Rivaled perhaps only by (the early works of) Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-liang, there might not be a more instantly noteworthy modern Taiwanese filmmaker than Hou Hsiao-hsien. Certainly, Hou has had a measurable impact on the identity of modern Taiwanese filmmaking as a whole, credited with essentially sparking a new wave in national cinema. But he’s probably had a more lasting impact on the world stage than his sometimes more talked about countrymen. Often combining poetic imagery, lyrical writing, and ambitious filmmaking, Hou has remained for over forty years now as one of the world’s preeminent humanist filmmakers.
He’s often referred to as a minimalist, but nothing could be further from the truth. Often utilizing lengthy, sometimes slowly moving takes, Hou was a master at making sure all of the emotion his characters felt comes through with maximum impact at the speed of life. He’s meticulous, sometimes merciless, but never boring. He’s a masterful formalist in an academic sense, and a rousing dramatist who combines nostalgia with a healthy dose of skepticism and commentary. His earliest work also showcases a delicate balance between the formal and the playful. In short, he’s one of the best filmmakers in the world, and with his next feature is scheduled for completion in the near future there’s hope for several more masterpieces from him.
Admittedly, he’s probably not as well known in North America – or at least not as remarked upon outside of fervent world cinema buffs. That makes the latest retrospective of his work at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox – Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien (a touring retrospective running here from January 29th to March 1st) – an indispensably comprehensive look at one of the best living filmmakers in the world.
But when a filmmaker hasn’t made a bad film, where’s a potential novice to begin? Here are five of our best bets for this probably once in a lifetime opportunity to catch one of your soon to be favourite filmmakers (in order where they fall in his filmography; not by play date or any formal ranking):
1. The Green, Green Grass of Home
Hou began his career with a more or less unrelated trilogy of romantic, musical minded comedies, but while his simpler debut feature Cute Girl (Tuesday, February 17th, 6:15pm) and the more raucously amusing, lightweight follow-up with the same leads, Cheerful Wind (Sunday, February 22nd, 1:00pm), it’s this cleverly ambitious musical (with a title taken from a famous Tom Jones track) that solidified his status as a major auteur to watch in the 1980s. At once a romantic tale about a small town boy and his big city girlfriend, it establishes Hou’s ability to maintain a potent sense of national identity within genre constructs. Musicals are some of the hardest films to make. To make one with a social (and even environmental) conscience and still make it this beautiful adds an infinitely harder degree of difficulty.
Friday, February 27th, 6:30pm
2. Dust in the Wind
One year after taking the FIPRESCI critical award in Berlin for his equally revelatory and heavily autobiographical A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Saturday, January 31st, 3:30pm), Hou would deliver arguably his greatest work with this unassuming, but emotionally wrenching coming of age story and struggling romance that not only picks up where his early romantic comedies left off, but is equally as thoughtful, artistic, and stunning as anything a similarly minded film from Terrence Malick would ever approach. It’s certainly not as ethereal as a Malick work, but the interplay between love, lineage, country, and nature on display here is something not even the Tree of Life and To the Wonder filmmaker has been able to approximate in his own romantic works. The Lightbox screening will also be introduced by Richard Suchenski, the curator of this retrospective, who will also be on hand to kick off the series and talk about Hou’s 1998 sumptuous and morally conflicted historical drama Flowers of Shanghai (Thursday, February 29th, 6:30pm)
Friday, January 30th, 6:30pm
3. City of Sadness
One of the best films ever created in any country about family lineage, Hou’s sprawling, ambitious, and daunting look at post World War II Taiwan as told through the eyes of four vastly different brothers and their father also remains one of the most fully realized and meaningful looks at post war reconstruction. There’s a hell of a lot to take in, but while it might be the hardest film of Hou’s to follow thanks to its narrative structure and its political daring that might be lost on modern Western audiences, but I like to think it’s also the best film Hou has produced to date. It won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1989, and rightfully so. Better still: this screening and the one for his delightful, genre bending 1993 documentary The Puppetmaster (Saturday, February 21st, 6:15pm, and winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes that year) are both free with proof of admission to any other film playing in the retrospective.
Sunday, February 1st, 3:00pm
4. Goodbye South, Goodbye
It’s interesting that around the same time as this retrospective that the Lightbox would be doing a look back on the career of Michael Mann, a sometimes equally romantic and artful genre craftsman that owes quite a bit of his recent resurgence to Hou. This uniquely offbeat and occasionally threatening look at a pair of bumbling low level crooks botching every score they attempt from 1996 plays as a precursor to the modern works of Mann, Steven Soderbergh’s more mainstream thrillers (Haywire, Out of Sight, the Ocean’s films), and Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s his most brazenly stylized effort (which probably led to its inclusion on Cahiers du Cinema’s list of the best films of the 1990s), but it also never loses Hou’s sense of emotion and identity. It’s unlike any other effort in his filmography, but certainly one of cinema’s most vital efforts of that decade.
Friday, February 20th, 6:30pm
5. Café Lumière
Even the greatest of filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeve, especially those as emotionally mature as Hou. The filmmaker never makes it a secret that he owes an undeniable debt to the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and this 2004 collaboration with Ozu’s long-time studio, Shochiku, plays not only as a romantic blending of the past and present, but one of the most lovingly crafted thank you letters ever penned and filmed for others to share in. This story of two freelance researchers looking at seemingly unrelated topics in the past (a composer from the 30s and the construction of railways) coming together in unexpected ways really is the best film of this kind that Ozu never made. That doesn’t mean it foregoes Hou’s emotions and funny stuff. He’s just putting someone else’s style over his for once, and since those styles aren’t that far apart, it’s a wonderful marriage of form and substance.
Sunday, February 8th, 6:30pm