi (Jan Hung-tze) 詹宏志
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:07 GMT from JHU Libraries
Selected Bibliography
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Selected Bibliography
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Works in Chinese
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———. Five Years That Changed History: A Study of the Grand Studio. 改變歷史的五年:
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———. Generational Reflections 時代顯影. Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998.
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———. Interview by Olivier Assayas. Master Class Hou Hsiao-hsien. May 27, 2015.
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Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1986 中華民國七十五年電影年鑑. Taipei:
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Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1987 中華民國七十六年電影年鑑. Taipei:
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Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1988 中華民國七十七年電影年鑑. Taipei:
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Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1989 中華民國七十八年電影年鑑. Taipei:
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Selected Bibliography
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Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1993 中華民國八十二年電影年鑑. Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1993.
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1994 中華民國八十三年電影年鑑. Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1994.
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 1999 中華民國八十八年電影年鑑. Taipei:
National Film Archives, 1999.
Cinema in the Republic of China Yearbook, 2004 中華民國九十三年電影年鑑. Taipei:
National Film Archives, 2004.
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———. Interview with Li Dayi 李達義. “Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Cinematic Life.” Film
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———. Interview by author. June 20, 2001. Taipei, Taiwan. Sinomovie Company
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———. Interview by author. “A Rountable with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu Tien-wen.”
Antwerp, Belgium. May 26, 2015. Cinema Zuid.
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Selected Bibliography
Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢. Chinese edition of French original by Cahiers du Cinéma.
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Hou Jiran 侯季然. “Finding More Limits for Myself.” INK Literary Monthly 印刻文學
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“How Do Directors See Themselves?” 400 Blows 四百季 #1 (March, 1985): 42–45.
Huang Ren 黃仁. Film and Government Propaganda 電影與政治宣傳. Taipei: Wanxiang,
———. The Film Era of Union 聯邦電影時代. Taipei: National Film Archives, 2001.
Huang Shikai 黃詩凱. “A Study on the Concentration Ratio of Taiwan’s Film Market
in the 1990s.” Communication and Management Research 傳播與管理研究 vol. 2,
no. 2 (January, 2003): 157–74.
Huang Suqiu 黃素秋. “Behind A Time to Live, A Time to Die.” 400 Blows 四百季 #7
(October, 1985): 58–59.
Huang Ting 黃婷. E Generation Luxury Seat for Males and Females in Cinema E 時代電影
男女雙人雅座. Taipei: Taiwan Jiaochuan, 2001.
———. Film Notebook on Millennium Mambo: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Film.[千禧曼波]電
影筆記. Taipei: Maitian, 2001.
Huang Wenying 黃文英. Interview by author. June 3, 2005. Taipei, Taiwan. Sinomovie
Company Office.
———. Tang fengshang 唐風尚. Taipei: INK, 2015.
Huang Yingfen. 黃櫻棻. “After the Mobile, Long Take: A Debate on the Aesthetic
Tendencies in Contemporary Taiwanese Cinema.” Contemporary 當代 #116
(December, 1995): 78–83.
Huang Zhuohan 黃卓漢. A Life in Cinema: Recollections by Huang Zhuohan. 電影人生:
黃卓漢回憶錄. Taipei: Wanxiang, 1994.
An Illustrated Record of Hand Puppetry 布袋戲:布袋戲圖錄, vol. 1. Taipei: Ministry of
Education, 1996.
Jian Sucheng 簡素琤. “Between Words and Images: From the Nostalgic Childhood
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Taiwanese Dailies Also Cited
Capital Morning News 首都早報
Central Daily News 中央日報
China Evening Times 中國晚報
China Times 中國時報
Dacheng Bao 大成報
Independent Evening News 自立晚報
Independent Morning News 自立早報
Liberty Times 自由時報
Minsheng Daily 民生報
United Daily News 聯合報
United Evening News 聯合晚報
No Man an Island
Udden, James
Published by Hong Kong University Press, HKU
Udden, James.
