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Why 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.

ŅMost credible 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

Conventional Wisdom says:

- 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, 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:

Kent Jones on Hou Hsiao HsienÕs 90s masterpieces

Alvin 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