This week marks the conclusion of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective on Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-hsien. The small downtown two-screener has been home to some of the most eclectic and rewarding programming in the city, marking their final Hsaio-hsien screenings of his 1998 film Flowers of Shanghai on Sunday, May 10 and Wednesday, May 13 as essential viewing.
While not a complete cinematic blindspot – prior to this retrospective I had viewed Hsaio-hsien’s 2003 film Café Lumière- it’s his earlier work that’s been difficult to come by. What better way to acquaint myself with the director’s work than by catching 35mm restorations of hard to find prints like The Puppetmaster and A Time to Live, a Time to Die? The projections and prints of this six-film retrospective have been immaculate – each vividly capturing a world much different from my own with such vital and acute detail. Yet it is in these details where one can get lost within a swirl of unknowing, where fragmented pieces are left at an audience’s perch, requiring a viewer to complete the puzzle. And in the films of Hou Hsaio-hsien, the missing tile to his jigsaw puzzle films requires a viewer to become flexible, fluid, and receptive – doing so allows you to look at the film as a whole project, scene and cuts forming a symmetry to a grand design.
The selection of films in the Siskel Center’s retrospective may not have followed the director’s linear output nor covered the entirety of his filmography, but instead reflected the diverse and historically conscious methods that Hsiao-hsien approaches his projects. While funding was certainly an issue, as Associate Director of Programming Marty Rubin noted in his introduction of Hsiao-Hsien scholar Richard I. Suchenski, the retrospective may not have occurred at all was it not for Suchenski’s flexibility and Rubin’s insistence. Instead, the smaller and more intimate retrospective magnifies Hsiao-hsien’s sophisticated development, highlighting the director’s maturation and departures.
Dust in the Wind opened the retrospective, serving as an ideal introduction to the director’s work. It possesses many of the qualities that would become hallmarks throughout Hsiao-hsien’s career: long takes, people dwarfed by their landscapes, and a dichotomy of old versus new, of past and present, and the negotiation between maintaining ritual and custom when confronted with globalization. These themes were perhaps best addressed in Hsiao-hsien’s previous film (but second in the retrospective), A Time to Live, a Time to Die, where the director ingratiated his sensibility within an Italian Neorealist tradition of filmmaking. Yet this influence is but one in an array, which includes Hsiao-hsien’s inheritance of Chinese and Japanese cultural and the tumultuous cultural conditions of his upbringing. As Suchenski notes in his essay “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien”, whether it be the tradition of film language designed by Eisenstein and Griffith, the developments made by Italian Neorealists and French New Wave, or Hollywood productions, these were “all model(s) to be worked through rather than to be emulated”. Simply put, the fragmented pieces may possess a degree of familiarity, but the fully composed picture is wholly unique.
Subsequent films in the retrospective, Millennium Mambo, Good Men, Good Women, and The Puppetmaster all concern themselves with Hsian-hsien’s eminent anxieties of the passage of time and the dangers (and rewards) of reflecting on the past. I was especially impressed with Millennium Mambo’s visual sophistication and thematic acuity. In this film, we see a young woman (frequent collaborator Shu Qi) narrate from the future, where the actions of the present posses a fleeting vitality. It’s this subtle gesture in the construction and interpretation of time that makes Hsiao-hsien’s work so fascinating.
Yet it’s the other two films, Good Men, Good Women and The Puppetmaster, parts three and two respectively, of Hsiao-hsien’s “trilogy of sadness” (in what’s the retrospective’s most unfortunate oversight, the trilogy opener, A City of Sadness, was not screened), that proved to be the most difficult to piece together. Their rich and complicated historical narratives were among the chief obstacles to overcome, but it’s also the genuinely new approach that Hsiao-hsien takes that forced me as a viewer to recalibrate and question my devices. There’s a method to which we all interpret films and Good Men, Good Women and The Puppetmaster asks of its audience to dispel traditional expectations of film form and tradition. I was genuinely watching something new, utilizing a set of theoretical tools that I was not accustomed to using; it’s wild. From the nontraditional methods of shifting between time, where a voiceover from the past intermingles with sequences set in a the present, to making no to minimal visual distinctions between past and present, to purposefully omitting specific details while creating a throughline of visual motifs, Good Men, Good Women and The Puppetmaster proved to be the most challenging, frustrating, and yet most enlightening films that the retrospective had to offer.
Hardly complete, there’s still many films in Hsiao-hsien’s oeuvre that I must consume – including his Cannes-bound project, The Assassin. There’s a genuine sense of discovery occurring when viewing an Hsiao-hsien film, whereby the director challenges himself and his audience. You relinquish your usual tools of interpretation and embrace the director’s pliable design – you are at once an outsider viewing a new world while an active participant in that world's construction.