The Sandwich Man: The Son’s Big Doll, 1983. In 1962, at an anonymous Taiwanese village, a somber, lackadaisical man curiously dressed as a clown and laden with advertising billboards promenades through an array of indistinguishable city streets on a sweltering summer day, trying to attract the attention of the occasional passerby with the constant beating of a toy ceremonial drum before momentarily wandering into the church grounds after seeing a crowd gathered near the entrance and changing his planned advertisement route. Observing the people forming a queue in front of a group of aid workers who are doling out rice to the indigent, Kun-chu – still in costume – hurries home to alert his wife Ah-chu and prompts her into lining up for charity before the supply runs out. But before Ah-chu can collect her sack and head out to the church for the humble errand, Kun-chu spots a doctor’s prescription left on a table and, unable to decipher the information, becomes alarmed over their newborn son, Ah-lung’s health. Ah-chu attempts to assuage Kun-chu’s fears by explaining that the prescription is only for contraceptive pills, a revelation that turns his anxious concern into hostile consternation, arguing that such modern, esoteric drugs could only lead to permanent infertility (not to mention public embarrassment). Kun-chu’s seeming outrage over his wife’s decision plays out against a flashback of his own reprehensible attempts to goad a then-pregnant Ah-chu into drinking a homemade potion to induce a miscarriage, arguing that they cannot afford to have a child until he can find steady employment. And so Kun-chu’s frustrated, unremarkable existence is gradually revealed through a series of poignant and bittersweet memories, as the desperate, undereducated expectant father, unable to find a job, convinces a movie theater owner to conditionally hire him as a walking, two-sided billboard – a “sandwich man” – hired to generate increased ticket sales for the week…to be a human spectacle.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s contribution to The Sandwich Man, an omnibus based on contemporary Taiwanese author Huang Chun-ming’s stories of the working class in 1960s Taiwan, and featuring then new-generation Taiwanese filmmakers that also includes Zhuang Xiang Zeng and Wan Jen, The Son’s Big Doll is a spare, elegantly conceived, understatedly realized, provocative, and insightful portrait of sacrifice, perseverance, and human dignity. Using asequential flashbacks, narrative ellipses, anecdotal conversations, and prefiguring sound (and dialogue), Hou incorporates complex, yet minimalist structure that would come to define his distinctive cinema: Kun-chu’s flashback while playing with his son that betrays the argumentative hypocrisy and empty bravado of his resistance to Ah-chu’s use of contraception; a recalled encounter with an uncle who had refused to help the unemployed Kun-chu feed his family, and now decries the young man’s sole means of income as causing their family public embarrassment; a sequential shot of students near a school that triggers Kun-chu’s memory of his inability to write down Ah-lung’s name in (and even being assessed a fine for the delay in filing) the registration papers for his son’s birth. Furthermore, note Hou’s implementation of a witnessed event in which the contextual relevance is withheld until the subsequent scene – Kun-chu’s appearance at the scene of a rice truck accident involving a child – a narrative strategy that Hou similarly implements in his magnum opus A City of Sadness in Wen-Leung’s coincidental appearance as a bystander in the police investigation of a cigarette peddler’s death, an incendiary incident in Taiwanese history that led to the February 28 uprising. In each instance, Hou reveals the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and estrangement: from traditional customs, to ancestral (extended) families, to language (Kun-chu’s illiteracy seems equally symptomatic of Taiwan’s own cultural identity after emerging from a period of turbulent national history, as the nation evolved from Japanese occupation, to reunification – then separation – from mainland China), and even socio-political circumstances. It is this disconnection that is inevitably reflected in Kun-chu’s own dashed hopes and disillusioned life: an existence rooted in transience, uncertainty, accepted humiliation, and fickle fate.
