Though praise for Taiwanese director Hou Hsiou-hsien has been consistent since his rise into international renown in the mid-1980s, a number of his films are generally elided when talking about the importance of Hou’s filmography. Eclipsed by the acclaim and visibility of the grander, more accessible historical period films surrounding it, 1987’s Niluohe nuer (Daughter of the Nile) is remarkable for two aspects unique to Hou’s films up to this point: a female protagonist and an entirely urban, contemporary setting. Up until that point, Hou’s films had either taken place in the countryside, in the past, or amongst several male protagonists (or a combination thereof). Though 1996’s Nanguo shang hua (Goodbye South, Goodbye) was another film that dealt with urban youth, it was not until Qianxi manbo (Millennium Mambo, 2001) that Hou returned again to the isolation of a singular urban setting. Not coincidentally, his protagonist is again a single female. Tracing a line from the strictly contemporary, highly urbanized Daughter of the Nile to Millennium Mambo one can find a connection between these two films and Haonan haonu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995), a film mixing a youthful female heroine with a complicated urban scenario and a burdensome historical past. These three works can be united into a trilogy on the trials and tribulations of modern, urban, female Taiwanese youth.
The first question that must be asked of this trilogy is: why women? What is different in Hou’s focus on singular female characters compared to the male group protagonists in much of his filmography? The answer for this lies in the contemporary setting. For Hou’s historical films, using a collection of characters allows the director to expand his scenario to encompass the plethora of issues (social, political, ideological, etc.) that rise from looking back at a place and time in the past from the meditative vantage point of the present. This actually facilitates the inclusion of female characters quite well, and a number of the historical films – such as Lianlian fengchen (Dust in the Wind, 1986) and Beiqing chengshi (A City of Sadness, 1989) – include strong, richly developed female co-protagonists. Nevertheless, the primary narrative focus of these films is how Hou’s male protagonists did or did not interact with the historical process of the films’ settings. More often then not, the films deal with passive, rural-dwelling, historically unimportant men who happen to grow up or live during tumultuous times in Taiwanese history. The choice of men as the focal point is linked both to Hou’s earlier films containing semi-autobiographical elements, but more often than not the male narratives focus exists primarily to destroy the notion of the strength of the Taiwanese patriarchy and to emphasize the lack of socio-political historical influence of Taiwan’s rural male population. Fathers are missing or impotent, families gradually disintegrate under their head male, and men in general fail at changing their lives, changing their fates or changing their times.
The failure (most often passive or unknowing) of the historical Taiwanese male in Hou’s films is a topic ripe for discussion, but here will only serve as pointing out a contrast point to the director’s contemporarily set works. There are surprising similarities to Hou’s collective, historical male and his singular contemporary females, all of which surround the notion of national, historical and social consciousness. Both sexes are mostly defined by what they do not know and what they do not do rather than what they do know and do. However, the temporal difference between the characters is important to note. Hou’s historical films implicitly indict many of Taiwan’s men for not proactively taking a political stance against the Japanese, the White Terror or any of the later governmental oppression. Yet this female trilogy, taking place after the raising of marshal law and thereby theoretically existing in a time of a new, fresh start for the Taiwanese population, features characters just as self-consumed and keeping their heads down to the world around them as any of Hou’s historical males. Times have changed, the patriarchy is not longer as strong as it once was, the older generation has either died off or gone missing and young males have few role models. Hou’s vision of the new male youth can be easily grasped in the continuity of get-rich-quick male gangster figures in all his modern films (a continuity kept fresh by the director’s continued casting of actor Jack Kao in the gangster role in film after film), including Goodbye South, Goodbye, a contemporary film about rootless young criminals and their social ennui.
