to Rants and Raves
Hou Hsiao Hsien is a Rule Breaking Director
Note: This essay
was spurred by a long-standing feud I had with a peer on a
movie message board regarding the merits of Taiwanese filmmaker
Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I decided to situate my defense within a
broader topic in which directors known as "Rule Breakers"
were identified and discussed. I had taken the idea of Rule
Breaking from The Motley Fool
investor website, which had come up with two kinds of companies
worth investing in. First, the Rule Makers were the companies
who dominated a long-established field. I associated these
kinds of companies with directors who excelled at traditional
or conventional standards of film making and film evaluation.
On the other hand, the Rule Breakers were those that defied
conventional criteria for appreciating their work and explored
new areas of cinema, just as Rule Breaking companies break
ground in nascent industries. I consider Hou Hsiao-Hsien to
be a Rule Breaker of the highest order in that he challenges
fundamental methods of watching and appreciating a movie.
The following attempts to explain why.
polls of critics and enough film professionals endorse him
as one of the world's key directors. It's easy to see why
the general public finds his later films 'difficult'; he keeps
storytelling as such to a minimum, and he films in sequence-shots
and expects viewers to explore the images to discover themes
and make connections for themselves. Sadly, most audiences
don't expect to put so much work into films they see. But
those who are happy to participate in the voyages of discovery
that Hou Hsiao-Hsien proposes are often rewarded with experiences
thrilling in ways that Hollywood never imagines.Ó Š Tony Rayns
- Hou Hsiao
HsienÕs films are sloppy and confusing in their treatment
of story and characters.
- HouÕs films
are oppressively boring and self-indulgent.
- There is nothing
new or noteworthy in these films.
I could address
each of these items at length, but for the sake of conciseness
IÕll just say that they are all typical Rule Breaker-bashing
by the Conventionally Wise. Without getting too deep into
it, IÕll just say what I think makes Hou so special and offer
a few links for those who wish to read more.
Fergus Daly, in
sensesofcinema.com, has offered four guidelines for understanding
the psychology of HouÕs films and characters: 1) Historical
memory is impersonal. 2) My experiences donÕt belong to me.
3) The shotÕs centre of focus is forever drifting out-of-field.
4) We are clusters of signs and affects given form by light.
The overall effect is one where characters donÕt develop,
they just exist, and it is only through the passing
of the movieÕs time and the repetition of scenes and images
that we come to understand the nature of their existence;
we donÕt just watch and follow them as characters; we are
with them, as beings. After all, we know the people
in our own real lives not by following their stories, but
by being with them.. This frees us from a whole slew
of conventional viewing demands, such as trying to figure
out Ņwhat makes them tickÓ or passing moral judgment on their
behaviors and actions, or even forcing an overt meaning down
the viewerÕs throat. This is a completely novel approach to
story and character Š if you want to compare him with other
Asian masters, its less cartoonish than Kurosawa and Zhang
Yimou, even less moralistic than Mizoguchi and even Ozu.
Because we arenÕt
forced to see the film through a central point of view or
running commentary, we end up in a space that is not entirely
the directors, but a temporary ŅsharedÓ space between film
and viewer, where the contents of the film are left in our
own hands to absorb, define and evaluate in a way that is
as unforced as any filmmakerÕs work before or since. The philosophical
implications of this work is radical to say the least, especially
when the subject matter is of a historical nature, and especially
when the history being dealt with has been as tumultuous and
contested as that of HouÕs native Taiwan. Born as an exile
and raised in a nation that has wrestled with its identity
for the last century Š first as an aboriginal island, then
as a Japanese colony and then as a co-opted domain for the
Nationalist Chinese regime, with the U.S. and Communist China
waiting in the wings -- Hou has developed a style that reflects
the sense of a people who watch helplessly as history and
politics have their way with them; itÕs the style of the Third
World Filmmaker, sensitively reflecting on a world far more
menacing and powerful than he is, and yet asserting his presence
with an elliptical style that stays one step ahead of the
consuming Western eye. Because it is so unassumingly detached
and meditative, people who are used to being pulled into the
movies they watch are left utterly stranded.
So what can one
do to adjust to this kind of film? I have a couple of suggestions.
The first is to go to an art museum and study a painting for
5-10 minutes, or more if youÕre hardcore. HouÕs films are
among those most closely related to that forgotten art, painting,
but because they are frames of movement in time, they do something
distinctively different than a painting frozen forever on
a canvas. Perhaps a better suggestion would be to go to a
nearby park, sit your ass down on a bench and just observe
everything that is happening. See how you feel after half
an hour. Some of you will probably dismiss this as a pointless
meaningless exercise, some will get fidgety and bored beyond
belief. As for the rest, welcome to a different way of living
and watching the world and watching movies, one of patience,
generosity and intense observation. Welcome to the world of
Hou Hsiao Hsien. [b]More reading on Hou:
Jones on Hou Hsiao HsienÕs 90s masterpieces
Lu on the global significance of HouÕs films
Gabe Klinger gives
a brilliant and easy-to-follow distillation
of HouÕs style in his masterpiece, THE PUPPETMASTER
And the piece de
resistance: an astounding online resource by the University
of California, Berkeley, on HouÕs CITY
OF SADNESS. It is one of the most comprehensive and insightful
online websites for any film