The Boys from Fengkuei, 1983. The film opens to a static shot of a near desolate thoroughfare in the bucolic, fishing village of Fengkuei in the Penghu islands, as a slow moving bus momentarily stops to open its doors off-camera – seemingly to accommodate or disembark some unseen passenger – before continuing on its unhurried journey along the rural coastline. In another part of town, four inseparable childhood friends play a diversionary, uncompetitive game of billiards at a local pool hall, humoring a well-intentioned, but bad-sighted elderly scorekeeper as he obliviously and repeatedly asks for whom a penalty score should be entered. Having left school (albeit prematurely) and currently awaiting their imminent call-up for compulsory military service, the aimless young men spend their idle days in a transitional, existential limbo between carefree adolescence and responsible adulthood: attempting to cheat a street-savvy little boy over an illegal card game; sneaking into an international art house movie theater (that ironically is featuring Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, a film that similarly depicts themes of fraternity, adulthood, and responsibility); playing innocuous pranks on each other; and trying to catch the attention of an attractive young woman by making a spectacle of themselves, intermittently doused by the crashing of waves against a seawall. With few opportunities available to them, the friends decide to move to the larger city of Kaohsiung in search of employment. Assisted by an older sister who arranges for a modest apartment next door to a petty criminal named Ah-ho and his mistress Hsiao-Hsing, the friends eventually obtain interim work in the warehouse of an electronics assembly plant. Perhaps the most adrift of the friends is the reticent Ah-ching, an introspective young man who struggles with paternal disconnection after his once affectionate and hard-working father became permanently incapacitated after sustaining severe head injuries from a baseball accident. Separated from his family, faced with the inevitability of conscription and the resulting separation from his friends, and developing an unrequited attraction towards the emotionally unavailable Hsiao-Hsing, Ah-ching becomes increasingly ambivalent over the direction of his future.
Hou Hsiao-hsien elegantly and compassionately captures the melancholy, inertia, and travails of maturation in The Boys from Fengkuei. Primarily composed of stationary, medium shots and incorporating pillow images of the idyllic, natural landscape – an aesthetic composition that invariably invites comparison to Yasujiro Ozu – Hou creates a pervasive atmosphere of stasis and irresolution that reflects the friends’ waning days of adolescent irresponsibility (note the elided tragic event represented by the Ozu-esque shot of the unoccupied wicker chair during Ah-ching’s homecoming visit). Hou’s distinctive cinematic language further emerges through efficient and understatedly powerful use of narrative ellipses that visually distill Ah-ching’s nostalgic longing to its underlying, emotional clarity: the silent and starkly overexposed sequences that reveal the sudden and unforeseeable cause of his father’s recreational accident, his salvation from a potential snake bite by his protective father, his father’s persistent doting at the family table. By presenting the personal toll of separation – a recurring socio-economic theme that Hou would contextually explore within the historical framework of his subsequent Taiwan trilogy (A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women) – Hou elegiacally encapsulates the awkward uncertainty and unarticulated trauma of inflicted transition and irrevocable change.
The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985. The Time to Live and the Time to Die is prefaced by the gentle, soft-spoken voice of an off-camera narrator (presumably filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien) as he recounts the story of his family’s postwar migration from Mei County in the Kwangtung Province of mainland China in pursuit of career opportunities and the prospect of a better life in Taiwan: “One year later, my father wrote home saying ‘This is a nice place. It has tap water.’ He asked my mother to bring the whole family over.” However, the father’s ill health and chronic asthma, exacerbated by the northern climate, compelled the family to uproot themselves again and move from Hsinchu (leaving a respectable post as a supervisor in the Education Bureau) to the bucolic town of Fengshan in south Taiwan. The restless young Ah-hsiao, teasingly nicknamed Ah-ha by the other children (for his grandmother’s perennial beckoning calls throughout the village in search of him), seems unaffected by the cultural estrangement experienced by the older generation, spending most of his idle time in the streets, playing with other children. In contrast, his fragmented and absent-minded grandmother, oblivious of her geographic distance from the mainland, would often take long walks in an aimless search for Mekong Bridge near the family’s ancestral home. In an affectionate and comical recurrent image, unable to find Ah-hsiao to fetch him home for dinner, the grandmother would become hopelessly lost, and invariably be returned home by a rickshaw driver seeking compensation for his time and effort in bringing the exhausted and disoriented old woman back. The film follows the precocious and trouble-prone Ah-hsiao as he experiences the strange, turbulent, and in the end, unalterable events that would prevent his dislocated family from returning to their ancestral home.
The film is a serene, compassionate, and deeply affecting examination of the cultural disconnection, irresolution, and uncertainty experienced by a generation of displaced mainland Chinese residing in Taiwan during the communist revolution of China. Using signature long shots that distance the observer from the characters and repeated visual framing that positions the characters in similar compositions throughout the film, Hou Hsiao-hsien establishes a pattern of detachment and alienation inherent in the mundane ritual of daily life: the image of his seemingly distant father sitting pensively at his desk; the grandmother’s constant wandering in search of the elusive bridge that leads home; the women performing household chores; the children playing games (and later, the disenfranchised young men committing petty crimes) on the street. By presenting Ah-hsiao’s unremarkable family life against the curious boyhood memories that allude to profound change, Hou creates a pervasive sense of nostalgia and melancholy that reflects the undercurrent of longing and incompletion inherent in the country’s irreconcilable loss. Inevitably, although Hou describes The Time to Live and the Time to Die as “some memories from my youth, particularly impressions of my father”, what emerges is a haunting portrait of a national soul struggling against the rootlessness, estrangement, and transience cultivated by its turbulent and irreconcilable past.
