Hour Shiaw-shyan (name in pinyin, Hou Xiaoxian) in Meixian, Kuangtung
(Canton) province, 8 April 1947; moved to Hualien, Taiwan, 1948.
Attended the film program of the Taiwan National Academy of the Arts,
Electronic calculator salesman, 1972–73; script boy, then
assistant director, from 1974; scriptwriter, from 1975; directed first
, 1979; sold house to finance
, 1982; actor in
When Husband Is out of Town
, for TV, and director of music video, 1985.
Best Director Award, Asian-Pacific Film Festival, for
A Summer at Grandpa's
, 1985; Golden Lion Award, Venice Festival, and Best Director, Golden
Horse Awards, Taiwan, for
A City of Sadness
Chiu Shih Liu Liu Tê T'a ( Cute Girls ) (+ sc)
Feng Erh T'i T'a Ts'ai ( Cheerful Wind ) (+ sc)
Tsai Nei Ho P'an Ch'ing Ts'ao Ch'ing ( The Green, Green Grass of Home ) (+ sc)
Episode of Erh Tzu Tê Ta Wan Ou ( The Sandwich Man ; Son's Big Doll )
Fêng Kuei Lai Tê Jen ( The Boys from Fengkuei ) (+ co-sc); Tung Tung Te Chia Ch'i ( A Summer at Grandpa's )
T'ung Nein Wang Shih ( A Time to Live and a Time to Die )
Lien Lien Feng Ch'eng ( Dust in the Wind ) (+ role)
Ni Luo Ho Nü Erh ( Daughter of the Nile ) (+ role)
Pei Ch'ing Ch'êng Shih ( A City of Sadness ) (+ role)
Haonan Haonu ( Good Men, Good Women )
Nanguo zaijan, nanguo ( Goodbye South, Goodbye )
Hai shang hua ( Flowers of Shanghai )
Yun shen Pu Chih Ch'u ( Lost in the Deep Cloud ) (asst-d); Chin shui Lou Tai ( A Better Chance ) (asst-d)
Tao Hua Neu Tou Chao Kung ( The Beauty and the Old Man ) (sc, asst-d); Yeuh Hsia Lao Jen ( The Matchmaker ) (sc, asst-d)
Ai Yu Ming T'ien ( Love Has Tomorrow ) (asst-d); Yen Shuio Han ( The Glory of the Sunset ) (asst-d); Nan Hai Yü Nü Hai Tê Chan Chêng ( The War between Boys and Girls ) (asst-d)
Ts'ui Hu Han ( The Chilly Green Lake ) (asst-d); Yen P'o Chiang Shang ( On the Foggy River ) (sc, asst-d); Tsao an Taipei ( Good Morning, Taipei ) (sc); Pei Chih Ch'iu ( Sadness of Autumn ) (sc)
Tso Yeh Yü Hsiao Hsiao ( The Rushing Rain of Last Night ) (sc, asst-d); Wo T'a Laong Erh Lai ( I Come with the Wave ) (sc, asst-d)
T'ien Liang Hao Kê Ch'iu ( What a Cold but Wonderful Autumn ) (sc, asst-d); Ch'iu Lien ( Autumn Lotus ) (sc)
P'eng P'eng I Ch'uan Hsin ( Pounding Hearts ) (sc, asst-d)
Ch'iao Ju Ts'ai Tieh Fei Fei Fei ( A Butterfly Girl ) (sc, asst-d)
Hsiao Pi Te Ku Shih ( Growing Up ) (co-pr, co-sc, asst-d)
Yu Ma Ts'ai Tzu ( Ah Fei ) (co-sc); Hsiao Pa Pa Te T'ien K'ung ( Out of the Blue ) (co-sc); Ch'ing Mei Chu Ma ( Taipei Story ) (role); Tsui Hsiang Nien Tê Chi Chieh (sc)
Qunian dongtian ( Heartbreak Island ) (co-sc, exec pr)
Interview with Olivier Assayas, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1984.
Interview with Tony Rayns, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1988.
"Not the Best Possible Face," an interview with Tony Rayns, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1990.
" City of Sadness ," an interview in Film , March 1990.
"Straniero in patria," an interview with Z. Yan, in Cinema Forum , March 1991.