No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Second Edition.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2018.
Project MUSE., https://muse.jhu.edu/.
For additional information about this book
Access provided at 26 May 2019 21:08 GMT from JHU Libraries
228 Incident (February 28, 1947
Incident), 10, 15, 16, 20, 21, 30, 49, 85,
87, 90–95, 96, 97, 98, 100, 102, 104,
106, 108, 112, 115, 117, 129, 130, 135,
166, 184
Aces Go Places, 43
Ah Cheng, 142, 143, 145, 147, 164, 193,
Ah Fei, 58, 66, 74
All the Wrong Clues (for the Right
Solution), 43
An Lushan Rebellion, 189, 198
Angelopoulos, Theo, 121, 179–81
ASL (“average shot length”), 39–40,
43, 45–46, 57, 64, 67, 69, 72, 78, 106,
115, 136, 140, 149, 173, 176, 179, 180,
182–83, 192, 201
The Assassin. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Assayas, Olivier, 8, 58, 190
Assistance & Guidance Grant, 134, 169
B, Kenny, 46
Bai Jingrui (Pai Ching-jui), 39, 41, 46
The Battle for the Republic of China, 38
Bazin, Andre, 52, 178
Beautiful Duckling, 34, 41, 44
The Beauty of Beauties, 33, 39
benshengren (pre-1945 Taiwanese), 16,
17, 18, 19, 21, 27, 57, 89, 90, 133, 165,
167, 168
Bergala, Alain, 143
Berry, Chris, 8, 101
Berry, Michael, 171
Binoche, Juliette, 177
Bordwell, David, 8–9, 43, 107–8, 121, 136
The Boys from Fengkuei. See Hou
Bresson, Robert, 197
A Brighter Summer Day, 114–15
Brown, Georgia, 106–7
Brown, Melissa, 12
Browne, Nick, 122
Buddhism, 5, 24, 27, 184
Burch, Noel, 3
Café Lumiere. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Chang Chen (Zhang Zhen), 175, 176, 198
Chang, Eileen, 142, 143
Chang, Yvonne, 143
Cheerful Wind. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Chen Cheng, 76
Chen Guofu, 58, 84, 190
Chen Huaien, 99, 139
Chen Kaige, 144, 162, 164
Chen Kunhou, 45, 47, 54, 57, 65, 70, 73
Chen Mingzhan, 125, 126
Chen Ruxiu, 12, 85
Chen Yi, 91–95, 129
Chen Yingzhen, 50
Cheshire, Godfrey, 1
Cheung, Maggie, 147
Chiang Ching-kuo, 19, 37, 50, 133
Chiang Kai-shek, 15, 18–19, 50, 91, 93,
117, 135
Chiao, Peggy (Chiao Hsiung-pin), 7–8,
27, 52–53, 56, 58, 77, 96, 116, 134, 141,
China Association of the Literature and
the Arts, 23–24, 29
China Behind, 97
Chu Tien-wen (Zhu Tianwen), 7, 8, 10,
17, 54–55, 59, 66, 120, 132, 139, 143,
147, 165, 170, 171, 177, 178, 186, 190,
193, 194, 197, 198
Cinema City, 65
City of Sadness. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Cloud of Romance, 41
CMPC (Central Motion Picture
Company), 29, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38,
47, 53, 54, 55, 56, 65, 66, 70, 71, 77, 83,
84, 100, 195
Coen Brothers, 187
The Coldest Winter in Peking, 39, 46
Confucianism, 1, 4, 5, 6, 24, 25, 74, 167,
