Richard Suchenski – Hou Hsiao-hsien

“Also like Life:” The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

by Richard Suchenski


Hou maps out that political reality neither through abstruse theoretical posturing nor through the ultimately passive framework of “Third World” allegory that Fredric Jameson famously applied to Edward Yang’s The Terrozers, but through the delineation of quotidian life. In addition to the most overt examples – the prominence accorded to eating in almost every film; the many scenes in which translation between  languages and dialects causes confusion; the grandmother who asks Hou surrogate Ah-hsiao to walk back to mainland China with her in A Time to Live and a Time to Die – there are also suggestive markers unobtrusively incorporated into conversation, letters, and intertitles. The causal discussion of the differences between local and mainland tea in Goodbye South, Goodbye or of family naming practices in Dust in the Wind  and The Puppetmaster reveal more about the warp and woof of Taiwanese society at different junctures than a more didactic method ever could.


Hou pushes this unusual form of sound/image montage even further in A City of Sadness by using the Japanese song “Red Dragonfly” to bridge a series of memories, thereby connecting the perspectives of (Taiwanese) Hinomi, her brother Hinoe, and their Japanese friend Shizuko. At another point in the film, during an exchange of letters between Hinomi and deaf-mute Wen-ching, a recording of the German folk song “Lorelei” leads Wen-ching to recall a Chinese opera performance from his childhood. Beautifully encapsulating the shared mental space of romance, these two sequences also suggest that every point of view shot has an array of counterparts and that the historical experience of individuals and nations is constituted by, and can only be understood through, the interaction of these partial views.


Films like A City of Sadness include extreme contrasts between the mountainous landscape and moving figures seen in the long shot, but the affinities to landscape paintings like Fan’s are less a product of composition than of viewing method. Hou strives for an active realism that materially involves the audience in the construction of spatiotemporal coherence by employing “a concept from Chinese painting – liu bai, which means that even after a character has left the frame, or even when you have an unexplained space outside the frame … the audience must join together with me to complete the shot.”


In other ways, however, Hou subtly inverts colonial assumptions. Beginning with the Meiji era writings of authors like Shiga Shigetaka, Taiwan was portrayed as a romantic landscape, the Japanese equivalent to “Italy, Spain, or Egypt.” Works by influential artists like Ishikawa Kin’ichiro prioritized the heat, light, and “characteristic colors of a Southern Country.” By contrast, The Puppetmaster is extraodinarily reliant on darkness and chiaroscuro, with several scenes hovering at the edge of visibility. Like many things in Hou’s work, the visual palette of The Puppetmaster is rooted in realism, accurately reflecting a period in which artificial light was scarce, but it also contributes to a beguilling atmosphere in which mundane and epochal incidents, the “drama, dream, and life” in the Chinese title (戏梦人生), are indelibly mixed.

In Search of Taiwan’s Identity: Nativism and Traditional Aesthetics in A City of Sadness

by Chiao Hsiuing-Ping


Words appear in the form of text without grammatical pronouns (me, you, etc.), putting the audience into a state of objective substitution and amplifying the sense of narrative multiplicity. Written text is often found in the works of French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard, where it is used largely to block audience identification and to establish dialectical relationships between literature and film. In A City of Sadness, the inserted text is presented in the manner of traditional Chinese poetry, asking the audience to adopt an empathetic and subjective point of view. Artist and critic Chiang Hsun once remarked that, in the Southern Song Dynasty, artists juxtaposed painting and poetry, leaving empty space in composition for text. Written words are used in A City of Sadness not only to express emotion, but also as a modernist device designed to disrupt the continuity so typical of Hollywood cinema.


The projection of subjectivity onto the outer world, resulting in the convergence of emotions and environment, follows the Chinese poetic tradition of becoming one with objects of the world:” I look, therefore all things are tinted with my color.” The author’s subjective view are concealed in outer objects, thereby avoiding overly dialect and simplistic expressions of emotions.