With the young men distracted by the modern, urban lures of easy wealth, the women who do little else besides follow or romantically latch onto these men around seem apt for a transfer of power. The line of thought is clear: the opportunities missed by the socially empowered males in the mid-20th century have given way to modern, contemporary opportunities similarly being missed by Taiwan’s women. The shift from films in the past tense to films in the present tense indicate an attempt by the director to make a incisive point about what is happening now around him rather than create films around the now-pat themes of nostalgia and reflection. Hou sees these new women – strong-willed, romantic, partially socially conscious and vaguely looking for something to do with their lives – as the hope for dragging Taiwanese society out of the qualms of the modern life. These women are not active, empowered agents in the narratives; rather, the narratives of the films are constructed so that the audience gradually becomes aware that these women (the young women of today) are the sites of hope for Taiwan as the women themselves in the films move on to more important things in life.
A day-to-day ontological look at the lives of youth forms what could be considered the meat of these films’ narratives of slow awareness. Strictly speaking, none of these films has a story with plot points built on causality, and the progress in the narratives is instead subtly seen through the female characters moving from social stagnation to some form of consciousness. Mainly, Hou uses his staid camera and long takes to concentrate on how these three young women live each day rather than pick up these protagonists in the middle of or at the beginning of a unique story. The nearly non-existent stories that exist in the films are mostly dynamic only by slight variations in the girls’ routine. Their lives – and the films themselves – are listless, uneventful, repetitious and filled with attempted distraction and ephemeral meaning.
Hsiao-yang (Yang Lin), the lead in Daughter of the Nile, spends her days working at an American fast-food joint, lounging around the restaurant owned by her brother, listening to pop music, going to night-school, hanging around the family’s apartment and interacting with various relatives, or pining for a friend of her brother who is dating a gangster’s moll. The relationship Hsiao-yang has with her family is unique in this trilogy of Hou’s, as the connection to family in the later women is elided almost completely. The presence of Hou-regular actor Li Tianlu, who has not only acted in several of the director’s historical films but also is the subject of the biopic, Hsimeng jensheng (The Puppetmaster, 1993), intertextually emphasizes Hsiao-yang’s connection not just to family but also history. This latter connection is of some major importance, as the girl clearly has no concept of Taiwanese history, and her attempts at night-school are shown mostly as her class goofing around or deriding their professor, but Hsiao-yang’s concern for the welfare of her family, including her gangster brother and younger sister, lets the character find meaning and solace amongst the Americanised, hermetic spaces of her urban life.
Hou Hsiou-hsien’s formalism has never been as rigid and easy to analyse as that of the director he is often mentioned with, Yasujiro Ozu, whose thematic focus on transience is quoted through a clip from Banshun (Late Spring, 1949) in Good Men, Good Women. Hou’s long-shot, long-take æsthetic is common through all three of these films, but their mise en scène and use of the camera is generally fairly different. Being Hou’s first entry into urban filmmaking, Daughter of the Nile’s palette is in a similar vein as the works of Taiwanese director Edward Yang, using a visual scheme that is understandably cool, greyish and drained of colour except for minor punctuations of vibrant neon lights. The camera very rarely moves, and Hou uses this technique to separate spaces, from concrete interior spaces such as the direct, cubicle-like division of the rooms of the family’s apartment, to clarifying the separation of social spaces, such as various restaurant meetings, or the interior of a KFC. Though the camera is both static and immobile, angles are often more oblique than most Hou films and stasis does not feel pervasive, making the film formally one of the most unassuming of Hou’s work, especially since the æsthetic ideas do not deviate much from those of other films about urban alienation such as those of Yang or Michelangelo Antonioni. Hou’s relatively plain version of this æsthetic reflects the film’s existence as the most ungainly and unsure of Hou’s mature works, focusing on a single protagonist but spending too much time with other, undeveloped characters, not putting much effort into making the film’s look or subject different from other similar and recent Taiwanese works, and not featuring a decisive ending, even one subtle-ised through ellipses and abstruse filmmaking. Still, this new look to Hou’s first urban film distinctly separates it from the burnished, warm nostalgia that pervades the æsthetic tone of Hou’s strictly historical films.
