VIFF 2015: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)

the assassin

Hou Hsiao-hsien structures his new film, The Assassin, as a sort of once upon a time tale. It begins with narration, a mix of the historical and the mythic, and I am at once immersed in a dream-like tale that will, indeed, haunt my memory, just as history and myth so often do, becoming reference points in my present, even when I am not consciously aware of their influence.

It is ninth century China, and political struggle infects the kingdom. The royal court fears a strong, militarized outer province, Weibo; too much delegated power is a threat to the court’s own strength. Weibo, with a century of nearly complete self-governance, fears a reduction in its autonomy. It is a struggle that absorbs everyone.

And yet within this kingdom, there is a mother who tells another story, the story of a single bird. Caged and alone, the bird sits silent, a small stranger in the human world around it, unable to sing to those so unlike itself. Its human keepers feel compassion for it and give it a mirror. Recognizing something like itself, it sings a song of sadness. It dances, and then it dies.

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Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)

a Hou Hsiao-hsien Kôhî jikô Café Lumière DVD Review PDVD_007

This Monday and Tuesday April 6th and 7th, Scarecrow Video will be hosting the final two shows in Seattle’s Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective, with free screenings of Goodbye South, Goodbye and Café Lumière, respectively. The first was Hou’s follow-up to Good Men, Good Women, a contemporary minimalist gangster hang out picture with Jack Kao, Lim Giong and Annie Shizuka Inoh that owes as much to the Hong Kong New Wave’s genre experimentations as theories of identity and Taiwanese political history. The second was a tribute to Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. The following is a slightly revised version of something I wrote about a few shots in Café Lumière back in 2012.

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Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)

millennium-mamboOne of the great things about a retrospective of a great director’s works such as the one we’re in the midst of enjoying with this Seattle Hou program is finding previously unsuspected connections between the films. Millennium Mambo, released in 2001 and Hou’s first to be theatrically distributed in the US, is his first film set entirely (well, almost) in the contemporary world since Daughter of the Nile, and like that film it tends to be passed over in favor of more ostensibly serious works (which also, perhaps not coincidentally, have male protagonists). A chronicle of a young woman in a bad relationship struggling to get by in the trancelike neon club haze of Taipei, the film is told in voiceover from ten years in the future, as Shu Qi’s Vicky looks back on her life in a tangled chronology of memories, impressions, dreams and failures. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive order of events, and how one chooses to place the film’s final scene in the timeline goes a long way toward determining if you see the film as ultimately hopeful or depressing.

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Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998)

flowers-of-shanghai-1With Flowers of Shanghai, the Seattle Hou Retrospective takes a big leap forward in time and makes a somewhat less drastic transformation in filmmaking style. When we left off, Hou had moved from his series of coming of age memoirs into an epic trilogy encapsulating much of the history of Taiwan in the 20th Century. I’ll be writing about those history films in a few days, after I see Good Men, Good Women on Friday (I missed the show on Sunday), and then as A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster play at Scarecrow at the end of the month. Hou followed up that trilogy with 1996’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, a languid film about scheming low-level gangsters trying to make a buck in contemporary Taiwan, it’s the closest Hou has ever come to making a Hong Kong-style triad movie. That one will be playing at Scarecrow Video on April 6th. Less concerned with history or memory than any film Hou had made since 1983 (excepting Daughter of the Nile), it represented a sharp turn into the next great series of films Hou would make, about young people in 21st Century urban centers, films inflected with a very peculiar kind of cinephilia. But before that train really got rolling, Hou would take a brief sidetrack into the 19th Century.

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Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

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The fourth in the series of coming-of-age films that marked Hou Hsiao-hsien’s transition from competent movie-maker to celebrated auteur, Dust in the Wind is based on the experiences of New Cinema multi-hyphenate Wu Nien-jen, most famous in the US for his starring role in Edward Yang’s Yi yiThe Boys from Fengkuei is generally not included in what has become known as Hou’s Coming of Age Trilogy, for some good reasons (it’s more fictionalized than the other three films and it is set in the present rather than the past) and some bad ones (film critics really like trilogies – quartets and quintets are confusing. Hou also has a Taiwan Trilogy and an Urban Female Youth Trilogy. And then there’s his 2005 film Three Times, which is like a trilogy all on its own). If we just take the last three in the series, we have one film each based on the memories of a single person (Chu Tien-wen for A Summer at Grandpa’s and Hou himself for The Time to Live, The Time to Die), with each focusing on the life of a young person in rural Taiwan in the 1950s-60s. The first film begins with a young girl and her brother moving from the city to the country, the third involves a young man and woman moving from the country to the city, while the middle film is set entirely in the country. The main characters age progressively as the series goes along, youngest in Summer, oldest in Dust. Taken as such, it can be seen as the history of a generation filtered through the life stories of three individuals, personal memory as cultural history.

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The Time to Live, The Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)

title-timeAfter his turn toward more personal filmmaking with 1983’s The Boys from Fengkuei, which was based on incidents from his own life transplanted onto a story of contemporary youth, and the following year’s A Summer at Grandpa’s, based on the recollections of Chu Tien-wen, an author whom Hou had met and begun a lifelong collaboration (she will write or co-write all of Hou’s features from Fengkuei on), Hou tells his own autobiographical story in 1985’s The Time to Live, the Time to Die, which remains one of his most-acclaimed films and is generally considered one of the greatest Chinese-language films of all-time (it placed third on the Golden Horse Film Festival’s Top 100 list in 2010 – Hou had two other films  in the top ten: Dust in the Wind was seventh and A City of Sadness was #1 overall).

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The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)

6a014e86c28c66970d01675f0c40cb970b-800wi Seattle’s Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective kicked off last night with his fourth feature and self-proclaimed “first real film”. It followed a trio of totally pleasant romantic comedies starring Hong Kong pop star Kenny Bee, who was then trying to make it as an actor in Taiwan. Already in those films Hou was demonstrating some of the tropes that would recur in his later work, most especially an emphasis on space and the placing of characters within their environments, explicitly the theme of two of those films, Cute Girl and The Green, Green Grass of Home, with their contrasts of rural and urban life. But after a pair of fortuitous and near-simultaneous meetings (with author Chu Tien-wen and the young directors that would make up the New Taiwanese Cinema) that would turn into career-long collaborations, Hou began a sharp move away from the generic and formal strictures of mainstream cinema toward a more personal and idiosyncratic vision.

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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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