Moreover, real historical details are integrated into the drama … Audiences who are familiar with this history are able to develop a complex reading of the film: it is a mixture of history, memory, drama, and verisimilitude. The viewing experience is based on the dialectic between illusion and reality.


In one scene, intellectuals gather in a restaurant criticizing the government for inflation and low salaries; “Something bad is bound to happen. When can the Taiwanese people see the light of the day?” Wen-ching and Hinomi are shown in listening to a record  of “Lorelei,” discussing the romantic fatalism of the old German folk tale. At this point, the film suddenly switches to narrative within a narrative, telling the story of Lorelei. Wen-ching details how the boatman listens to the beautiful song and sees the siren; in a joyful trance, he cares little if his boat is about to crash. “The boat turned over and the boatman died.” The story seemingly has no relevance to the intellectuals in the room, yet, in juxtaposition, it presages the intelligentsia’s fate, that they would soon fall victim to their romantic ideals.


Shots without controlling subjects or points of view are abundant. Sometimes, they seem fragmented. Parallels to this form of non-linear juxtaposition can be found in poetry. Chinese poetry is full of disparate, seemingly unrelated impressions. More often than not, when the last image appears, the entire picture suddenly seems to be organized in a unified way. Ma Zhiyuan’s dynasty poem “Autumn Thoughts” provides a perfect example:

The poem is composed of fragments and it is only when the final image appears that we realize the subject is a traveler longing for his hometown. The montage effect of unrelated visuals is similar to the treatment of metaphoric images in A City of Sadness. The key idea transcends the actual images or narratives, aspiring to suggestiveness that goes beyond the surface.

Transcending Local Consciousness: The Significance of Hou’s Films for Asian Cinema

by Ni Zhen


Hou’s poetic narrative approach is rooted in historical interpretation and an awareness of the place of human destiny in the context of historical evolution. The films depicts states of being by obsessively fixating upon the minutiae of life. Passing, quotidian details are transformed by the solicitous contemplation of the long take, which lets time accumulate, extending its fluid nature, and prompting reflection and evocation. Hou often combines these with long shots, providing a more detached and distanced view of narrative events. He seldom switches to closer shots – refusing to manipulate viewers or abuse their emotions – and strives to retain an unperturbed, observational stance.

Unexpected but Fertile Convergence

by Jean-Michel Frodon 


Hou’s cinema suggests a relationship to both reality and imagination that does not correspond to the Greek and Judeo-Christian patterns that are the core of Western civilization. Instead, Hou’s cinema develops connections between part and whole, the flow of time and the organization of space, reality and representation, the inside and the outside, that relate to a completely different conceptual system – a different philosophy, a different cosmology, a different aesthetic, a different ethic – than the one dominant in the Western world.

A Reinvention of Tradition: Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Puppetmaster

by Jean Ma


Li Tien-lu’s childhood and early adulthood overlap with this era, but colonial power is not the focus of the story. Instead, encounters between the Taiwanese and Japanese are woven into a panorama of mundane rural existence, taking place amid an assortment of everyday scenes and random moments. These “slices of life” convey a shift from the representation of history as grand narrative into a more minor key, with history mediated by ordinary life, its grand schemes overshadowed by the personal rather than vice versa.


The unity of the shot emphasized by Sklar furthermore allows us to think about the intersection of film and drama by way of early cinema’s proximity to theater, in various parts of the world. This proximity encompasses not only the many examples of filmic adaptions of dramatic subjects or screen appearances by stage actors, but also a qualitatively different mode of address, one in which “theatrical display over narrative absorption,” affiliated with a cinema of, in Tom Gunning’s words, “exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic integration.”


