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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien | Writers Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin | Starring Shu Qi, Chen Chang, Yun Zhou | Length 105 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Frankie Chen | Writer Yung-Ting Tseng [as “Sabrina Tseng”] | Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen and Min-Chung Chiang | Starring Vivian Sung, Darren Wang, Dino Lee | Length 134 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015
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.
RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Hou Hsiao-hsien Director Hou Hsiao-hsien | Writers Chu Tien-wen and Hou Hsiao-hsien | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin | Starring Yu An-shun, Tang Ju-yun | Length 138 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Seen at Vue Stratford City, London, Tuesday 2 December 2014
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.