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.
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).
There’s a lot of stuff you can latch onto in this film, but yet it feels so difficult to pin down or talk about because it is so fraught. It’s about people being evasive, who don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing and who, at a certain level, live their lives within the frame the narrative creates for them and the camera allows them — I’m not sure if they can exist beyond these 90-something minutes and I’m not sure if I want them to. Anyway I’m being a bit vague because I can’t really pin down how I feel but when I first saw this 16 years ago I wasn’t married, and who knows what it’ll be like in another 16, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still love it, and maybe I’ll even have a deeper sense of it. In any case, Wong is clearly infatuated with Godard but luckily that doesn’t determine the course of the film: this is very much its own thing. Doomed romance, that yearning soundtrack, Maggie Cheung’s high-necked cheongsam dresses, the rain, the endless food being dished up, the smoke, the empty corridors. All of it.
Criterion Extras: There’s a short film called Huayang de Nianhua made up of archival clips, beguiling images of old (and to me, unknown) Chinese actresses, like a hint at what Wong was thinking about while making his feature.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bin 李屏賓; Starring Maggie Cheung 張曼玉, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 24 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 March 2017).
When I was younger, I seem to recall liking this film best of John Woo’s output (that I’d seen), but those were long-ago days, and frankly it’s quite likely that more than one viewing just leads to exhaustion — if anything, it’s the defining feature of Woo’s agressive style. Woo uses a lot of his fondest techniques, including the one so heavily-used in The Killer of two dudes pulling guns on each other while the camera circles around and they cagily exchange words, but mostly there’s just a whole lot of explosions, ensuring that Hong Kong’s film pyrotechnists are kept in work. Basically, the two guys are both cops, though Chow Yun-fat is the detective, and Tony Leung the one working undercover in a criminal gang. Stuff happens, there’s a generous dollop of sentimentality, and of course, there are lots and lots of stylishly violent gun battles.
Criterion Extras: For the most part, due to necessary lack of funds, most of the films have been seen in non-Criterion editions, but I managed to source a copy of this rather vintage out-of-print DVD, which has a collection of intriguing extras. There’s a commentary, as well as an early student film, a strange little soundless black-and-white Super 8 oddity called Accidentally (1968) which features a story of a boy and a girl and some rope, all very rough and unflashily done, though with a few interesting shots. More substantial is a collection of 11 trailers covering Woo’s Hong Kong career from a bunch of early kung fu films in the 1970s as well as some odder projects like a Cantonese opera adaptation and what looks like a fairly broad capitalist satire, through to his gangster-and-guns films of the 1980s. Because the trailers use large chunks of Woo’s filmmaking and run to three or four minutes in length, there’s a good sense of his developing style, and brief text introductions contextualise the films. There are also some essays, but presenting written contributions on DVD screens seems like a fad which has had its day, and more recent Criterion editions prefer a chunky booklet.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Woo 吳宇森; Writer Barry Wong 黃炳耀; Cinematographer Wong Wing-hang 黃永恆; Starring Chow Yun-fat 周潤發, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 16 November 2014).