In response to such ambiguities, Hou suggests that the simple opposition between an authentic native culture and an oppressively contaminating foreign one must be superceded by a conception of cultural influence and mutation as a dynamic process. Instead of predicating popular value upon indigenous purity, he acknowledges the transformations exacted upon tradition through time, revealing the historical contingency of cultural forms. Such an understanding is reflected in the narrative art of the puppetmaster and displayed not only in the scenes of budai xi but also at several moments when Li himself appears in the film, directly addressing the camera as he turns his narrative skills to the events of his own life. This biographical framework brings into view the centrality of memory, which here serves as a channel between the act of storytelling and history; it is through Li’s stories that history is sifted and reassembled, through his narration that it is passed on to an audience. The role of the puppetmaster as storyteller, then, carves an avenue through which to further explore the film’s historicizing strategies.


Even as the verification provided by Li’s image transports us beyond the world of diegesis and into the real, however, it simultaneously introduces another fictitious domain, one that we can identify with the work of the storyteller. This work, as part of the puppetmaster’s profession, can be identified with his relay of the oral folk archive of budai xi drama, or to invoke Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the storyteller, with “experience which is passed from mouth to mouth.’ His phrase resonates with Hou’s depiction of budai xias a vehicle through which traditional values “have been disseminated into the people and integrated into their daily lives.” However, the story Li tells here is different from the popular dramas of puppet theater, given that the material which he crafts come from his own past. This requires us accordingly to rethink the status memory – a channel of retrieval, it now permeates the entirety of the storytelling process. Again following Benjamin, we can say that “memory is not an instrument for exploring the pasty but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.”


Given the unevenness of modernization at the global scale, late twentieth century Taiwan might not differ significantly from early twentieth century Europe in its experience of industrialization and the growth of the city, and of the concomitant erosion of older modes of sociality and cultural expression. Indeed, the intense rapidity with which these change took place in Taiwan, augmented by the destabilizing effect of geographic dislocation for its mainland refugee population on the one hand, and of colonial suppression for its longtime residents on the other, indicate that the endangering of tradition – as s loss of history, a proper past, and hence a foreseeable future – is infused with an urgency like that felt by Benjamin in his time. For him, the idea of tradition bears the burden of negotiating historical change and working through the very technologies that threaten to tear the very fabric of experience. The intersection of cinema and storytelling in The Puppetmaster, then, can perhaps also help us to not only “conserve the beauty of our own traditions,” but also “disseminate them using the tools of our age and from our own perspective.” The interlacing of cinema and budai xi at various levels throughout The Puppetmaster speaks to the possibility that the medium of film will perpetuate what Benjamin calls “the chain of tradition which passes a happening  on from generation to generation.”

Who Can Put Out the Flames? On Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai

by Hasumi Shigehiko


What is surprising upon viewing Flowers of Shanghai, which it seems can only have been filmed with a consciousness of such things, is the fact that Hou, who from the time he first became a self-aware filmmaker with The Boys from Fengkuai systematically went about recounting stories through the stabilizing medium of a fixed camera, here captures the expressions of men and women with a voluptuously moving camera, to the extent of compromising the perfection of his careful compositions. Of course, as is the case in his other films to this point, he still does not make use of close-ups, but the almost imperceptible fluidity of the camera when it tries to isolates a man and woman through reframing, in contrast to the communal compositions of men and women enjoying lively conversation around the dining table, seems to quarantine its subjects from surrounding space in ways that are not to be found in the earlier films shot with a stationary camera.

Three Times Three: A Certain Slant of Light in the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien

by James Quandt


The director characteristically employs modernist strategies to celebrate a traditional art form. As he would henceforth, Hou compresses time, sometime conflating past and present within the same frame or leaping a decade in a single cut. Temporal shifts and caesuras between narrative events are abrupt, unmarked, or provisory. He elides central events or leaves them offscreen, collapses fact and fiction, history and performance, moves between a multitude of characters without transitional devices, and fills his compositions with so much quotidian detail that one’s eyes is left to roam a field of potential signifiers that may be mundane, even indifferent, but seem so implicative that they demand deciphering.

