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Culture, Style, Voice, Motion: The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien by Christopher Lupke

A Time to Live, a Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)

A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985)

A Book Review by Yun-hua Chen.

Christopher Lupke’s The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion (Cambria, 2016) is a well-informed book straddling between the disciplines of Chinese Studies and Film Studies and is highly relevant to film buffs, sinophiles, film researchers, and students. By contextualising Hou Hsiao-hsien’s oeuvres within the historical, cultural, and socio-political backgrounds and tracing Hou’s career from his early commercial works Cute Girl (1980), Cheerful Wind (1981) and Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) – rarely watched by the audience nowadays – till the latest arthouse success Cannes-winning The Assassin (2015), the book provides Chinese speaking readers a cinematic approach to Hou’s well-known and less well-known works and non-Chinese speaking readers a holistic view on Hou’s works and a window into Chinese-language scholarship on Hou. By detaching Hou Hsiao-hsien’s works from the frequently-used framework of European arthouse tradition, the book strives to move away from a Eurocentric view and delves deep into film texts. Plot summary is detailed; historical settings and socio-political undertone are foregrounded.

As the title The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion suggests, the book endeavours to approach Hou’s films through these four aspects: culture, style, voice, and motion. After the initial chapter which outlines plot lines of Hou’s works and explain Hou’s personal geo-political and historical background in great detail and throughout his career, Lupke branches his arguments into these aspects respectively. Here Hou Hsiao-hsien is described as a “cultural avatar of Taiwan”, personifying multivalent and complicated cultural identities which co-exist in parallel in Taiwan, deeply immersed in the cultures and languages of Mandarin, Hakka, and Hoklo whereas adding in additional layers of Japanese, Cantonese, and Shanghainese cultures and languages. In terms of style, Lupke uses a comparative approach to the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ozu Yasujirô, as well as exploring issues of representability when thematising historical trauma and Hou’s adaptation of premodern text. Voice is discussed through Hou Hsiao-hsien’s deployment of female voice and gendered expression through Zhu Tianwen’s scripts and female characters’ voice-over. Furthermore, Lupke is interested in Hou’s alternating use of motion and stasis, as well as quest and disillusionment.

hou-hsiao-hsien 02In Lupke’s discussion about female voices and gendered expression, he discusses comprehensively the collaboration between Hou and his long-term scriptwriter Zhu Tianwen. In order to demonstrate Hou’s epistemological turn, he compared Hou’s pre-Zhu period when he co-directed the omnibus film of New Taiwan Cinema, Son’s Big Doll (1983), and the refined literary sensibilities which Zhu used to tint his following film The Boys from Fenggui (1983). Lupke argues that Zhu is legitimate in embodying female voice in characters in Hou’s films with both gender, as illustrated in Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) – Zhu’s autobiography yet from the perspective of a young boy – and The Boys from Fenggui’s with dominant male characters. The multivocal way of expressing the contrasting characters demonstrates negotiation of gender between Hou and Zhu on screen and their foregrounding of various values and points of view which intersects with the subversive female voice.

Lupke’s comparative approach between the two auteurs Hou and Ozu, whose works have been widely discussed alongside each other, is very extensive both in terms of film styles and themes – rather unusual, as he self-consciousness notes. He focuses largely on the stylistic affinities between the two film directors to demonstrate Hou’s formal aesthetics: slow-moving, Zen-like exposition of the film narrative, stationary camera eye and ellipsis, use of a “staging” or “theatrical” technique, and keyhole effects through architecture features. Lupke’s analyses of their similarities and differences (such as Ozu prefers a midshot and Hou a long shot) are detailed and comprehensive, despite the unnegligible absence of contextualisation of these stylistic choices within the framework of film histories and Hou’s production constraints, which largely defined Hou’s decisions on set in the inception of his career.

Lupke then singles out Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and Hou’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) for an extensive comparative study. For Lupke, a constant theme in both directors’ works is the disintegration of the traditional Confucian family values, and as a consequence, the conflict between collectivist culture and individualism. Under the influence of divergent historical trajectories and being concerned with subverted cultural cohesion in different manners, Hou’s films are more informed by sensitive political subject matter whereas Ozu’s critique stays at a social level. While these arguments do point out some general cultural phenomena in the worlds of Hou and Ozu, some remain rather rushed and show a tendency towards oversimplification of family value in Confucian philosophy.

In Chapter 4 Lupke analyses Hou’s Taiwan Trilogy and in particular A City of Sadness (1989) to argue that history is the main character within Hou’s films. With this stance Lupke rather freely interprets Hou’s portrayal of historical events. For example, Lupke suggests that through the merge between the plight of the actress in the contemporary time and the female dissident Chiang Bi-Yu in the time of White Terror, Hou implies that no one can ultimately escape the White Terror; meanwhile, the actress’s experience of nerve-wracking phone calls and faxes by an anonymous stalker is a contemporary echo of the spectre of the psychological torture perpetrated and the way individual sense of selfhood, intimacy, or privacy was taken away during the White Terror. While analysing the scene of linguistic misunderstanding between Jiang Biyu’s group of volunteers and Nationalists’ guerrilla army, Lupke argues that “Hou’s sustained portrayal of the linguistic obstacle to cohesive Chinese national identity is virtually anathema to mainland Chinese directors (perhaps due to the fear of censorship) and establishes him as a director of unstinting realism” (24). These somewhat bold arguments sometimes risk over-interpreting and over-politicising Hou’s storylines, conducting a comparison in a disproportionate manner, underestimating Hou’s scope beyond realism, and undervaluing the complexity of highly contested issues of identities in the film world as well as in Hou’s life trajectories.

A City of Sadness (1989)

A City of Sadness (1989)

In the chapter of “Time and Teleology” Lupke argues that throughout Hou’s entire corpus there exists a connection between the way time and cinematic duration is treated and the questions of teleology and disillusionment; the Hollywoodian teleological narrative is subverted and frustrated intentionally. By juxtaposing stasis with motion and foregrounding the passing of time with different cinematic techniques throughout his career, Hou reveals a teleology that is disentangled by larger social forces as well as fragmented human experience and unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Lupke illustrates his argument on Hou’s thematic connection between time and teleology, stasis and motion, and quest and disillusion through later works of Hou after the millennium. In the final chapter “What is Said and Left Unsaid”, Lupke discusses Hou’s period adaptations Flowers of Shanghai and his latest The Assassin in terms of Hou’s modern interpretation of literary texts and understanding of them, but also subversion of genre conventions, along with a brief discussion of historical contexts. At the very end of the book, there are English translations of interviews which were conducted and published previously only in Chinese-language, such as the conversation between Hou, his long-term scriptwriter Zhu Tianwen, and the film critic Cai Hongsheng in Beijing in 1990, and the interview of Hou and Xie Haimeng (the scriptwriter of The Assassin and Zhu’s niece) by the renowned intellectual Yang Zhao in 2015, as well as an extensive Chinese Character Glossary with a Chinese-English bilingual list of all the names related to research on Hou Hsiao-hsien and a thorough filmography. These are very useful points of reference.

At times it feels that answers are given without the question being asked, or rather, that meanings are added upon Hou’s films in a way that is not always easily justified. The ambition of balancing between Chinese Studies and Film Studies and between textual analysis, contextual information, and theoretical discussion is also rather difficult to achieve. Yet the book remains an enjoyable read for lovers of Hou’s films and a comprehensive and informative guide to the sinophone world of Hou Hsiao-hsien; it bridges the scholarship on Hou in English and Chinese and embraces Hou’s oeuvres in its entirety.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs, which was funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften, was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.

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