Cremin, Stephen, 191
Cute Girl. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
First Film Company, The, 33
Flight of the Red Balloon. See “Hou
A Flower in the Rainy Night, 65
Flowers of Shanghai. See “Hou
Four Moods, 34, 39
Free China (journal), 19, 24, 25
Freedom Association, 30
Frodon, Jean-Michel, 1
Fu Baoshi, 203
Full Moon over New York, 99
D & B Company, 84
Dan Hanchang, 51
Dang wai (“outside-the-party
movement”), 19–20
Dargis, Manhola, 177
Daughter of the Nile. See “Hou
Davis, Darrell, 8, 49, 59
Death of a New Cinema (Mi Zo, ed.), 100,
Donne, John, 188
DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), 50,
99, 100, 114, 133, 167, 168
Dragon Gate Inn, 33
Du Duzhi (Tu Tu-chih), 70–71, 99, 125,
128, 165, 194, 196
Du Fu, 6
Dust in the Wind. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Dust of Angels, 114
economic development of Taiwan, 20–22
ERA International, 84
Everything for Tomorrow, 83
Execution in Autumn, 51–52
Gao Shi (company), 65
General of the Flying Tigers, 30
GIO (Government Information Office),
24, 29, 31, 34, 53–54, 55, 76, 85, 97–99,
113, 168, 190
Godard, Jean-Luc, 58, 84, 139
Golden Harvest, 70, 84, 96
Golden Horse Awards, 37, 53, 71, 99, 193
Good Men, Good Women. See “Hou
Good Morning Taipei, 45
Goodbye, My Love, 41
Goodbye South, Goodbye. See “Hou
Grand Motion Picture Company (Guo
Lian), 33, 35, 36, 39
The Green, Green Grass of Home. See “Hou
Growing Up, 54–55, 59. See “Hou
guo pian (“national” films), 31, 34
Guo Qingjiang, 43
Guo Xi, 6
Gyllenhaal, Jake, 187
Farquhar, Mary Ann, 8, 101
Fei Mu, 159, 160, 162
Film Cooperative, The, 84
film festivals
Berlin, 71, 76, 77
Cannes, 11, 34, 116, 135, 144, 170, 171,
174, 177, 186, 187–88, 191, 202
Hawaii, 76
Locarno, 77
Manheim, 76
Nantes, 76, 77, 190
Rotterdam, 76
Venice, 2, 10, 96, 97, 98, 100, 186, 190
Hada, Michiko, 147
Hadden, Rosemary, 101
Hakka, 16, 17, 88, 165
Han Bangqing, 142–43
Han-sheng, My Son, 70
Hao Bocun, 99–100, 101, 113, 129
Hao Dazheng, 161
He Never Gives Up, 44, 74
He Ping, 134
“Healthy Realism,” 34–35, 37, 39
The Heart with a Million Knots, 42
Hero, 169
The Hill of No Return, 114, 115, 118
Hitchcock, Alfred, 159–60
Hoberman, J., 2, 117, 177
Hoklo, 16, 88
A Home Too Far, 114–15
Hong Kong, 2, 7, 28–29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34,
36, 37, 39, 41, 43, 51, 52, 53, 54, 58, 59,
65, 70, 78, 83, 84, 91, 96, 98, 99, 115,
134, 147, 162, 164–65, 166, 182, 184,
Hong Sang-soo, 183
Hou Hsiao-hsien
The Assassin, 11, 187–204
background, 17–20
The Boys from Fengkuei (also known
as All the Youthful Days), 35, 49,
58–65, 66, 67, 68, 70, 73, 76, 77,
130, 139, 140, 149, 175, 180, 190
Café Lumiere, 170, 173–74, 180, 186
Cheerful Wind, 45–46