Dust in the Wind: A Definitive Hou/New Cinema Work

by Jame Udden 


In his work of the 1930s, Shen tended to create “plotless, still landscapes of vivid sensory impressions.” Nevertheless, Hou claims that what he learned above all else from Shen was a way of seeing the world: “After reading [Shen’s autobiography], my feelings and field of vision became quite broad. What I really sensed from him is a non-judgmental perspective. It is not sorrowful, and yet it possesses a deep sense of sadness. Shen Congwen does not look at people and human affairs from a particular point of view and criticize. Everything human, all that life and all that death, becomes quite normal under his pen, and all are simply things under the sun.”


When one compares Hou to other long take masters, whether predecessors such as Mizoguchi Kenji or Jean Renoir, or contemporaries such as Theo Angelopoulos or Bela Tarr, Hou stands out in this respect: the longer his takes become on average, the more static they become. It is typical for long take masters to utilize a mobile camera almost as a substitute for editing. Indeed, the most memorable long takes of a master such as Tarr almost invariably involved incessant tracking shots … Hou does nothing of the sort … Despite such radical stillness, however, Hou’s shots are often teeming with life. His mostly static long takes do not necessarily lead to Brechitian alienation, and they feel nothing like the static long takes of Warhol in the 1960s or Akerman in the 1970s. This is largely because, while the camera does not, Hou’s actors do move often. With each passing film, his staging techniques became more and more complex.

The Unmarried Woman

by Wen Tien-Hsiang


It has been fifty years since Ozu passed away. Even if he was here to make a film about Yoko today, she would not be another Noriko. Hou’s tribute to Ozu does not come through copies of the low-angle shots Ozu is known for, but rather through an imaginative and spiritual connection to the old master.


Watching the trains driving past each other, separating, and moving on  – oscillating between closeness and estrangement  – is intriguing, suggesting the trace of our lives or the path of our fates. The trains are like people: they not only travel forward or in parallel with each other, they also turn around and meet up. Nevertheless, they will eventually go their separate ways. The beautiful moment could be regarded neither as a fleeting instant or an eternity.

Hou Hsiao-hsien and Narrative Space

by Abe Mark Nornes


As for the filmmakers of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, they curiously default to symmetry when calligraphy enters narrative space. This seems to be quite unconscious. Chines cinematography manuals only give conventional, classical definitions for symmetry: filmmakers use it to evoke the monumental. It is occasionally deployed for this effect, but generally the most mundane mise-en-scene snaps into symmetry when calligraphy is visible … However, with few exceptions, Hou eschews symmetrical mise-en-scene, even for sets decorated in couplets … Calligraphy, when it appears in Hou’s films, gravitates toward the center, even if it is  rarely centered. The axis of the camera is always nudged away, pushing the sign, painting, or couplet slightly to the side.


The conventional, classical film typically turns space into place through the deployment of a set of normalized cinematic forms … Hou eschews this system for one of his own device, a major reason he richly deserves this book. He does not chop his scenes up with montage, favoring instead then long take … Hou does use the establishing shot, in a sense,. This is because most of his shots look and feel like establishing shots. However, whereas most filmmakers introduce viewers to a new set through a wide view mapping the coordinates between objects in an attempt to achieve a cognitive mastery of space., we could say that Hou by contrast establishes a view. In stead of moving in and around the set, he dwells on that view in long take to allow us to take it in, to settle in as it were, because every time the narrative revisits that space we mour than likely see a variant of that same view.

In Time

by Kent Jones


In the years since Topaz, the major obsession in cinema has been the ever-increasing accommodation of reality within fiction. The elusive dream of merging the two into one uninterrupted stream haunts the cinema, or at the very least a majority of its more serious practitioners, like a specter. This endlessly repeated gesture of turning toward unpredictability and away from certainty was born in the late 1940s with Roberto Rossellini and Neorealism, spread throughout the world in the 1960s, and has since fully bloomed and hybridized in the digital/HD age.