Good Men, Good Women, the film with the strongest character progression amongst the three films, takes the thread of failed romantic relationships from Daughter of the Nile (where the boy Hsiao-yang likes is killed by rival gangsters) and locates the existential restlessness of its young protagonist in her romantic past. In several flashbacks, we see Liang (Annie Shizuka Inoh) having a troubled, on-again-off-again relationship with her gangster boyfriend. In the present, Liang is depressed and missing her now-dead boyfriend, a helpless feeling facilitated by her being tormented by a mysterious stalker who prank calls her and faxes entries from Liang’s stolen diary, which continually remind her of the failed relationship in the past. Most importantly, Liang is rehearsing for a movie about the life of historical Taiwanese heroine Chiang Bi-Yu, a woman who followed her husband to the mainland to join the resistance against the Japanese in the 1940s, only to return home after the war and be persecuted by the Nationalist government.
The disconnection Liang feels to her contemporary time is shown through the psychological menace and temporal confusion implied in technology (cell phones, fax machines, television, VCRs), as well as the drug and alcohol abuse that is featured both in flashbacks and in the present. Redemption slowly comes from Liang’s identification with her role-playing of the film character of Chiang, whose life is consumed with duty, drive and historical-social awareness. Gradually, Liang is able to draw a connection between the historical trauma of a Taiwanese hero and her own personal, romantic trauma (having sold out her gangster boyfriend for blood money), a connection reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The character arc connecting the unfulfilling, traumatized, existential present and the determined, nation-defining history of Taiwan’s painful 20th century history makes Good Men, Good Women the most overtly profound of Hou’s trilogy, bordering on, for the normally subtle director, an almost didactic ending that declares how youth should learn about and from their pasts.
Hou’s camera is the most mobile in Good Men, Good Women, dollying towards characters, tracking both along horizontal planes and sometimes even along the z-axis into the scene itself, and including other such breaks with the normal static-ness of previous Hou films. For the contemporary parts of the story, this languid, almost dreamy movement emphasizes the lethargy of youth within confined spaces. While the characters are free to move about and are not trapped by a static frame, this freedom only seems relative inside the enclosed urban spaces. The long, leisurely tracking shots following Liang around her apartment or inside a club gives the impression of the camera as an observer’s gaze, watching a trapped person unknowingly bounce off the walls of their prison with the cool and distanced eye of an ironic overseer, rather than the camera being placed on the reflexively passive tripod shots of many of Hou’s films. Elaborate camera movement – such a tracking shot in the club which dramatically switches the plane of spatial action and the loose handheld shot in the enclosed badminton court – is so syrupy slow in its movement that rather than imply freedom from a static frame it makes the environments seem oppressive and confining, as if no amount of character movement can escape the camera’s moving awareness of the enclosed spaces. This feeling is even stronger in the sepia-tinted “historical” footage of Liang’s film, where the plot concerns the repeated, unexpected incarceration of the Taiwanese heroes. These sections contain none of the photographic detail or tonal warmth of Hou’s “true” historical films and, instead, the lighting is harsh, the characters are cold, undefined and distant, and the drama unusually emblematic. Combined with the continued motifs of imprisonment, the thick camera filter and Hou’s disturbingly deliberate, very gradual camera movement makes this portrayal of history feel like a heavy, weighted burden for actors playing these historical roles.
If Hsiao-yang found the only solace in her life in the day-to-day interaction with her family, and Liang found it in historical empathy, than the character of the last film in the trilogy, Millennium Mambo, seems the most hopeless. Considering this, it seems counter-intuitive that of the three women it is Vicky (Shu Qi) whose life is given the most colourful, impressionistic cinematic portrayal, for, at the same time, it is also the life that is the most cyclical, repetitive, listless and meaningless. Like Liang, Vicky’s “story” concerns her relationship with men in an enclosed urban environment. She has been seeing the same man ever since high school, breaking up and returning to him again and again. Likewise, the film spends its time observing Vicky and her boyfriend having meaningless tiffs, dancing at clubs, wandering around their apartments and engaging in unreciprocated sexual advances. Vicky finds brief consolation in the compassion of an older male gangster, but he becomes embroiled in some dark business and it is only when Vicky leaves Taiwan to visit some friends in a remote town in Hokkaido, Japan, that the character finally seems free of the drudgery, entrapment and repetition of existence in Taiwan.
