Hou Hsiao-hsien: In Search of Lost Time
Hou has made films that wrestle, variously, and either directly or metaphorically, with personal and national histories, the struggles between Taiwan and Chinese nationalism, the encroachment of capital on an ever-evolving way of life, and the legacy of cinema itself.
Overused words like rapturous and hypnotic certainly apply to Hou’s technique here, even as the film jumps between eras and political realities, yet there’s something so much greater and more challenging going on in Three Times than aesthetic control.
Yet is it possible for a critic to express his disinterestedness in a major filmmaker and not enter into polemics? Can we simply state that these films do not affect us without either impugning a talented artist or goading his supporters into indignant defense?
Hou’s films have never tethered themselves to three-act structures or straightforward narrative storytelling; rather, the director tends to privilege visuality over narrative, mise-en-scène and character over plot and event. Millennium Mambo takes these impulses to an extreme.
What does it mean to say that Flowers of Shanghai is perfect? And how could one apply the label “perfect” to the cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, which is often improvised around a basic structure or, like Flight of the Red Balloon, created almost wholly from scratch?
Even the title is unerring. Goodbye South, Goodbye: the phrase evokes a new beginning, the promise of motion, a regretful departure, an elegiac wallow, and sweet release, all at once. That density of suggestion pulsates in nearly every scene of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movie.
The Puppetmaster is absolutely not a film I want to reduce. I love this film. It’s the Hou Hsiao-hsien film I would take to my grave, the one many others would too. It’s just that “greatness” is not quite the right word to ascribe to such a self-effacing movie.
Familiarity of the personal is, perhaps, why Hou’s fourth film, The Boys from Fengkuei, leafs through the same dog-eared locations as other vignettish all-the-young-dudes remembrances like I vitelloni, Diner, and, more recently and self-consciously, Reprise.
Hou began his career with three blatantly commercial romantic comedies, vehicles for the Hong Kong pop star Kenny Bee churned out in a brisk two years.