“Chineseness” of, 4, 8, 142, 144,
159–62, 189
City of Sadness, 1, 8, 10, 15, 18, 49, 56,
78, 84, 85, 87, 89, 96–114, 115, 116,
118, 120, 121, 122, 123, 125, 129,
130, 132, 135, 136, 142,148, 150,
160, 161, 162, 166, 167, 168, 175,
176, 177, 179, 180, 198, 201
Cute Girl, 45–46
Daughter of the Nile, 10, 49, 72, 82–85,
97, 132, 140, 175, 176, 180
Dust in the Wind, 34, 49, 76–82, 84, 106,
118, 121, 125, 140, 142, 175, 180,
economic education, 84
film apprenticeship, 44–48
film education, 35–36, 52–53, 58–60
Flight of the Red Balloon, 11, 177–79,
180, 186
Flowers of Shanghai, 10, 106, 132–33,
134, 142–59, 160, 161, 162, 166,
170, 171, 175, 176, 177, 180, 181,
192, 193, 198, 201, 203
Good Men, Good Women, 10, 15, 18, 132,
135–39, 140, 141, 142, 161, 166,
171, 172, 173, 175, 176, 178, 179,
180, 182
Goodbye South, Goodbye, 10, 131,
138–41, 175, 176, 180
The Green, Green Grass of Home, 45–47,
52, 65
historical vision of, 128–31, 179–82
Millennium Mambo, 11, 170–72, 175,
177, 180, 186
pan-Asian Style inspired by, 182–83
The Puppetmaster, 10, 15, 49, 87,
114–28, 129, 130, 131, 132, 135,
136, 160, 161, 166, 170, 175, 176,
177, 179, 180, 187–88, 198, 201
The Sandwich Man (also known as The
Son’s Big Doll), 10, 49, 55–57, 64,
72, 76, 136, 165, 180
Summer at Grandpa’s, A, 49, 58, 65–69,
73, 76, 77, 78, 137, 180
Three Times (also known as The Best of
Times), 170, 174–77, 180, 186
A Time to Live, A Time to Die, 18, 26, 35,
47, 49, 70–76, 77, 84, 140, 142, 168,
175, 180
Hu, King, 33, 39, 143, 202
Huang Chunming, 51, 55
Huang Fan, 50
Huang Ren, 56, 83
Huang Wenying, 143, 145, 147, 150–51,
193–94, 195, 196, 202
Huang Yingfen, 115
Huang Zhuohan, 31, 33–34
Hui, Ann, 53
In Our Times, 47, 54, 70
Influence (journal), 51–52
Inoh, Annie, 139
Jade Love, 65, 71
Jalladeau brothers, 190
Jancsó, Miklos, 121, 179, 180
Japanese era of colonial rule (1895–
1945), 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 20, 27, 28, 29,
37, 38, 87, 88–90, 91, 92, 93, 103, 111,
116, 117, 118, 119, 120, 121, 122, 125,
130, 135, 136, 166
Jia Zhangke, 183
Jiang Biyu, 136
Jiangnan Incident of 1984, 50, 166
Jones, Kent, 102–3, 140, 143
Kaldis, Nick, 144
Kao, Jack, 103, 139, 171
Kaohsiung Incident of 1979 (also known
as “Formosa Incident”), 20, 26, 38,
Kazan, Elia, 36
Ke Yizheng, 87
Kerr, George, 15, 49
Kiarostami, Abbas, 169, 187
KMT (Nationalist Party), 8, 9, 10, 13, 15,
16, 18–24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 49–50, 52,
56, 87, 88, 90–95, 97, 98, 99–100, 101,
104, 105, 114, 115, 129–30, 133, 136,
141, 165, 166, 167, 168, 184
The King of Children, 164
Kong, Henry (Gong Hong), 34, 37
Kore-eda, Hirokazu, 182
Koxinga (Zheng Chengong), 14, 145,