"History's Subtle Shadows," an interview with P. H. P. Chiao, in Cinemaya , Autumn 1993.
Interview with M. Ciment, in Positif , December 1993.
Interview with T. Jousse, in Cahiers du Cinéma , December 1993.
" The Puppetmaster ," an interview with F. Sartor, in Film und Televisie + Video , January 1994.
" Good Men, Good Women ," an interview with Alain Masson and Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), May 1996.
Interview with Yann Tobin, Michel Ciment, and Pierre Eisenreich, in Positif (Paris), November 1998.
"A Taiwan Tale," in Film , April 1989.
Huang, Vivian, "Taiwan's Social Realism," in The Independent (New York), January/February 1990.
Combs, Richard, " Dust in the Wind ," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1990.
Grosoli, F., "Lo sguardo diretto di Hou Xiaoxian," in Cinema Forum , March 1991.
"Hou's City of Sadness Is Key to Success," in Variety , 17 February 1992.
Cheshire, G., "Time Span: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien," in Film Comment , November/December 1993.
Delval, D., "Le maitre de marionnettes," in Grand Angle , January 1994.
Bouquet, Stéphane, Oliver Assayas, and Antoine de Baecque, " Goodbye South, Goodbye ," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1997.
* * *
Hou Hsiao-hsien is the most internationally renowned of the filmmakers associated with Taiwan's "New Cinema" movement. The "New Cinema" was forged out of the country's aging industry in the early 1980s by a group of emerging filmmakers, most of whom were in their early thirties at the time. The members of this cohesive group helped each other make films, and were strongly supported in turn by a group of film critics belonging to the same generation. Their works diverged from mainstream films of the time both in style and in content; instead of the escapist romances and propaganda films in melodramatic form that dominated Taiwan's film market in the 1970s, this new wave of filmmakers used a realistic style to convey their socially concerned themes.
The experiences of life in Taiwan figure prominently in Hou's work, due to his personal background: Hou, who has lived in Taiwan for most of his life, was a year old in 1948 when he and his family, on a visit from the mainland, were forced to remain more or less permanently as a result of the Civil War. Unlike the previous generation of filmmakers, who were brought up and educated in mainland China and who hired professionals to dub all the dialogue with standard Mandarin, the official language of both Taiwan and mainland China, Hou began using large amounts of the Taiwanese dialect spoken by most of the island's inhabitants. Following The Sandwich Man , Hou also mixed in the dialect of the ancient Hakkas ethnic group, as well as Japanese. (Japan had occupied Taiwan for almost fifty years, previous to the Nationalist takeover.) While the previous generation of filmmakers identified with or bowed to the Nationalist strategy of mandating exclusive use of the Mandarin language to "Chinacize" the people of Taiwan, Hou and his peers, whether mainlander or islander, recognized the fact that Taiwan was not synonymous with China. Due to this break from the state-enforced ideology, the New Cinema practitioners were able to begin to face and examine the sources and manifestations of their society's problems.
Perhaps most dynamic in this rapidly industrializing country was the emotional as well as physical dislocation resulting from the urbanization of Taiwan's traditionally rural culture. The conflict between urban and rural values is a recurring theme in Hou's films. Hou, who grew up in the countryside and moved to Taipei at the beginning of his college studies, retains a strong attachment to traditional Taiwanese values. On the screen, he uses country living and sentiments in the idyllic scene structure of his films. In A Summer at Grandpa's , the protagonist Tung Tung, a young boy who grew up in Taipei but stayed at his grandfather's in the country while his mother was hospitalized, gained "real" childhood experiences—playing in the river and exchanging his toy car with another child's live turtle, as well as more gritty life experiences—learning of the complexities of social relationships through the rape of an insane woman and her subsequent unsuccessful pregnancy. Contrasted with the positive influences one can gain from country life in most of Hou's films are the attractions of the city, with its opportunities for a living wage and concomitant confusion of an alien social structure, and its dissimilar types of human relationships.
In The Boys from Fengkuei , when three young men arrive at Kaohsiung, they find that their friend's sister, who has moved to the city from their hometown, has somehow become "morally corrupted." While they wander around on the streets of the city, a stranger on a motorcycle collects their money to see an underground porno film, sending them into an empty building still under construction. Instead of a movie screen, they view the city landscape from huge holes awaiting windows. A silent long take and a long shot shows the three naive boys staring at the city—the farce turning out to be their first taste of the bitterness of the city—without anger but with a deep sense of helplessness.