I think that the Coppola film represents the beginning of a very particular strain in environmentally grounded cinema. The images of the parking lot or the bandstand in The Godfather – extremely specific details of a family wedding rendered in a manner that feels spontaneously generated, shot from a benign distance – feel like they have been summoned from memory. And this is where we approach Hou, who, unsurprisingly, is a particular fan of Coppola’s film. Time and again in Hou’s films, we are invited to linger within and scrutinize a space, a field of activity that contains an element of the story we are being told. Rarely do we have the sense of an individual shot as one legible unit in the tracking of human activity and emotion. Place frequently acquires a unique, resonating power in Hou’s work, and it plays a role that is entirely different from the one it is given in, for instance, Malick’s films, where the divided between the human and the inhuman is continually disclosed and restated; or Kiarostami’s films, in which human adventures guide us through a series of environments whose effects on the characters in question develop like photographs as the action unfolds. For Hou, who is finally as precise as Hitchcock, place has the intensely present but ghostly aspect of memory. The particular magic of Hou’s work can be found in the extremely delicate balance between the ceaseless stream of lived experience and the instant of remembering.

Certain Hou films are explicitly autobiographical; others, like Dust in the Wind, are based on the experiences and memories of others. Some are set in the past and some are set in the present. But all of Hou’s films seem to take place in the interval of quickly passing clarity afforded by the flash of memory. I do not mean to imply that Hou sets everything in the past tense. The question of tense in cinema is far more complicated than it has been made out to be, but in Hou’s work the dividing line between films set in the past and those set in the present is borderline transparent: modern stories like Goodbye South, Goodbye or Cafe Lumiere are infused with the flavor of memory as The Puppetmaster and Flowers of Shanghai. In Hou’s work, the act of filmmaking itself, of capturing moments of time, is directly linked to the action of summoning, recalling.


The strategy of criss-crossing motion is repeated. A black car enters from the right, from which an elegantly dressed man in a white suit emerges to open the door for two similarly elegant young women, as two bicyclists cross from the left. We linger with the women as they stand behind two children and consider buying some food from a street vendor, while the movement of a couple on a bicycle crossing from the left seems to gently urge the camera to drift to the right, in time to frame a military jeep entering and dropping off an officer and his family. It is only around the moment that Hou cuts to a closer angle, to follow the officer taking his wife and daughters into the theater, that we realize that the camera has all but imperceptibly borne its way into the scene on the street, by means of an extremely delicate combination of dolly-ins and barely perceptible zoom-ins that are gently broken up and deflected by seemingly “motivating” movements and brief resting points. Only when the family walks through the billowing red curtain into the theater, at which point Hou dissolves to a tonally different image of the same red curtain and we enter the dilapidated interior of the theater as it exists today, do we understand that the layers of space we have slowly penetrated, almost without our noticing it, are also layers of time. Unlike, for instance, the camera movements in Last Year at Marienbad or the slow zoom out the window and into the desert that prompts the flashback to the central story in True Confessions, Hou does not announce his rhetorical gesture but allows it – or rather, works very hard to create the sense of merely allowing it – to slowly come into focus.

A Bard Singing the Remembrances of a Nation

by Jia Zhangke


The Boys from Fengkuei inspired me to start frantically reading Chinese literature written in the pre-1949 period – including novels by Shen Congwen and by Eileen Chang – because I realized that Hou’s films inherited a kind of cultural tradition, and it is exactly that which was cut off in China due to the Cultural Revolution. I learned that Chinese cultural tradition all over again because of the inspiration from Taiwan’s New Cinema, with Hou as the representative artist of the time.

Working within Limits: A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu Tien-wen

by Richard Suchenski


Unlike digital cameras that can shoot without stopping – back in the day, a shot of 1,000 feet, or ten minutes, was very long – the Bolex can only catch things for a very short period of time. How can you use that to complete a feature film? It creates a limit that I enjoy playing with. Western films tend to use a third-person point of view, which allows you to shoot whatever you like. However, when you are constrained, you become very attentive to what you are shooting. You can work more deeply within limits. The goal is still to hit the target, to capture the objects you want to shoot.


