See a full Hou Hsiao-hsien filmography at the end of this article.
The received wisdom on the cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien rests on a number of general observations: these are intimate tales featuring characters entangled in the great movements of Taiwanese history; the characters barely feel involved in what happens to them; Hou’s style consists of long, still takes of relatively distant and repeated spaces; the sense of a scene emerges from factors such as temporal experience or the play of light rather than from the drama that unfolds before us. Relatively little has been done to systematize these directorial traits, although the recent appearance of a book of essays on Hou, titled Hou Hsiao-hsien edited by Jean-Michel Frodon (and in particular Emmanuel Burdeau’s contributions), is certainly invaluable to anyone interested in formulating the fundamental principles guiding his last seven or eight astonishing films.
So often in film magazines and newspaper reviews a summary of the Hou aesthetic could just as easily be describing a range of Modernist auteurs from Antonioni to Tarr. The seemingly exhaustive analysis of Hou’s 1989 Venice Golden Lion winner City Of Sadness by the Cinemaspace team at Berkeley is good on technique but light on defining the ideas which these techniques serve. It seems to me that there are four main principles guiding the construction and development of Hou’s aesthetics:
1) Historical memory is impersonal.
2) My experiences don’t belong to me.
3) The shot’s centre of focus is forever drifting out-of-field.
4) We are clusters of signs and affects given form by light.
The first formula accounts for: a) why the Hou character is at one remove from the actuality he is part of; b) the sense the viewer has that historical experience is never truly subjective or collective, its recollection never subjective or intersubjective; and c) the sense of strangeness the spectator feels before a lengthy and still Hou take – events don’t take place in space-time, space-time is the event taking place before our eyes and its actualization is a result of an occurring that simultaneously produces its own memory. The contemporary world has no place for psychological trips down memory lane – Memory is impersonal, our recollections mere incarnations of its inscription in matter. For Hou, History in film would therefore be that which Memory must constitute in order to lend the overwhelmed subject a point of orientation amidst these impersonal Visions that include or implicate him. Flashbacks or even temporal ellipses or leaps are never convincing in a Hou film. A (Hi)story is rather the sum of “shots, their movement and variation” (Burdeau), from the viewpoint of a subject who desperately seeks to halt the sweep of Time but can’t.
Good Men, Good Women (1995) is exemplary in this respect. Hou’s historical forays are never content to remain in the past but invariably contaminate a character’s present circumstance. Master Wang, A Yuan, Kao and the others are rent by an internal difference, that “sweet disjunction” (Burdeau) that explodes every unified thing in a Hou film. A frame for Hou is a drifting block of signs and affects. Often Hou’s images seem like presentiments of future memories (Jacques Morice) rather than representations of present happenings. Jean-François Rauger speaks of Hou’s “embalmed” characters. These characters are “surrounded by the silence of premonitory dreams”. If these were subjective experiences or memories the camera could not but ‘go closer’. In Alain Bergala’s fine discussion of Flowers Of Shanghai (1998) one scene he highlights is that where Master Wang is seen alone in the dead of night at the house of Rubis, confronted with a situation he cannot comprehend. Bergala reads this as a loss of psychological bearings due to there being nobody about to interpret for him the circumstance in which he finds himself – in other words to ground it in an intersubjective experience. It is an exemplary case of the impersonal Event in the process of actualizing. As Burdeau says of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) “Hou passes from the manifest to the latent, the actualised to the virtual”.
We might add that this subjectless experience is what can only be called ‘transcendental’. This inevitably (via Schrader) raises the issue of Hou’s debt (if there is one) to Ozu. Now this is something that the Cinemaspace team deals quite well with. I am more interested in the relationship between Hou Hsiao-hsien and the other Japanese master he is frequently compared to, Mizoguchi. Burdeau briefly discusses the links from the point-of-view of Bazin’s notion of a “cinema of cruelty” and Mizoguchi’s dictum that cruelty constitutes moral spectators. For me, the comparison would seem to be most valid when it comes to the two auteurs’ preoccupations with off-screen space. If we accept the definition of off-screen space as “that which is neither seen nor understood but is perfectly present”, then we can see that both filmmakers seek to intensify the sense of presence in each shot of what is off-screen. Deleuze has proposed how, in line with an Oriental approach to art, Mizoguchi believed in a continuous unseen thread binding all living and dead things. The task of cinema would be not to represent this but to actualise its trajectories, to insufflate the fiber of this transcendental universe. This is why musical terminology has so often been applied by critics to his work. Rivette defined Mizoguchi’s art as an art of modulation, not only because of the temporal glissandi in his work that affect us like unexpected key changes in a musical piece, but more generally he referred to his radically disjunctive editing style which grants each shot an unprecedented level of autonomy. Jean Douchet goes so far as to suggest that there are no matching cuts at all in Mizoguchi. There is little doubt that the shot (and hence the shot-change) has a unique function in Mizoguchi’s work, one that serves a metaphysical purpose and Mizoguchi’s metaphysics and film aesthetics are inextricably bound together.
