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Becoming Hou Hsiao-hsien

Becoming Hou Hsiao-hsien

Most accounts of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early career hinge on a book, the autobiography of the celebrated Chinese author Shen Congwen. Sometime around 1983, the writer Chu T’ien-wen, who would later become one of Hou’s closest and most frequent collaborators, gave the filmmaker a copy, thinking that he shared a certain sensibility with Shen. Hou was at the start of his career and had directed three successful films within the generic norms of Taiwanese popular cinema, and the book was instrumental in helping him find his way toward his signature style. He later described the effect Shen’s words had on him in an interview: “It doesn’t matter if he’s describing a brutal military crackdown or various kinds of death; life to him is a river, which flows and flows but is without sorrow or joy. The result is a certain breadth of mind, or a certain perspective that is very moving.” Hou’s way of applying this outlook to his own art form was to instruct his cinematographer to “keep a distance, and be cooler.” Soon after reading the book, he arrived at an aesthetic of long takes and long shots, which came to define both his work and that of his compatriots in the New Taiwan Cinema. This minimalistic style would also be adopted by auteurs around the world and become one of the dominant modes of international filmmaking.

Over the next thirty years, Hou would establish himself as one of the most celebrated directors in the world, winning major prizes at Cannes and Venice, and placing seven titles in the Golden Horse Film Festival’s list of the best Chinese-language films of all time—three of which made the top ten. The Boys from Fengkuei—the first feature he directed after meeting Chu and reading Shen’s autobiography—took home the top prize at the Nantes Three Continents Film Festival in 1984, bringing international recognition to the New Taiwan Cinema, and helping open the door for directors like Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Ang Lee.

But the new approach of that breakthrough film did not emerge completely out of the blue. Reading Shen’s book crystallized something that was already there in Hou’s earliest feature films, a trio of romantic comedies he made within the parameters of Taiwanese popular cinema: Cute Girl, Cheerful Wind, and The Green, Green Grass of Home. Though on the surface these movies bear little resemblance to Hou’s better-known later work, traces of his mature style are readily apparent in them. The Hou Hsiao-hsien who directed Cute Girl is not wholly different from the director who made masterpieces such as A City of Sadness, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millennium Mambo.

Top of page: The Boys from Fengkuei; above: Cute Girl
The Green, Green Grass of Home
The Boys from Fengkuei

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