海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

大俠梅花鹿 Da Xia Mei Hua Lu (The Fantasy of Deer Warrior, 1961)

Can anyone truly call themselves a lover of the seventh art, that play of light and movement over time resulting in motion pictures, if they haven’t seen a bunch of adults dressed in animal onesies enacting a story of primal passion in the wooded hills of Taiwan? You’d imagine this might be a kids’ film except for its life and death themes, as Miss Deer must ward off the untoward attentions of an Elk and a Wolf, goaded on by the spectacularly bespectacled Foxy, the latter two characters at one point grooving on down to a kitschy version of ‘Tequila’ in the forest. It is hardly a perfect film by any means, but you may find there’s enough to justify watching it — albeit at the danger of provoking a strange attraction towards a woman dressed as a fox, or a man dressed as a deer.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ying Chang 張英; Writer Chi-Cheng Chao 趙之誠; Cinematographer Hsing-Yi Li 李興義; Starring Yun Ling 凌雲, Hung Pai 白虹, Lin Lin 林琳; Length 87 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

海灘的一天 Hai Tan De Yi Tian (That Day, on the Beach, 1983)

In modern Taiwanese cinema, 1982-83 was a watershed period, when the earliest developed works of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were made, ushering in the Taiwanese New Wave. These two filmmakers were born the same year (1947), but the latter began with a number of fairly mainstream features before moving towards the style and themes he would later develop with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). And although That Day, on the Beach is hardly Yang’s finest work, it marks a departure from the earlier cinema of Taiwan, which I’ve already covered examples of, in thrall to the popular cinemas of the mainland (China and Hong Kong).


Edward Yang’s debut film feels too long, but it’s trying to tell a big story — about growing up, after all, and about finding one’s place in the world. There’s an ambitious structure too: when a renowned concert pianist (Terry Hu) returns to Taiwan, the sister of her first boyfriend (played by the great Sylvia Chang) gets in touch, and when they meet they share memories. However, within these reminiscences of their childhood are embedded all kinds of memories and flashbacks, and eventually the structure becomes fractured by all these different levels of time and subjectivity, so already you can see some of the threads Yang would pursue in his subsequent filmmaking. It’s a beautifully-shot film as well (one of Christopher Doyle’s earliest projects), and for all its epic length, never feels dull or boring. That said, it’s not perfect, and aside from feeling like there’s a tighter story in there, as well as some slightly wayward sound editing, there’s also at least one actor (the ladies’ man and boss, Ah Tsai) who seems to be acting in a different film, maybe more of a soap opera — indeed, there’s a lot of melodrama bursting to get out which Yang does his best to restrain through underplaying the drama and removing most of the musical cues. Still, it’s a great debut and a harbinger of the coming ‘Taiwanese New Wave’, in which Yang would be a key figure.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Edward Yang 楊德昌; Writers Wu Nien-jen 吳念真 and Yang; Cinematographers Hui Kung Chang 張惠恭 and Christopher Doyle 杜可風; Starring Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉, Terry Hu 胡因夢; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.

The Receptionist (aka 接線員 Jiexianyuan, 2016)

Economics and demography mean that Asian-American cinema rather dominates the Asian diaspora experience on the cinema screen, but there are stories from around the world that deal with similar themes. One such is this smallscale British-Taiwanese co-production set in London, about a young woman with few means trying to get a foothold on employment in a strange city.


This is yet another recent film which deals with the precariat, young people who can barely subsist, have difficulty finding work and are often expected to take on unpaid labour — the situation in which our Taiwanese-born protagonist Tina (Teresa Daley) finds herself at the outset. We see her encouraged to intern to bolster her CV by an unhelpful agency, whose agent also dolefully jokes about possibly losing his job. She has a degree, speaks English very well, and is presentable and professional in interviews, yet all she can get is work as a receptionist at an unlicensed brothel in the London suburbs (as an aside, it looks like Barking or Romford to me).