I feel I am very clear about the question of how to be human and I don’t find it necessary to define it in terms of Chinese culture, It is more like a universal value based on your own critical judgment as well as your respect for people, animals, and nature, which develops in its own way. I went to Inner Mongolia and noticed that there are many silver birch trees. They have a short life and when they wither, they become part of the dry humus, which slowly accumulates, causing the soil to darken. Trees can then grow better and live longer, finally forming the Black Forest. The cycle of animal and plant life has its balance. In Chinese philosophy, the concept of balance has always been discussed, but I do not want to study in detail what was said before. I feel you always have to treat people and affairs with the same clear attitude. You can extend this and apply it to nature and even to society and the nation. This idea did not really develop through diligent study, by the influence of my Chinese background, or something outside. Chinese literature helped me see more clearly the reality that was already present.


[Chu Tien-wen] Hou is actually a screenwriter himself; he began his career as a script supervisor and he has written countless scripts – and it is not easy to be an echo since this only works if you share the same frequency – my contribution is to continue a long term discussion with him that takes place outside the production process. We discuss different genres of books and different things in life. It is a bit like the process of pottery making or alchemizing in that you have to keep throwing in materials to finally produce something valuable. Instead of a literary contribution, the composition of something, I keep throwing in things that might or might not be useful.


I often see people shooting in Taipei. When they need a shot on a street, they choose a street that is beautiful, not a street that a person might walk on in a particular way. They only care about the lights and the trees, and they prefer to have few people present so that it is easier to manage. The effect is totally removed from reality. If you are able to truly notice your environment, everything becomes worth shooting because each place is unique. Every coffee shop has its own customers and a train station looks different from each direction.

Experiments with Realism: An Interview with Chen Huai-en

by Richard Suchenski


Hou did not want the audience to be distracted by the camera movement, but he did want their understanding to be guided by it. We all understood that the camera movement would need to be developed spontaneously in relation to the scene. Hou would never instruct an actor to walk from the sofa to the fridge and then from the fridge to the kitchen. He relies on the actors on their understanding of the character and the needs of the scene. All this meant that camera movement needed to be extremely slow. By using gradual pans and tracks, the story could be made richer and more layered. If a track is too fast, the audience will notice that movement and the camera might not end up where the actor ends up. Our job was to be more like an observer, which I was comfortable with due to my origins as a photographer. Capturing the essence of a scene is like taking a picture, you have to manage the timing and the rhythm when you frame. Hou’s role was to find a way to link all the framings together, so our discussions focused on where the dolly should start and end and what the tempo should be.

Finding the Right Balance: An Interview with Liao Ching-sung

by Richard Suchenski


Actually, Hou is a meticulous perfectionist camouflaged by a quasi-causal attitude. He tends to say, “it doesn’t matter,” but all matter.s I am not a perfectionist and I would never say that something doesn’t matter, but ten continue working on it until the last possible moment. In this respect, we have very different working methods. I try to make a film as perfect as it can be based on my experience working with it. When someone works with me, for example, I try to observe talent, encourage it, and then recognize its fulfillment. Hou would instead ask you to be who he believes you are. I respect objective judgment, while he tends to have a more subjective point of view. My view is that he finds absolute subjectivity in the most objective way. His films seem objective, but they are actually very subjective.


We naturally apply many techniques from this lyrical tradition – the Tang shi, Song ci, and Yuan qu forms of poetry. In earlier eras, poets wrote about their affections for their nation, their family, and other people. They would project those emotions onto objects and the landscape. You can recognize these traits in the very poetic films of Hou. Since he tends to use amateur actors, he uses long shots to keep the camera away from them. One effect of that is the  focus is not on the expressions  of the performers, but on the atmosphere created by objects and the landscape. there is an ambition of Chinese poetry, particularly in the shifts from long shots to closer shots. The lyrical tradition creates the impression of a view from afar, which is why you will often see a man positioned this way in Chinese paintings.