Dust in the Wind, 1986. The sublime opening sequence of Dust in the Wind follows a nearly imperceptible diffused white speck – perhaps the referential “dust” of the film’s evocative title – as it momentarily shifts location near the center of the frame then continues on its inexorable course, gradually converging to reveal a light at the end of a tunnel from onboard a lumbering passenger train. It is an indelible metaphor for what would prove to be the bittersweet experience of first love in the lives of the two high school students commuting on the train: a pensive and diligent young man named Wan (Wang Jingwen) and his reticent, devoted girlfriend Huen (Xin Shufen). Faced with limited opportunity for his academic competency beyond handwriting dictated letters for illiterate neighbors in the bucolic peasant village (a seemingly inescapable reality reinforced by his father’s comment, “If you want to be a cow, there will always be a plow for you.”), Wan decides to forgo his senior high school education and move to Taipei. Finding work as a printing press operator at a modest, family-run shop during the day – a job that was only made palatable by his unlimited opportunity to read the assortment of literature being published while typesetting – Wan is determined to further his education by attending evening classes, and strives to forge a career beyond the socio-economic sphere of his provincial coal mining hometown (where a night of carousing for the miners invariably ends up in a comic display of masculine competition involving the displacement of large rocks onto the street). After graduation, the less scholarly Huen follows Wan to Taipei and obtains a respectable job as a seamstress at a dressmaking shop that includes room and board, allowing her to occasionally send money home to her family. The film then follows the plight of the young couple as they drift through the waning days of adolescence between their humble work lives in Taipei and periodic visits to their hometown, reluctantly awaiting Wan’s inevitable military conscription with the reassurring knowledge that they will be able to marry after completing his compulsory service.
Based on a true account of a formative episode in the life of novelist, screenwriter, and early Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborator, Wu Nien-Jen (who subsequently played the role of N.J. in contemporary Taiwanese filmmaker, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi), Dust in the Wind is an understated, contemplative, and elegiac portrait on the ephemeral nature of time, youth, love, and existence. Hou’s familiar aesthetic of distancing, alienated framing and stationary camera incorporates the predominant imagery of natural landscape that – like Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, and Mrinal Sen – figuratively reinforces man’s insignificance in relation to his environment. The recurrence of trains and stations through the course of the narrative – the approaching tunnel shot of the introductory sequence contrasted against the retreating view of a tunnel from the rear of the train as Wan and Huen travel home to visit their families; the transversal shot of a passing train against the image of a footbridge in the quaint village seemingly left behind by industrialization and technology; the resigned, emotionally muted farewell at the Taipei station as Wan returns home to report for military duty that is humorously expressed in the grandfather’s (Li Tianlu) subsequent explosion of firecrackers along the train tracks in honor of his grandson’s departure and symbolic maturity – metaphorically reflect the film’s theme of physical existence as a transitory human passage. Inevitably, the trains in the film serve, not only as a reminder of life’s unalterable progression, but also as silent, unobtrusive vessels for the commutation of fleeting, isolated personal memories to a more encompassing, elemental landscape of an interconnected human experience.
A City of Sadness, 1989. A City of Sadness chronicles the lives of the Lin family during the turbulent four years between the Japanese withdrawal from Taiwan (after 51 years of occupation) in 1945, to the secession of Taiwan from mainland China in 1949. The eldest brother, Wen-Heung (Chen Sown-yung), a robust man with crude manners, returns from the war to open a family restaurant called ‘Little Shanghai’ in celebration of Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China. The second brother, Wen-Leung (Jack Gao), became insane during his tour of duty, and is being treated at the local hospital. After Wen-Leung’s recuperation, the lack of prospects in Taiwan and lure of easy money from the Shanghai visitors draw him into the world of organized crime. A third brother, Wen-Sun, sent into combat in the Philippines, is missing in action. The fourth brother, a pensive, shy young man named Wen-Ching (Tony Leung), spared from conscription because of deafness, runs a photography studio. In these uncertain times, even the schools are not immune from the chaos. The school headmaster, Ogawa (Nagatani Sentaro), a man of Japanese heritage, is ordered to repatriate to Japan with his daughter, Shizuko (Nakamura Ikuyo). Wen-Ching’s friend Hinoe (Wu Yifang), a teacher and intellectual, is increasingly seen as an insurrectionist threat by the corrupt mainland officials, and is forced to hide out in the mountains in order to spare his family from political harassment. Meanwhile, Hinoe’s sister, Hinome (Xin Shufen), a nurse, becomes a constant witness to the chaos, as her responsibilities shift from tending to war casualties, to gang-related violence, to military aggression. Hinome is in love with the gentle Wen-Ching, but the country’s instability continues to threaten their happiness. One day, in what has come to be known as the 2/28 Incident, mainland officials violently crack down on the Taiwanese rebels, and thousands of people are imprisoned or killed in the uprising. Wen-Ching is among those detained by the authorities. In a subtly disturbing scene, Wen-Ching nervously paces the crowded prison cell as he awaits his uncertain fate, unable to hear the distant sound of gunfire from the swift execution of convicted dissidents.