The film has a taut running time and effectively conveys a sense of claustrophobia, as much of the film unfolds in either this suburban terraced house with its ageing decor, or Tina and her (frankly horrible, although also likely depressed) English boyfriend’s tiny, drab flat. At one level, Tina’s work in the brothel is just a job, really, even if it’s one that puts her in rather closer touch with violence and exploitation than most jobs (much of that is due to her workplace’s illegal status, I daresay). Indeed there are repeated references to death (worms dying when out of the ground is a repeated metaphor, and one of the plotlines literalises it), hinting at the lives of these immigrant women, who are all just trying to keep their heads above water in an expensive foreign country.

It’s an interesting film, and a different viewpoint on life in London (in that respect, I am reminded of Gholam, another such London-set story), that largely stays away from the tourist views and, even given the sex work setting, is likely to be redolent of many young workers’ experiences (especially those of women, and particularly women of colour, in the service industry).

The Receptionist film posterCREDITS
Director Jenny Lu 盧謹明; Writers Lu and Yi-Wen Yeh 葉宜文; Cinematographer Gareth Munden; Starring Teresa Daley 紀培慧; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 24 July 2018.

刺客聶隱娘 Cike Nie Yinniang (The Assassin, 2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes slow films. I’m still fairly certain that the most walk-outs I’ve ever experienced from a film screening was when I went to see his magisterial Flowers of Shanghai (1998) when it screened for the first time at my local film festival (about half the audience left, and that’s a festival crowd). He returns to a Chinese period setting with his latest film (this time it’s the 8th century Tang Dynasty), so I’m not surprised to hear people criticise it for a certain coolness to its narrative exposition. For my own part, the period setting strikes me in the same way as, say, Shakespeare plays do: I’m not always exactly sure the historical importance of each of the characters, but I get the gist of what’s going on. Shu Qi plays the titular figure of Nie Yinniang, who is instructed by the nun who raised her to assassinate a corrupt government minister, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), but she finds it difficult to complete the mission when it transpires he is a cousin and former betrothed of hers. These are the broad brush strokes, but Hou fills in the rest with his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, using a gorgeous colour palette and elaborate costumes. Yinniang is often filmed through veils and obstructed by trees in outdoor settings, lurking in the background as Tian and his wife (Yun Zhou) hold court. I confess I probably need to see this film again to properly appreciate its artistry, but on a first viewing it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Unless, that is, one goes in hoping for a more action-packed genre-inflected wuxia.

The Assassin film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Hou, Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文, Hsieh Hai-Meng 謝海盟 and Zhong Acheng 鍾阿城; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin 李屏賓; Starring Shu Qi 舒淇, Chen Chang 張震, Yun Zhou 周韻; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016.

我的少女時代 Wo de Shaonu Shidai (Our Times, 2015)

If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.

Our Times film posterCREDITS
Director Frankie Chen 陳玉珊; Writer Yung-Ting Tseng 曾詠婷 [as “Sabrina Tseng”]; Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen 陳國隆 and Min-Chung Chiang 江敏忠; Starring Vivian Sung 宋芸樺, Darren Wang 王大陸, Dino Lee 李玉璽; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015.

童年往事 Tongnian wangshi (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985)

The BFI have been doing sterling work this past month putting on a retrospective of the works of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, so I took a chance to see this key early film of his. It bears many of the hallmarks of his mature directorial work, particularly his great masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989). Both films deal with the tumultuous political events affecting China’s relationship to Taiwan during the mid-20th century, refracting it through one family, though this earlier film is perhaps more attentive to the domestic drama. Undoubtedly there’s plenty happening behind the scenes, though its political commentary is more subtly done. It’s primarily a coming of age story dealing with Ah-ha (or Ah-hsiao, a stand-in for the filmmaker, played by Yu An-shun as he gets older), though the most dynamic presence within the family is the grandmother (Tang Ju-yun). She is convinced the family will be returning soon to the mainland, as evoked by the cheap wicker furniture the family have for their home, as they had always assumed their relocation would be temporary. It spans a couple of decades, as family members grow older and die, and deals in an almost deceptively calm way with the passage of time and of youth, as Ah-ha moves from studious child to rebellious teen.

