The Early Films of Hsou Hsiao-Hsien – Programme Notes

In 1989, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, for the film City of Sadness. This award closed a decade in which Hou’s films screened a staggering 113 times[1] at international festivals and helped establish Taiwan – and its New Cinema movement – as one of the world’s most important film-making locations. How frustrating it has been that the films which propelled Hou through this period have been close to impossible to find in the UK since this early flourish of attention with none of his 1980s films particularly accessible here until very recently (and even now in incomplete form).

Finally, with this season of the Early Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien we get to return to this time of great importance and development to explore how this success was achieved through the numerous collaborators and contexts that buoyed Hou on his journey. The season includes Cheerful Wind (1981), Dust in the Wind (1986) and Taipei Story (1985), some of which were never screened in the UK on their release – each one providing insight into the goings on of Taiwan’s film industry and society at the time of their making, and together offering a chance to trace the development of Hou’s work in its early years.

Going into the season, it’s worth knowing that Taiwan’s cinema was in rough shape at the start of the 1980s. Overshadowed by increasing competition from Hollywood and Hong Kong, genres which had previous carried a thriving industry – from the taiyupian (low-budget, black-and-white films in Taiwanese Hokkien) to the government-funded Healthy Realism films (star-studded, Mandarin-language productions that carried the ideological priorities of the Kuomintang through a more ‘realist’ aesthetic) – had fallen out of favour with local audiences, replaced by a wave of exploitation films known as ‘Taiwan Black Cinema’. It’s from this context that Hou’s 2nd feature length film, Cheerful Wind, emerged and we can see traces of these developments in what may otherwise appear as a light-hearted romantic comedy: a breezy depiction of a competitive love triangle between photographer Hsing-hui (Feng Fei-fei) her partner Lo Zai (Anthony Chan) and Chin-tai (Kenny Bee). This is first and foremost a commercial film, yet its pace may be more measured than we’d expect; its camera work more detached and editing less rapid. Looking forward we might see these as traits of Hou’s later films, but looking back we see their roots in Taiwan’s Healthy Realism genre as well as the ongoing influence of Hong Kong (Chan and Bee are Cantonese stars and both members of popular band The Wynners).

Cheerful Wind, then, emerges at a transitional moment in Taiwan’s cinema. By the time we reach Dust in the Wind in 1986 we are in much more familiar ‘arthouse’ territory. The story of childhood sweethearts Ah-yun and Wan, who move to Taipei from their home-town in search of a better life, explores the relationship between Taiwan’s changing urban and rural environments which would preoccupy Hou throughout his career. Hou’s director trademarks are here too: long takes and limited camera movement, the use of naturalistic light, and fragmented depictions of everyday life. These are interests Hou shared with his Taiwan New Cinema colleagues – a collection of creatives including Edward Yang, Chen Kuo-fu, and others who, with support from the government’s Central Motion Picture Corporation, tried to counter the commercial onslaught of foreign film in Taiwan and create a local, ‘auteur-led’ cinema. Though best remembered for its leading directors like Hou and Yang, the Taiwan New Cinema brought together a variety of critics, directors, actors and screenwriters including Wu Nien-jen and Chu T’ien-wen, whose pen(wo)manship we see in Dust in the Wind and Taipei Story.

Such collaboration was the life-blood of Taiwan New Cinema, something we see clearly in the season’s 3rd film, Taipei Story, which showcases the movement’s fascination with the changing dynamics of Taiwan’s capital city. In this film Hou steps in front of Edward Yang’s camera as Ah-lung, a figure caught between Taipei’s past and its future – a change rapidly accelerated by Taiwan’s economic boom of the early 1980s as it became a global centre of manufacturing and export. In Taipei Story these changes are documented through the characters’ domestic spaces, as in Dust in the Wind, which are used to explore the tension between personal agency and the determinism of the world around them. These are gentle films, where grand narratives and national histories become embodied in the everyday actions of Taiwan’s residents.

Yet behind the quotidian nature of these films were some surprisingly high stakes. As noted above, these were some of the most sought after films on the European festival circuit of the 1980s – the New Cinema’s stylistic rejection of a more calorific Hollywood approach to film-making lined up perfectly with what these festival programmers were looking for to help stave off North America’s expansionism. In 1985, then-director of the London Film Festival, Derek Malcolm noted that if London was ‘not an outstanding festival for films from the East [they] would have failed abysmally to choose justly’. This was significant for Taiwan. A small island, isolated by the UN since losing its seat in 1971 to the mainland, films serve an important role in maintaining the country’s presence on the global stage. Hou and Yang understood this explicitly and in 1987, as their films were travelling the world alongside those of China’s 5th Generation filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, they wrote to Taiwan’s Government Information Office to request more financial support for their work: ‘We can’t afford to lose out on this rare opportunity’. Upon seeing the rapturous international response to their films, the government decided to give full financial and moral support to the movement.

However, famously this support came with its own controversy as the New Cinema films were much more popular internationally than in their home country. For every international supporter there was a local detractor, denouncing the use of taxpayers’ money for films made to please international audiences: films which made up less than 15% of Taiwan’s cinematic output and likely much less in local box office receipts. This tension was evidently not lost on Hou and near the beginning of Dust in the Wind there seems to be a frustrated jibe made by the filmmakers when we see a grandpa desperately trying to find a dish that his picky grandson will eat. He proposes a new recipe: “Look, this isn’t the ordinary rice. Grandpa once ate this in Taipei in a fancy restaurant. Only foreigners were eating there. This is Western food…You have to eat it to grow up”. Are we meant to read this as a surprisingly acerbic jab from a director known for his austere national allegories, or simply a sweet exchange?

Wherever you fall in this debate, what is clear is that the excellent early films of Hou Hsiao-hsien are not simply ‘the ordinary rice’. The rare opportunity to see these films side-by-side, provides a unique chance to not only trace Hou’s development as a filmmaker but to feel the collaborative nature of the Taiwan New Cinema and the contexts out of which it emerged. Thanks to his detached directing style we can comfortably enjoy Hou’s films outside of their Taiwan context, but I hope these programme notes have helped to bring some of that specificity to the fore. As James Udden reminds us: “without Taiwan there would not be any Hou Hsiao-hsien to begin with”.

The Early Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, curated by HOME Manchester, is touring to the Showroom Workstation, Sheffield; Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast; and Dundee Contemporary Arts. Following the tour, HOME’s year-long season of Taiwan cinema will continue in October with one-off events and announcements coming soon.

[1]     Updated statistics and historical information for these notes was gathered with reference to recent publications including those by Beth Tsai (Taiwan New Cinema at Film Festivals), Ivy I-chu Chang (Taiwan Cinema, Memory, and Modernity) and Song Hwee Lim (Taiwan Cinema as Soft Power).

Written by Fraser Elliott.

With thanks to the Taipei Representative Office in the UK and the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan (R.O.C.).