Hou Hsiao-hsien creates a thematically complex and visually intoxicating historical account of the birth of the Taiwanese nation in A City of Sadness. Through seamless ellipses, Hou encapsulates the uncertainty and violence of a turbulent period into the graceful narrative account of personal history: the poem written by Shizuko’s brother, presumably killed in the war; a young Wen-Ching imitating the gestures of an opera singer; the Taiwanese rebels mistaking Wen-Ching for a mainlander because of his inability to speak; Wen-Leung’s violent clash with a rival gang. Hou further creates a sense of impotence and cyclicality through recurring imagery that reflects Taiwan’s pattern of occupation and subservience at the governing hands of interfering “outsiders”. The repeated stationary shot of the hospital entrance from takes on several meanings: the admission of wounded soldiers, a shell-shocked Wen Leung, and subsequently, rebels; the birth of a child; Shizuko’s poignant farewell to her childhood friend, Hinome, before evacuating the island. An early scene shows a framed shot of the father seated at a table amid the confusion of preparations for the day’s festivities, as Wen-Heung rationalizes Wen-Ching’s absence from the family gathering. It is a stark contrast to the final shot of the family patriarch and Wen-Leung at the dinner table, as a historical anecdote concludes the film: the loss of mainland China in 1949. Juxtaposed against the understatedly poignant image of the father and son dining in silence, their profound mutual loss is palpable and shattering.
Good Men, Good Women, 1995. Good Men, Good Women opens with the enigmatic words, “When yesterday’s sadness is about to die. When tomorrow’s good cheer is marching towards us. Then people say, don’t cry. So why don’t we sing.” A static, monochromatic shot then focuses on a group of travelers laden with baggage, singing as they traverse the rural countryside of Guangdong Province. The image proves to be a transitory glimpse of a painful chapter in Taiwanese history, as a group of idealistic students travel from Taiwan to mainland China during the 1940s in order to lend their support for the resistance fight against the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, only to be denounced, years later, as Communist sympathizers during the Kuomintang’s White Terror campaign of the 1950s under Chiang Kai-Shek. The tragic plight of these well-intentioned resistance fighters is the subject of a proposed film in modern day Taiwan entitled Good Men, Good Women, and the role of the real life heroine, Chiang Bi-Yu, has been offered to an emotionally withdrawn and inscrutable actress named Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh). One morning, Liang is awakened to the sound of a ringing telephone in her apartment amidst the background distraction of a television set (which is ironically playing Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring). She receives a disturbing fax that details her intimate thoughts from an ill fated relationship with a smalltime gangster named Ah Wei (Jack Kao), culled from her stolen personal diaries. Soon, it is revealed that Liang has been repeatedly harassed by an anonymous thief and perpetually silent telephone caller whose underlying motives remain unclear. The violative transmission of her diary entries compels Liang to reluctantly revisit her unsavory past as a promiscuous and drug-addicted bar hostess in Taipei, and her volatile relationship with the gentle Ah Wei. As Liang becomes the entrusted emissary for the story of Chiang Bi-Yu’s struggle, she gradually becomes the generational conduit between Taiwan’s turbulent past, and the decadent, uncertain future.
The final chapter of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trilogy on Taiwanese history (that also includes A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster), Good Men, Good Women provides a poignant, harrowing, and thematically complex portrait of postwar and contemporary Taiwan. By presenting the temporal confluence of three separate historically and personally relevant time periods, Hou not only reveals Liang’s behavioral pattern of anonymous affairs, emotional isolation, and inner turmoil, but also parallels her self-destructive behavior with the national crisis of identity, hedonism, and cultural disconnection in contemporary Taiwan. In essence, Liang’s betrayal of Ah Wei’s memory is a modern day, personal manifestation of a national, historical event: the seemingly random persecution of Taiwanese people by their own government during the White Terror. Inevitably, like the nation, Liang is forced to reconcile with her own culpability and ignominious past in order to find closure and inner peace.