The Time to Live and the Time to Die film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文 and Hou; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin 李屏賓; Starring Yu An-shun 游安順, Tang Ju-yun 唐如韞; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015.

郊遊 Jiao You (Stray Dogs, 2013)

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013, where it won a prize, it’s taken over a year for Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs even to get a screening in London (despite there having been two London Film Festivals in the intervening time), and just a one-off in an East London multiplex at that. I suppose this might suggest that potential distributors consider the film may be problematic to sell, and certainly it has all the traits that have marked the ‘slow cinema’ coming out of Taiwan since the 1980s (primarily films by Tsai and his compatriot Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Indeed the film even starts with a static shot of several minutes in length, showing two children sleeping while a woman sits beside them. And yet it’s a marvellous film that despite being slowly-paced and deliberately withholding a lot of information about its characters, exerts a fascinated hold over the audience (well, over me certainly) for its long running time. Even seeing the first half hour twice — the characters speak so seldom that it took the cinema that long to realise it was framed incorrectly, resulting in the subtitles being cropped off — didn’t loosen any of that hold, and in fact seeing the same slowly-paced near-silent sequences twice in a row without getting bored or antsy just made me more confident in the film’s artistry.

Trying to sum up what it’s about is a trickier proposition, not just because of the aforementioned lack of expository dialogue, but because of a somewhat perplexing narrative strategy, which seems to mix up different time periods with one another. If the woman (played by three different actors, as it happens) is the childrens’ mother sitting with them at the start, the next shot seems to skip back to a time when they are just living with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), while intercutting scenes of the mother working at a supermarket while her kids lurk around. The father is working by a busy road holding signs advertising luxury condominiums in all weather; he lives with his kids in a dry corner of a derelict warehouse building, while shopping centre toilets provide a chance for personal hygiene. These characters are, by all standards, poor, and their living arrangements and alienation from society suggest that they are the ‘stray dogs’ of the title. At some point, the mother finds the father and the children, and the family are united. Quite what has got them to this place, or where they go from here, is sort of what the film is about.

I say “dry corner” above because the film — like all of Tsai’s films — is utterly suffused with dampness, whether it’s the severely (and picturesequely) water-damaged home the family occupy near the film’s end, pools of water on the ground, leaks from above, or driving rain outside. More than many of Tsai’s films, it’s about people adrift and unmoored, and along the way it provides a pretty concise portrait of modern society, specifically a sense of alienation — their difficulty in connecting with one another (and, perhaps, with the audience, not least thanks to the strategy of having three different actors play the ‘mother’ role). One of the most striking (and in many ways, disturbing) scenes, which plays into this, has the daughter ‘adopting’ a cabbage as a surrogate mother, which her father (while drunk, as he is rather often) comes home to find in bed. And several sequences, including at the film’s denouement, show the characters intently staring towards a painted landscape horizon.

It’s bleak, and it’s slow, but it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity, and to my mind the narrative ellipses and obfuscations just make it all the more compelling. Despite not revealing the specifics of this particularly family unit, in many ways it seems to say something about family and connectedness and about the difficulties of forming those connections, and about all the ways they may go awry. Or perhaps I’m misreading it completely, and it all means something else. Whatever, it’s certainly a film to continue thinking about.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director Tsai Ming-kiang 蔡明亮; Writer Song Peng Fei 鹏飞, Tsai and Tung Chen Yu 董成瑜; Cinematographers Liao Pen-Jung 廖本榕, Xin Lu Qing 吕庆鑫 and Shong Woon-Chong 宋文忠; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Vue Stratford City, London, Tuesday 2 December 2014.