We also have another tradition, a Taoist perspective that allows us to observe objects through objects, with everything treated equally. Man’s viewpoint is that man is the paragon of animals and objects can only be observed by man. The concept of observing objects through objects presupposes their independent (yet relational) existence. Hou’s cinematic language gives you a sense of objectivity, not of subjectively viewed objects. It suggests an attitude in which interpretation has been abandoned in order to fully perceive the natural existence of things. If this can be captured, then the audience’s emotions will be spontaneous and striking.


A film is just like a human being. It has a range of characteristics and it will present you with an image that you may like very much, only to then tell you that this is not the best it has to offer. There are still other perspectives, other secrets, to discover. It depends how you read it. Like a person, a film can lie to you. If you don’t bother to communicate with it, it will give you a hard time, a really hard time. In my opinion, the only way to solve the problems presented by a film is to be more objective and to spend more time with it. If what you have produced deviates from your presumptions, the you have to accept this. If you are not willing to do so, but obstinately insist on dragging it back on track, you are asking for trouble. Would a very serious father be able to control his son? I can control neither my son nor a film. If you cannot really control him, why bother trying? All you can do is guide him in a way that he will fulfill your aspirations. For me, a film does have a life and a mystery. If you cannot  understand that, you will be completely defeated.


I am still most moved by the long shots, which allow the actors to live on screen, and by their objective expression of the merger of emotion and landscape. This can move a person naturally, without any effort. The audience will accept what is presented and be moved when you shoot a film this way. For me, this is Hou presenting this non-self, the non-existence of himself. The audience cannot really notice his presence in the film, which is why they accept it.

A New Era of Sound: An Interview with Tu Duu-chih

by Richard Suchenski


What I admired most is his relationship with actors. I have rarely seen him team them how to perform. Instead, he spends most of his time managing the atmosphere at the shooting sits. He is always able to mingle everything together, creating a situation in which the story will develop simultaneously, and he presents that in a very human way. The spontaneity of the characters and their behavior is always evident in his films. He always works to make the shoot seem as natural as possible, and he never tries to exaggerate the emotions contained within. As a result, the accumulated energy of his films is able to with the audience.

What I Know about Hou Hsiao-hsien

by Chung Mong-hong

p. 232

Hou’s films realistically depict the diversity of Taiwanese society. People always say that his work lacks plot, but, for him, film should reflect the passing element of life – the wandering crowds, the trifles. I remember seeing A Time to Live and a Time to Die. The very end moved me deeply, causing me to shed tears unconsciously. Most films coercively evoke your emotions and you feel as if you are being taken advantage of by a libertine when watching them. Hou’s films communicate, in a very direct way, human helplessness in the face of the vicissitudes of life. He portrays fundamental human dilemmas while at the same time recalling the collective experience shared by many Taiwanese.

There is another movie that also moves me deeply: Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story.  Many people treat the films of Hou and Ozu as if they were in the same genre, but I cannot agree. Hou tends to set up a plot, or a situation, within which the actors are able to express themselves, and the camera tries to capture these moments. In Ozu’s films, by contrast, every single detail is under his control, including the turning or lifting up of an actor’s head and even the position of the camera and the props. Hou, of course, cares a great deal about the position of the camera and the sets, but his approach to actors is very different. He tries to anticipate incidents. A film full of emotions requires a simple narrative style, and Hou develops emotions and tensions in a natural way.


Hou once explained the difference between his scripts and his films to me. He believes there has to be a complete script in which the relationship between the characters is very clear before shooting. However, the editing should focus more on the underlying emotions. That way, the audience will be able to sort out the story themselves, which is why the plot is not that important. Everything is oriented around a pure distillation of human experience. Shu Kuo-chih once said that watching Hou’s films is much like standing on the street and observing people living their life genuinely through a window. That is the most perceptive description of Hou’s films I have ever heard.

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