Continuing the musical metaphor, we can suggest that Mizoguchi’s “scroll-shots” are melodic lines connecting moments of intensity, each one autonomous yet secretly open to all the others and together forming polyphonic ‘compositions’ of joy and suffering visible as the affects of living and dying. Thus far little can be said to separate Hou and the creator of Sansho Dayu (1954). To express the dialectic of presence and absence that his aesthetics implies, Mizoguchi employs a constant interplay of translucent and opaque imagery; fog, wind, ghostly or moribund figures, characters lost amidst tall reeds or rushes. The Pale and Mysterious Moon After Rain! Furthermore, Mizoguchi’s use of deep focus photography combined with the incessant reframing of his sequence shots allows different regions of a single image to interact in the manner of internal shot-changes. And the disjunctive editing style referred to by Douchet is the consequence of this, because the finer the thread linking shot to shot the more insistent is the presence of the unseen spiritual element. Presence and absence become indiscernible, and this can occur even within a single shot as in the incredible homecoming scene in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) where, in one seamless take, the potter’s wife is seen to be absent, then present, dead then alive. One can’t imagine a scene quite like this in a Hou film.
In Good Men, Good Women (1995) for example, with its different temporalities and different levels of reality, the ontological interferences can never take place within a single shot (à la Angelopoulos). The autonomous scenes separated by fades to black in Flowers Of Shanghai testify to Hou’s increasing desire to absorb the out-of-field into the frame itself. It’s as if off-screen space is, paradoxically, contained within the frame as noises, objects and bodies seep through its pores. Figures are scattered in the frame, thrown there by the light that renders those spaces visible, perceptible.
In an essay on Hou’s use of ellipses, Yvonne Ng states that “Li’s voice-over narration begins with his characteristic introduction, ‘To speak of man’s fortunes.’ a phrase underlying his profound belief that life is subject to fate and that humans must reconcile themselves to their destinies.” This sounds like a more accurate description of the Mizoguchian universe, the puppetmaster’s voice would in that case comfortably segue into those voices carried on the wind in the late films of the Japanese master (the streetsinger in Life of Oharu , the dead father in Ugetsu, the mother in Sansho) and expressing wind as the essential Element in the Mizoguchian universe (and the perfect device for the manipulation of off-screen space). This to the point where wind becomes paradigmatic of all the modulation at work in these films, between different temporal levels, between one level of intense cruelty and the next, between ecstatic love and the call to suicide. In Hou, reframing is minimal, the camera doesn’t follow the characters because once they’ve slid beyond the frame’s limit they are metamorphosed. Hou speaks of his frames as “zones”, declaring that “certain shots appear empty but that’s an error”. The shot continues to contain affects, floating in its space. “There is a parallel with chinese prints in which you can believe there are empty spaces… these aid in transporting the gaze. They encompass whatever is effectively represented. I conceive my shots in the same manner.” Time and History are treated in like manner. “An alternately visible, invisible, perceptible, imperceptible movement” (Jacques Morice) “the progressive grasp of a memory in the process of formation, a troubled and lively memory”, actualizing, then virtualizing, the world’s incessant becoming.
