The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective

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My pick as one of the Top Three Greatest Living Motion Picture Directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, gets the retrospective treatment over the next ten days at a trio of terrific venues across Seattle. It’s a truncated version of the complete retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College), in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center, the Taiwan Film Institute, and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), that has been traveling the world for the past six months. The Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum have joined forces to present five of Hou’s very best films on 35mm (each movie plays one night at each theatre), while Scarecrow Video supplements the series with five additional movies, presented on video free of charge in its Screening Lounge. I’ll even be there introducing movies at each venue, covering six movies in total over the next nine days.

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Hou’s career began in the early 1980s with a trio of light romantic comedies starring pop star Kenny Bee, pleasant but for the most part unmemorable entertainments. But in 1983, after meeting up with a group of young directors who had studied at schools in America (among them Edward Yang, who studied electronics at the University of Washington and worked as an engineer), and a fortuitous collaboration with author Chu Tien-wen (she went on to write or co-write almost all of his subsequent films), Hou took a dramatic turn away from the mainstream and into a series of highly idiosyncratic explorations of personal memory and 20th century Taiwanese history. Along with his fellow directors in the Taiwanese New Cinema, Hou became a pioneer of a film form later contentiously-dubbed “Asian Minimalism”, typified by oblique and elliptical storytelling, extremely long shot lengths and a preference for shooting in middle-distance “master shots” rather than the edited together melange of close-up, medium and reverse shots that make up the film style perfected in the Hollywood studio era and that remains the dominant film grammar the world over.

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This more experimental turn began with a series of four coming of age films, each based on the experiences of Hou or one of his collaborators. The Seattle Hou series kicks off with the first of these, The Boys from Fengkuei (playing at Scarecrow on Thursday the 19th), which, along with the third, 1985’s The Time to Live, the Time to Die (playing at the Grand Illusion on Friday the 20th and the NWFF on Monday the 23rd), is based on Hou’s own experiences growing up in small town Taiwan, the child of Mainlanders in the wake of World War II, and moving to the big city for the first time. We don’t get the second of these films (A Summer at Grandpa’s, based on Chu Tien-wen’s childhood memory), but we do get the fourth, 1987’s Dust in the Wind, based on screenwriter and occasional director and actor (he plays the main character in Edward Yang’s Yi yi), Wu Nien-jen. It plays at the NWFF on Saturday the 21st and the GI on Tuesday the 24th.

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After a slight detour with the unjustly-overlooked Daughter of the Nile, Hou embarked on his most famous series of films, a trilogy covering the history of Taiwan from the early 20th century all the way through the present moment. The first two films play at Scarecrow (A City of Sadness on March 30 and The Puppetmaster on March 31), which is a shame as they’ve never been properly released on video with English subtitles, so being able to see these two masterpieces on film would have been a treat. Regardless, they are must-sees in any form. A City of Sadness (1989) chronicles a family’s experiences in the interim between the end of the Japanese war and the end of the civil war in China that saw the establishment of the Kuomintang military rule over Taiwan, leading up to the February 28th Incident (events about which no film could be made until the lifting of martial law in 1987). It features the first great performance from Tony Leung Chiu-wai (playing a deaf mute, supposedly because the Hong Kong actor’s Mandarin wasn’t good enough to be convincing). The Puppetmaster (1993) is based on the life of Li Tien-lu, a puppeteer and friend of Hou’s who played memorable supporting grandfather roles in Dust in the Wind and Daughter of the Nile. It mixes Hou’s interviews with Li with dramatizations of the events he recounts (they don’t always match up though: Li was incapable of telling a story the same way twice), along with recreations of his puppet performances.

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The final film in the trilogy is Good Men, Good Women (playing at the GI on the 22nd and the NWFF on the 27th), and it weaves together the story of a woman who traveled from Taiwan to the mainland to fight the Japanese during the war only to be persecuted by the KMT as a communist in the early 1950s with that of the contemporary actress who is to play her in a movie and who herself is haunted by unresolved demons. It would be my pick as Hou’s “best” film, the one that most encapsulates everything that is great about his work.

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His next film, Goodbye, South Goodbye, was his first purely contemporary film since the early 1980s, and it tackles a world familiar from many Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s, that of the low-level gangster, as they drift aimlessly about their small-time scams and slight freedoms. It plays at Scarecrow on April 6th. He followed that up with his first film set entirely on the Mainland, 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai (playing on the 23rd at NWFF and the 26th at the GI). Reuniting with Tony Leung (along with a multinational cast including Carina Lau, Michelle Reis and Michiko Hada) it’s an adaptation of a celebrated 19th Century novel as translated by Eileen Chang, set entirely in a variety of brothels, chronicling the rituals and heartbreaks of the relations between clients and prostitutes.

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The penultimate film in the series is 2001’s Millennium Mambo, perhaps the most controversial (among film critics at least) of all Hou’s movies. Eschewing the socio-political subtexts (and male protagonists) of most of his earlier work, it’s a close-up study of a young woman (Shu Qi) as she drifts in and out of a bad relationship, through drugs and jobs until she finds herself, somehow, at a film festival in Japan. It’s the first Hou Hsiao-hsien film I ever saw and it remains one of my all-time favorite movies. It plays at the NWFF on the 25th and the GI on the 28th.

Finally, the series wraps on April 7th with Scarecrow’s presentation of 2003’s Café Lumière, made by Hou in Japan as part of a tribute to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a director to whom Hou is often compared (and not entirely without reason). A quiet tale about a young woman who doesn’t want to get married, her uncomfortably silent relationship with her parents and a friend who really digs trains, it forms the perfect mellow coda to Millennium Mambo‘s pounding electronic trance.

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Hou’s career continues of course. Later films not included in the series are 2005’s Three Times, a love story told three ways in three different time periods starring the same actors, and Flight of the Red Balloon, about a single mother (Juliette Binoche) and her nanny, a Chinese film student making a movie about the famous French short film The Red Balloon. Since that film’s release in 2007, Hou has been talking about his next project, a wuxia action film called The Assassin. Perhaps this is the year it finally gets released.

I’ll be introducing a number of the films in the series, and hopefully will be writing about each of them here as I see them again. You can find the full schedule for all the showings at all the venues at Scarecrow’s website, and here is the list of showings I’ll be at:

The Boys from Fengkuei – Thursday, March 19, 7pm at Scarecrow Video
The Time to Live, The Time to Die – Friday, March 20, 7pm at the Grand Illusion
Dust in the Wind – Saturday, March 21, 5pm at the Northwest Film Forum
Flowers of Shanghai – Monday, March 23, 3 pm at the Northwest Film Forum
Millennium Mambo – Wednesday, March 25, 8 pm at the Northwest Film Forum
Good Men, Good Women – Friday, March 27, 8 pm at the Northwest Film Forum
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