That the urban experience can prove damaging to one's physical as well as mental health is illustrated in Dust in the Wind. The protagonist Ah-Yuan is beaten up by his boss's wife for failing to deliver a lunch box to her son, and some friends of Ah-Yuan, including his girlfriend, are injured during their work. While these country children are wounded by the city, they can always go back to their rural homes to recuperate from their mental and physical injuries. However, in Daughter of the Nile , when the teenaged girl Shao Yang and her brother Shao Fang settle in the city of Taipei, they become the orphans of the world. Daughter of the Nile is Hou's first and thus far only film that takes place entirely in Taipei. Hou's shots of the dark city illuminated by the colorful neon signs eerily demonstrate the materialism that dislocates the youths, and finally takes Shao Fang's life.
The uneasiness and the difficulties of adjusting to social changes was the other theme in almost all of Hou's directorial works. In The Sandwich Man , Hou used a clown costume as the symbol of this discomfort. In Dust in the Wind , this discomfort is transformed into physical suffering when the rural teenagers are beaten and otherwise abused by their working environment. Death also played the main metaphoric role of the transition in A Time to Live and a Time to Die : the deaths of protagonist Ah-ha's father, mother, and grandmother punctuate his stages of growing up as well as his ideological divergence from the Nationalist party between the years 1958 and 1966. Similarly, in A City of Sadness , each of the four brothers of the Lin family was killed either physically or mentally in differing political climates and social circumstances during the 1940s, their deaths indicating their failure in adjusting to the new eras.
Hou's achievement is not only in his cinematic sensitivities but also in his social consciousness. As much as he is a filmmaker, Hou is a historical and social commentator of the first order.
In May 2000, Hou's position in the West was curiously anomalous: the majority of serious critics regarded him as among the three or four most important living filmmakers, yet his films remained inaccessible to the great majority of filmgoers, shown only in film festivals and occasional Cinematheque retrospectives. None had been granted a wide release; a very few hovered in the dim hinterlands of availability on obscure videos—poor color, wrong format, inadequate subtitles. There were no clear indications that this situation would change in the foreseeable future.
It must be admitted that Hou's films—especially the later ones—present the viewer with certain problems, and not only because they demand some awareness of Taiwanese political and cultural history during the second half of the last century. From City of Sadness on, their treatment of narrative structure has become increasingly challenging and unorthodox. One feels at times that Hou shoots only the sequences that really engage him, leaving the audience to fill in narrative hiatuses with a combination of common sense and imagination. The many characters are seldom given the careful, emphatic introductions to which Hollywood has accustomed us, and closeups are rare, point-of-view shots non-existent; sequences are often entirely in long-shot. In short, Hou expects us to work, concentrate, be vigilant; the films construct a spectator who is at once detached but sympathetic.
Each of the recent works requires detailed treatment to do it justice; City of Sadness is discussed in the companion volume on Films. The Puppetmaster is a complex study of the relationship of the artist to the social and political vicissitudes of history, raising central questions of responsibility, of the essentially political nature of all art (conscious or not). Good Men, Good Women pursues these themes in different ways, focussing now on actors; it is built upon an intricate double narrative and a complicated time-scheme. Criminality has played a significant thematic role in a number of Hou's films ( Daughter of the Nile, City of Sadness ); it becomes central to Goodbye South, Goodbye , which one might describe as Hou's first gangster thriller, though a characteristically idiosyncratic and offbeat one.
Most recently, we have had the extraordinary Flowers of Shanghai , in some ways the most readily accessible of this group of films. Set entirely inside an expensive Shanghai brothel, it follows the complex lives and interactions of the courtesans and their clients, their stories told mainly in sequence-shots, with a more mobile camera than we are accustomed to in Hou's films, where static long takes have generally predominated. The film's great visual beauty and grace are matched by the delicacy of its insights, the respect with which Hou treats both his characters and his audiences. Not surprisingly, it headed many critics' lists of the "best films of the '90s."
—Vivian Huang, updated by Robin Wood