It seems to me that in the final analysis the socio-historical aspects of Hou’s work are less important to him than it seems, certainly in terms of his incredible originality. Like Hou, for Mizoguchi, as David Williams has put it, “social problems are emanations of cosmic concerns” and social degradation is often shown to be merely a barely perceptible fold in the complex tissue of reality. A Mizoguchi film is “an adventure that is at the same time a cosmogeny” said Godard. Individual ambitions and demands for freedom are shown to count for little in a cosmic order governed by duty towards unseen forces. As a result, whereas for Mizoguchi the quality of human existence can best be expressed through the image of sacrifice in the face of inexpressible liabilities carried on the wind, for Hou, as Kent Jones in particular has noted, it is light and the “ravishing arrangement of shapes” in “half-defined spaces” “suggesting an array of portals into new dimensions” that is the ground of any possible morality or ethics. This is the finest description I know of Hou’s use of off-screen space. Jones adds that, in this way, Hou succeeds in “allowing what’s visible within the frame to open out…onto the world that extends beyond its parameters.” Hou’s astonishingly original way of working with light serves to create just such a perforated or “holey space” (Deleuze and Guattari), from which derive his equally lacunary narratives featuring characters with hiatuses where the West puts egos. Frames that are like sifters through which every centre of expression or point of focus slips. “I prefer contrasts, references, I like the sense to be elusive” says Hou. Translucency, rosy-hued interiors, the blue haze of twilight or the soft diffusion of oil lamp-light – Hou works these like a sonar (the flat in Good Men, Good Women has been likened to an aquarium, the sound in Goodbye South, Goodbye described as a magma). Often there are contrasts, but never the high-contrasts of expressionism or noir, but rather a mode of chiaroscuro that lends space a porosity rather than a depth of field. In this way, Hou seeks to master “the complete range between darkness and light” (Burdeau). “To show without unveiling” as Pigoullie says. And Burdeau adds “Master Wang is there without being there, Ah Ching remembers but we are not shown recollection-images or even flashbacks”. Hou’s characters can’t relate to their most pressing problems “their memories (Good Men, Good Women and The Puppetmaster), the historical context in which they live (City Of Sadness), their projects (The Boys Of Fengkuei and Goodbye South, Goodbye), their love affairs (Dust In The Wind, Flowers Of Shanghai)” (Burdeau). Kent Jones ties this to what he sees as Hou’s fundamental problematic, that of how these characters “have arrived at their own particular fate, how they have come to be in this particular place at this particular time under this particular set of circumstances”. Perhaps this is the tiniest bit too existentialist to account for Hou’s singularity. If, as Jones so perceptively notes, “every space is allowed to live as itself”, then the question becomes the cosmogenetic one of how this reality is now actual, now virtual and why “all that’s visible is at the threshold where the shown tips over into the not-shown” (Burdeau).
Hou opens up, or rather vaporizes the space-time of Western cinema – his perforated spaces distribute light in an incredibly original way, revealing subjects who are derived from this light: packets of signs and affects, phantasmatic figures or “energetic facts” as Burdeau puts it. “In Goodbye South, Goodbye, one character is often taken for another; neither in space nor time are the characters where they thought themselves to be, or where we believed them to be” (Burdeau). In the words of Lie-Tzeu, cited by Stephane Bouquet “you walk without knowing what pushes you, you stop without knowing what bars you, you eat without knowing how you digest. All that which you are is an effect of the irresistible cosmic emanation. Therefore, what belongs to you?”
Hou might answer: what belongs to you is whatever form light grants you for the briefest period. There is a Beckettian side to Hou Hsiao-hsien; everything begins and ends with resignation. IT goes on. This is why repetition plays such a major role in Hou’s films; repetition of sites, scenes, gestures. Through persistently repeated set-ups, Hou redefines and redescribes his space-time units. Repetition can thereby undo the linearity of narrative filmmaking, replacing development with passage and modulation. By way of repetition, every axis becomes unhinged. And the effect of all this on morality leaves Hou at his furthest point from Mizoguchi. There is no fatum to which man is yoked. There is only Life and the Light and the Impersonal Images that it ceaselessly creates and unmakes.
Hou Hsiao-hsien ed. Jean-Michel Frodon, Editions Cahiers du Cinéma, 1999
Bergala, Alain, “Les Fleurs de Shanghai” in Frodon (ed.)
Burdeau, Emmanuel, “Les aleas de l’indirect”, “Rencontre avec Hou Hsiao-hsien” and “Goodbye South, Goodbye” in Frodon (ed.)
Bouquet, Stephane, “Un peu de danse ne fait pas de mal” in Cahiers du Cinéma, no.516
Hou Hsiao-hsien, interview with Thierry Jousse in Cahiers du Cinéma, no.474, Dec. 1993
Hou Hsiao-hsien, interview with Michel Ciment in Positif, May 1996
Jones, Kent, “Cinema with a roof over its head” in Film Comment, Sept/Oct 1999
Morice, Jacques, “La Memoire impressionee” in Cahiers du Cinéma, no.474, Dec 1993
Pigoullie, Jean-François, “La voie de la Sagesse” in Cahiers du Cinéma, no.442
Rauger, Jean François, “La Fille du Nile” in Frodon (ed.)
Rauger, Jean François, “Naissance d’une nation” in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 469 Juin 1993
Williams, David, “Kenji Mizoguchi” in World Film Directors, 1988
Hou Hsiao-hsien Filmography
Cute Girl (1980)
Cheerful Wind (1981)
Green, Green Grass of Home (1982)
The Sandwich-Man (episode entitled Son’s Big Doll) (1983)
The Boys of Fengkuei (1983)
Summer at Grandpa’s (1984)
The Time to Live, The Time to Die (1985)
Dust in the Wind (1986)
Daughter of the Nile (1987)
City of Sadness (1989)
The Puppetmaster (1993)
Good Men, Good Women (1995)
Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996)
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)