Kuei-mei, A Woman, 71–72
Kwan, Stanley, 99
Lai Chengying, 44
Lan Bozhou, 135
Land of the Brave, 38
Lau, Carina, 147
Lee, Ang, 134, 169
Lee, James, 183
Lee Kwang-mo, 182
Lee, Mark (Li Pingbin), 70, 71, 73, 123,
150, 165, 170, 171, 192, 193, 194, 196,
202, 203
Lee Teng-hui (Li Denghui), 19, 99, 133,
134, 167
Lee, Winston, 190
The Legend of Tianyuan Mountain, 53
Li Bai, 6
Li Hanxiang (Li Han-hsiang), 32–33, 39,
Li Tianlu, 78, 116, 117–20, 121, 122, 123,
125, 126, 127, 128, 136, 178
Li Tuo, 1, 104
Li Xing (Lee Hsing), 32, 34, 37, 38, 39,
40, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 51, 57, 70, 74,
75, 167
Li Zhenya, 122
Liang Liang, 71, 143
Liao Binghui, 100, 113
Liao Qingsong (Liao Ching-song), 70,
71, 99, 194, 196
Lim Giong, 138, 170, 203
Lin Huaimin (Cloud Gate Dance
Company), 27, 117
Lin Niantong, 160
Lin, Sylvia, 135
Lin Wenchi, 101
Liu Jiachang, 36–37, 37–38
Liu Mingchuan, 14, 89
Loke Wan-tho, 33
long takes, 1, 9, 39–40, 45–46, 58, 61, 63,
64, 67, 68, 71, 72–73, 79, 85, 106, 107,
108–9, 110, 111, 115, 120, 121, 124,
136, 137, 139, 140, 141, 148, 149, 150,
151–54, 155–56, 159–61, 164, 165, 171,
173, 174, 177, 178, 179–181, 182, 183,
192, 201–2, 203
Love Comes from the Sea, 41
Love Eterne, 32–33
Love in a Cabin, 41, 42
Love in a Fallen City, 97
Lu Feiyi, 31, 36, 53, 118
Lu Tonglin, 118, 142
Luo Dayu, 50
Ma Ying-jeou, 167
Mao Zedong, 18, 30, 76, 164, 183
Meng Hungfeng, 1–2
Millennium Mambo. See “Hou
Miller, Sienna, 187
Ming Ji (Ming Chi), 37, 54
Mizoguchi Kenji, 10, 121, 133, 179, 180,
Modernists (Xiandai wenxue), 24–25, 51
Montage (company), 65
MP & GI (Cathay), 33
Mueller, Marco, 190
My Favorite Season, 70
My Native Land, 44, 46
National Film Archive (Chinese Taipei
Film Archive), 52
Nativists (Xiangtu wenxue), 24–26, 50,
51–52, 55, 143
Ni Zhen, 1, 4, 161
Night Market Hero, 191
Nornes, Abe Mark, 8, 122
Old Mo’s Second Spring, 65
The Orientation, 41
Osmanthus Alley, 70
Our Neighbor, 34
Oyster Girl, 34–35
Ozu Yasijuro, 9, 47, 68, 173–74
Pasolini, Pier Paolo, 58
Pena, Richard, 143–44
Peng Mengji, 95
Peng Mingmin, 133
People’s Republic of China (PRC), 4, 13,
18, 53, 76, 77, 100, 133, 146, 167, 191
Pimpaneau, Jacques, 1
Project A, 32
The Puppetmaster. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
Summer at Grandpa’s. See “Hou
The Sun Rises and Sets, 44
Suchenski, Richard, 186
Sun Yat-sen, 15, 24
Qing dynasty, 13, 14–15, 60, 88, 89, 118,
Qiong Yao, 35, 37, 39, 41–42, 171–72
Qiu Fusheng, 84, 96, 98
Taipei, My Love, 41
Taipei Story, 58, 66, 71, 125
Taiwanese Experience, 9, 12, 17, 20, 56,
57, 63, 76, 78, 82, 87, 90, 140, 142, 163,
164, 165, 172, 185
Taiwanese New Cinema, 9, 10, 12, 22,
32, 45, 47, 49–55, 56, 58, 59, 65, 66,
