Sunday, July 17, 2005


Michiko Hada sparks up an opium pipe in Flowers Of Shanghai
Michiko Hada sparks up an opium pipe in Flowers Of Shanghai

Here's the thing. I usually find it not very hard to watch a film and then put down some words about it, perform a little "close reading", point to a few of its aspects that interest me. But what I find fiendishly hard is to say about a director I like, in bullet form with some clarity: These are the precise reasons — bang, bang, bang — why I like his/her films.

And yet, I often feel like this could be an important activity, a distillation of an artist's appeal for you, lucidly articulated for yourself. Should lead to a clearer understanding of that artist in your mind, no?

Well, seeing as I've trumpeted Hou Hsiao-Hsien as my favorite living filmmaker, it's only fair that I try to do as much with him (or to him, the poor fella). So, here goes.

Some reasons why Hou's films truly....knock, me, out:

  • The long takes, with all manner of activity or inactivity in the frame, forcing you to (1) observe, (2) in real time.

  • A non-judgmental presentation within the shot that doesn't guide your eye away from the "less" dramatic to the "more" dramatic areas of the frame. In other words, drama is everywhere.

  • Ellipses. One of my favorite aspects of his work, in which time and events are passed over, elided, when moving from one scene to another, leaving "gaps" in the narrative.

  • This has the miraculous effect of disengaging the connection between cause and effect. Most Hollywood cinema is of course based upon tight linkages between cause and effect, in which all explanation and motivation is strenuously laid out.

  • He almost never uses close-ups. Instead, he keeps you at a distance, and you're craning your neck, leaning in, dying to get closer and soak in every detail, visual and aural. But he holds you back, on purpose. And your curiosity mounts because of it.

  • Most films cut or fade from one scene to another at a point soon after the dramatic arc of the scene has peaked. When Hou transitions to a new scene, it almost always floors me because he chooses a quiet, seemingly unimportant, "undramatic" moment and then (later, in your mind) makes you realize that in real life, any moment can be a dramatic moment if you're being mindful.

  • His attention to these moments of undramatic "dead time" ennobles ordinary life, yours and mine. What are 99% of our days if not ordinary? Hou shows us beauty and significance in the ordinary.

  • No matter what the story of a Hou film, it's also about history.

  • This one's close to my own heart: Hou never disparages so-called "low" culture. He's a lover of pop music and a karaoke addict, and has made both weighty historical films as well as teen movies (the wonderful Daughter Of The Nile) and techno-driven studies of modern life (Millennium Mambo).


Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I've seen several of Hou's films. My favorite is Millenium Mambo which had a brief theatrical run in Denver. I've even been thinking about putting on my parka and going to that film festival in the snow. Of course I'll see anything with Shu Qi.

July 17, 2005 6:51 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I have to admit that I can't completely embrace the "new" Hou yet. The Flowers of Shanghai is the last film of his that I still feel connected too. Millennium Mambo to me was more of a variation on Goodbye South Goodbye with more atmosphere, good, but didn't knock my socks off. As for Café Lumière, I think it was just a little too much temp morts and not enough quotidian for me.

July 18, 2005 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Girish -- Have you ever seen Olivier Assayas' portrait of HHH, called (surprisingly enough) HHH? It's an incredible 90 minutes -- just Hou walking around Taiwan, talking about everything. What's really wild is how much of a macho he is -- I never would have expected that, given the nature of his films.

July 19, 2005 1:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain -- Yeah, it's such a delightful film (and where I first learned about his karaoke jones). Later, I read somewhere that he served in the army, and was a gangster for a while after that. Movies "saved" him, apparently. What an interesting guy.

July 19, 2005 3:33 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Wonderful writeup of what sounds like a fascinating director.

July 20, 2005 4:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, Tuwa.

July 20, 2005 4:35 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Superb film! And insightful commentary Girish. :)
I had a similar reaction to yours, and wrote down all details of the filmmaking craft that made it so impressive despite being so challenging by its uncompromising formal originality.
HHH is a filmmaker to learn from about what is the essence of cinema. He fully understands the intimate/unconscious identification of the eye with the camera. The eye of the voyeur, both in a real scene and in front of a screen. Unlike mainstream conventions, the visual vocabulary is symbolic (significant) rather than structuring (efficient). Much like Ozu operated, under very different take though.

I like how you raise slightly different points than I thought of.

p.s. What's with the ending of Goodbye South, Goodbye? I have to say I lost track of what was going on in the night. I was left watching from the sideline, culturally or emotionally estranged.

July 21, 2005 9:01 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Did you get to see Three Times? The segment homage to Flower of Shaghai, shot like a color silent movie, with a longing music track, is a beauty!

July 21, 2005 9:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry--I haven't seen "Goodbye South Goodbye" in a few years but the ending seemed to me deliberately anticlimactic. The car founders then ploughs into the field, stuck in the mud motionless (like with pretty much everybody in the film).

I'm really looking forward to "Three Times" at TIFF.

July 22, 2005 4:12 PM  

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