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).

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.

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.