70, 71, 72, 74, 76, 78, 82, 83, 84, 85,
87, 100, 116, 132, 140, 160, 165, 175,
176, 190
Tang dynasty, 5, 6, 188, 189, 193, 194,
195, 197, 198, 199, 201, 202, 203
Tao Hungyi, 193
Taoism (Daoism), 5–6, 26, 27, 59, 199
Tarkovsky, Andrei, 182
Teacher of Great Soldiers, 41
The Terrorizers, 70, 76, 77, 125
Tesson, Charles, 80
Tian Xia (company), 65
That Day, on the Beach, 65
Theatre (journal), 51
“Three Principles of the People,” 23,
Three Times. See “Hou Hsiao-hsien”
A Time to Live, A Time to Die. See “Hou
Together Forever, 30
Touch of Zen, 34, 39, 202
Tsai Ming-liang, 23, 85, 115, 134, 183
Tsui Hark, 53
Raise the Red Lantern, 114
Rayns, Tony, 106, 150
Reis, Michelle, 147
Renoir, Jean, 78, 178, 179
Republic of China (ROC), 18, 19, 20, 22,
28, 29, 30, 31, 36, 37, 50, 51, 76, 77, 96,
97, 117, 134, 166, 167
Reunion, 70, 74, 87
Reynaud, Berenice, 109, 162
Rhythm of the Wave, 41
Riding a Wave, 45
The Ripening, 40
The Road, 34–35, 44
Rosenstone, Robert A., 103
Ruan Ji, 6
Runaway, 70
Salt, Barry, 39
The Sandwich Man. See “Hou
Shaw Brothers, 32–33
Shen Congwen, 10, 59–61, 65, 70, 119,
130, 137, 165, 179
Shen Xiaoying, 122
Sheu Fang-yi, 199
Shimonoseki, Treaty of, 14–15
Shochiku, 135, 142, 147, 173
Shou Yuming, 99
Shu Kei, 96
Shu Qi, 172, 175, 176, 196, 202
Sinomovie, 58, 147, 170
Six Is Company, 45
Soong, James, 53–54, 55, 168
The Source, 38
Spring in a Small Town, 159, 160
Story of a Small Town, 41, 51–52
Straub, Jean-Marie, and Huillet, Daniele,
A Student’s Love, 41
Su Shi, 7
Union (Lian Bang), 32, 33, 35, 36
waishengren (mainlanders in Taiwan
post-1945), 16, 17, 27, 57, 90, 165,
Waking from a Nightmare, 30
Wan Ren, 55–57, 58
Wang Tong, 65, 114, 115, 118
Wang Xizhi, 6
Wannianqing (company), 65–66, 84
Weerasethakul, Apitchatpong, 182–83
Wei-guinot, Pascale, 194
Welles, Orson, 178
Wen Xing (journal), 25
wenyi pian (dramatic, melodramatic or
literary films), 36–37
“The White Terror,” 19, 115, 135, 166
The Winter, 34, 39
Woman of Wrath, 65
Wong, Edmund, 47, 52, 56, 58, 115
Wong Kar-wai, 147, 165, 182
Wu Chia-chi, 77
Wu Nien-jen (Wu Nianzhen), 54, 58, 77,
80–81, 99
Wuxia, 187, 189, 197, 202
Xiao Ye (Hsiao Yeh), 53, 54, 58, 77, 100
Xie Haimeng, 193, 194, 195, 196, 197,
198, 200
Xie Ho, 7
Xie Jin, 53, 96
Xie Xinying, 193, 196
Xu, Gang Gary, 146
Xu Ligong, 52
Xu Xiaoming, 114
Xu Xuzhen, 65
Yang, Edward, 23, 47, 52, 58, 65, 71, 76,
77, 83, 84, 85, 114, 115, 117, 125
Yang Ling, 84
Yang Shiqi, 52, 56
Ye Hongwei, 129
Ye Xie, 6
Yeh Yueh-yu, 3, 4, 49, 59, 101, 122, 129
Yip, June, 101
Zhan Hongzhi, 47, 77, 84, 97, 132, 135
Zhang Huakun, 65–66
Zhang Yi, 69, 71–72
Zhang Yimou, 114, 142, 144, 169
Zhu Gaozheng, 114
Zhu Yenping, 83, 114–15