The joyous opening shot of Millennium Mambo, an extremely rare slow-motion Steadicam shot of Vicky running down a breezeway, signals a shift in Hou’s handling of urban mise en scène. Rather than have the mise en scène reflect the motives of the director’s themes (i.e., the bleak, claustrophobia of Liang’s studio, or the soulless streets in Daughter of the Nile, both speaking broadly for urban existence), the director instead has overly-beautified his compositions. Hou plants his camera firmly on the tripod (aside from this opening, there is not a single tracking or dolly shot in the film) and composes most images in medium shots. With action and objects placed too close or too far from this unusual medium distance, visual elements in frame become overly distracting: colours sparkle and shine to an unparalleled degree, decorative light radiates behind and in front of things, objects get in the way of sight lines, characters walk off-frame and the camera has to pivot in complicated ways to keep up with them. More than ever, visual texture and camera movement itself seems to feel like an offshoot of the protagonist’s mind state rather than inspired by the will of the filmmaker (as in Daughter) or the eye of the observer (Good Men, Good Women). Highly impressionistic, the camera seems to lag behind onscreen movement, reframing a second or two too late – Vicky’s dulled senses and bored life not caring enough to pay attention. The mise en scène, reflecting the spiritual emptiness and material distraction of the film’s main character, seems superficially interested in the pretty lights and things, the bobbles and bangles that make up Vicky’s life but do nothing to define its meaning. Like Goodbye South, Goodbye before it, this film also highlights its characters, freedom through unrestrained spatial mobility, mostly featured in the relative freedom expressed by driving cars. It seems apt, then, that Vicky’s hope for freedom, implied through the movement of a car, is literalised when she actually does take flight and travels abroad. When Vicky eventually travels to Japan the mise en scène notably seems comfortable, functional and practical, and contains none of the clutter of the Taiwanese sections.
The importance of music in the lives of urban youths cannot be underestimated and Hou emphasizes it in his film’s diegesis rather than the use of non-diegetic folk music for his historical films. The heavily repeated American pop songs help define Daughter of the Nile’s concern with the proliferation of American lifestyle imagery among urban youth, re-defining their sense of cultural identity and specifying the location for their dreamed escape (a theme seen in the film’s title, which it shares with a Japanese manga that Hsiao-yang reads about a heroine escaping to Egypt). Good Men, Good Women has Liang emotionally relate to soapy, dramatic karaoke pop in the contemporary sections, finding a commonality in her life in the generic lyrics, but the film’s catharsis is located not in the modern pop music but the representation of the past. Millennium Mambo’s soundtrack is that of the heavy, beat-driven and trance-like club music that its protagonists zone out to, representing the cyclic, purposelessness of their lives. Vicky’s boyfriend, when not fighting with or pawing her, spends all his time with headphones on in front of turntables, manipulating the seductive music. The use of music in this film is a continuation of the alienating affect of technology in Good Men, Good Women, with the hyper-saturated lights of the club and the blaring, deadening music standing in for elements of modern urbanity that both dislocate and de-specify youth culturally and socially, as well as helping them alienate themselves from the world around them.
Hou’s popular casting choices in these films are as deliberate and knowing as his use of popular music. The director’s preference for casting celebrities in lead roles may be a commercially minded decision as much as an artistic one, but the choices do resonate in the films themselves. Putting pop-star Yang Lin in the roll of a completely average, typically estranged urban youth puts an interesting twist both on the image of Taiwanese celebrity and the purpose of her music for youths in a similar situation as her character. (Is it to forget this kind of life? Romanticize it? Is Yang’s character listening to Yang’s own music?) Shu Qi is the first actress who one could say is glamorised visually in a Hou film and, as an actress who got her start in soft-core adult films, her flattering visual portrayal adds an intertexual element to the impressionistic, visually pleasurable style of the film. As Vicky gets more embroiled with Jack Kao’s protecting gangster, it is clear that, in this kind of searching, desperately muted urban lifestyle that focuses on material distraction, the only superficial thing the woman has going for her is her looks, which both the film itself and Vicky as a characters capitalizes off of (trying to become independent, Vicky eventually works as a stripper at a hostess bar).