Goodbye South Goodbye, 1996. Goodbye South Goodbye opens to the image of a dour and impassive entrepreneur and marginal gangster named Gao (Jack Gao), his volatile and image-conscious associate, Flathead (Giong Lim), and a lackadaisical, drug addicted occasional prostitute named Pretzel (Annie Shizuka Inoh) riding on a passenger train to an unspecified destination. Gao receives a telephone call, but is unable to obtain a clear signal from his cellular phone, and loses contact. It is a subtle reflection of the protagonists’ own unarticulated sense of profound disconnection. Without a clear sense of purpose or direction, Gao and his friends seemingly exist only through the pursuit of money: anonymous transactions, back room gambling, get-rich-quick schemes, ill conceived business ventures, exploiting government subsidies, and racketeering. Alone with his girlfriend Ying (Hsu Kuei-Ying), Gao reveals his latest plan to finalize an investment in Shenyang to open a restaurant as a means of getting into the profitable entertainment business with his friends, rationalizing that their success is guaranteed as long as they have the proper “relationships”. Yet in a later, subtly humorous scene, the friends are shown operating their own restaurant, and quickly find themselves ill suited, unmotivated, and incompetent in managing the day to day affairs of the business, as Flathead shirks his duties by impolitely barking out orders in front of customers, and Pretzel attempts to convince the patrons into accepting an incorrect drink order. Despite their inexhaustible quest for money, their ultimate dream proves to be undefined, intangible, and ultimately elusive.
Hou Hsiao Hsien presents a visually breathtaking, hypnotic, and understatedly poignant examination of rootlessness, secularity, and alienation in Goodbye South Goodbye. Using a kinetic, Western-influenced soundtrack, long takes, and mesmerizing, interstitial traveling shots, Hou encapsulates the fluidity of movement as a visual metaphor for the escapism and drug induced haze of the aimless protagonists: the image of a constant velocity train traversing the railroad tracks; Gao, Flathead, and Pretzel weaving through near empty suburban streets on motorcycles; the color tinted perspective from a windshield as a car navigates through traffic. Through the characters’ repeated pursuit of oblivion, Hou captures the transience and generational disconnection of contemporary Taiwanese from their traditional and cultural past. Inevitably, Goodbye South Goodbye is a haunting reflection of the confusion and pain of a lost national identity – an intoxicating elegy of motion and stasis, modernization and tradition, hope and nihilism.
The Flowers of Shanghai, 1998. The delicate, exquisitely constructed interiors of the late nineteenth century Shanghai brothels – the flower houses – create a serene, idyllic escape for its venerated patrons. Here, in the euphemistic propriety of privileged society, madams, called ‘aunts’, arrange sexual liaisons for their flower girls through appointed bookings. The Flowers of Shanghai opens to a shot of these wealthy and powerful men, accompanied by their flower girls at a dining table. Within the insular walls of the flower houses, these men create a stifling, dystopic world that revolves around their arrogance and vanity: they amuse themselves with incomprehensible drinking games, idly gossip about the affairs of other patrons, leisurely smoke opium, and indulge in the paid services of women. But these flower girls are far from the fragile, exotic creatures evocative of their names. Pearl (Karina Lau), the senior member of the Gongyang Enclave flower girls, provides helpful guidance to the younger, immature flower girls. Emerald (Michelle Reis), a popular flower girl from the Shangren Enclave, is a willful, determined woman who relies on her intelligence and influence on men to buy her freedom. A fading flower girl, Crimson (Michiko Hada), is burdened with the responsibility of supporting her family. Facing the prospective end of a long-term relationship with her exclusive client, Master Wang (Tony Leung), she accepts the inevitable with dignity and perseverance. When Master Wang decides to marry a younger flower girl, Jasmin (Vicky Wei), to punish Crimson for her rumored infidelity, it is Wang who suffers from their separation. Jade (Shuan Fang), an idealistic woman who believes her patron’s empty declarations of love, attempts to ensnare him in a suicide pact, which, in an unexpected turn of events, proves to be a life-altering event.
Hou Hsiao-hsien crafts a visually hypnotic and intricately fascinating portrait of love, power, and servitude in The Flowers of Shanghai. By confining the scenes to interior shots of the Shanghai flower houses, Hou portrays the created, artificial world – the unsustainable illusion – of the flower house patrons. In essence, the flower houses are an idealized reflection of the patrons’ own ambivalent feelings between love and passion, obligation and generosity, commitment and fidelity. Inevitably, their hermetic environment of lavished wealth and drug-induced escapism cannot prevent the objects of their affection – the emotionally resilient flower girls – from escaping their tenacious, suffocating grasp.
Acquarello, 2000-2003 [reprinted].