Using rock musician Lim Giong as a gangster in Daughter of the Nile and the hero husband of Chiang in the historical film of Good Men, Good Women, and then using some of his music for the soundtrack of Millennium Mambo creates a similarly interesting intertextual comment. By casting a young pop star as a historical character, Hou is once again suggesting a solution to the soul-searching angst of modern youth in a knowledge, appreciation, the understanding of continuity of, or empathy with, national history. That this man can be, at the same time, a frivolous gangster, a Taiwanese hero and the man helping many youths block themselves out to life’s problems through his music helps Hou define the layered, complicated, contradictory existence of modern youth. The tension between the visibility provided in an urban environment through fame and monetary success, and the ability for someone to just de-conceptualise, disappear, hole themselves up inside and zone out is a tension that exists in the very casting of these films actors.
The eventual outlets – or, perhaps, one can say sources of redemption – for all these women are never stable or consistent. One could make case that Daughter of the Nile is the most tragic of the three films, because Hsiao-yang does not make progress towards understanding and appreciating family; rather, she is unknowingly lucky that she has family around her. To be sure, her dead mother, gangster brother and absent father make it clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with urban Taiwanese families (a missing parent or parents being a very strong motif in Hou’s historical works and is continuous in the other two parts of this trilogy), but the very existence under one roof of the woman’s grandfather and younger sister, and their relative closeness, does connect the past historical generation to the modern one, as well as providing a small social support system. Hou certainly goes out of his way to make clear that, while hope exists for the modern Taiwanese young woman, it is not an obvious one. In Good Men, Good Women and Millennium Mambo, Hou complicates his narrative structures to initially downplay the redemptive aspects in the films. His cross-cutting between Liang’s scenes in her movie, her contemporary experiences and her memories of her dead boyfriend makes it difficult to trace a connection or progression in what she what feeling then, how she is feeling now (most importantly) and how she feels about her historical character, making her eventual cathartic connection between the times a relative surprise. Likewise, Hou shuffles chronology in Millennium Mambo so that it appears that Vicky visits Japan midway through the movie and then again at the end, but a close re-viewing finds that her single trip, which takes place at the end of the film when she is stranded in Japan, is cut up and distributed earlier in the film. Both these editing practices downplay the eventual importance of these redemptive elements (historical empathy, and spatial/social escape and relief, respectively) during the course of the films, making their quiet closing scenes slowly, gradually blossom with understanding of what change has taken place for these women.
The possibilities eluded to in these aspects of family, history and spatial freshness link Hou’s three urban women to the hope of understanding the social world around them, seeing the spiritual bankruptcy of youthful carelessness and rootlessness for what it is, and coming to understand not just what made it the way it is today but where relief can be found. In Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière, 2003), Hou’s next film, the director moves the setting to the youthful Japanese of Tokyo. There, a young woman researching a Japanese composer of Taiwanese decent bonds with a young man documenting the aural dynamics of the Tokyo train system. With the spiritual union of a female character already realizing the strength of understanding the past, and a young male character finally making an attempt to contribute and comprehend his modern city life, Hou has perhaps united the three disparate hopes of youthful urban renewal of his contemporary Taiwanese female trilogy into a hopeful picture of the future (and one which positively includes men). This aspect of union can further been seen, and should be studied, in Hou’s most recent film, Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times, 2005), where Shu Qi plays three female characters spread across Taiwan’s 20th and 21st century historical epochs facing similar problems of life in different political-social contexts.