TABLE OF CONTENTS

A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT: THE FILMS OF HOU HSIAO-HSIEN

SIDE LIT AND GLIMMERING, the billiard balls in the opening sequences of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new film Three Times, look more like objets d’art, so aestheticized is the atmosphere in which they exist—a hushed, radiant world of robin’s-egg shantung, green baize, and crisp muslin. As if observing Emily Dickinson’s instruction that “the Truth must dazzle gradually,” the film hangs fire, exquisitely, in that manner familiar to those who know their Hou: time suspended, natural light spilling into domestic space, a sense of reverie and yearning quietly cumulating in the idle air.

Returning to home base Taipei after a sojourn in Tokyo to make his Ozu homage Café Lumière (2003), Hou produced a portmanteau film that serves as a retrospective of his career, each of its three stories recalling a successive period of Hou’s cinematic development; the respective locations (rural, cloistral, urban) and epochs (1966, 1911, 2005) in which each tale is set mirror crucial aspects of an important work in three periods of the director’s career. That Three Times spans almost a century of Taiwan’s history—a signature theme and enduring concern of Hou’s—only reinforces the film’s function as summa.

Hou never intended it as such. The omnibus form to which Three Times reverts was the hallmark of the Taiwanese New Cinema movement that emerged in the early ’80s, of which Hou was a central figure, along with Edward Yang, the director of Taipei Story (1985) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991). In such episodic films as In Our Time (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983), thematically related “slices of life” by various Taiwanese directors were combined to make a feature, as Three Times was originally conceived to do. But funding for the project fell through, and Hou, who was to shoot only one story, rescued it by making all three, using the same actor and actress (Chang Chen and Shu Qi) to play similarly named characters in each. He has referred to the resulting triptych of love stories as being about the “bliss” that comes from recollecting a wonderful time, lost and retrievable only through memory—no surprise for this most Proustian of filmmakers.

No director in contemporary cinema has so insistently defined life as an accrual of loss and injury, of broken or vanished ideals and irretrievable loves. Hou’s early work Dust in the Wind (1986) suggests that as fated and ephemeral as life is—the very title intimates mortality—it also offers us the consolations of place and memory. But memory can become less solace than trap, as the tormented Liang Ching discovers in Good Men, Good Women (1995), when her past arrives every day, as pages of her stolen journal are anonymously faxed to her apartment, a reminder that she cannot live in the present, so wounding and utter is her memory of the man she loved and lost. And place, all important to Hou, poet of verdant landscapes, rural train stations, and mingy, indifferent cities, cannot transcend the history that weighs on it. The seaside town Jiufen, the bucolic hillside villages of Hou’s autobiographical films, Shanghai, and the three places in his latest film—Kaohsiung, Dadaocheng, Taipei—are, in Hou’s melancholy eyes, sites of stoic despair, all “Cities of Sadness,” to paraphrase the title of his 1989 family saga.

The first segment of Three Times returns us to Hou’s autobiographical early films, with their delicate, summery surfaces, rural or pastoral settings, comparatively linear narratives, mid-distance shots, and extended takes. Its very title, “A Time for Love,” echoes that of A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), filmed in the village in which Hou grew up, but it is Dust in the Wind, about two young people who move from their hillside village to inhospitable Taipei and find themselves exploited and abandoned, that the new film most resembles. Full of fugitive, unfulfilled hopes, Dust reveals Hou’s romantic attachment to the disappearing traditions and landscapes, the “paradise past,” of Taiwan. A fixed shot of a grandfather, played by octogenarian actor Li Tien-lu, gazing into the serried green hills surrounding his village, captures in one rending image Hou’s vision of an eternal Taiwan, rooted in the land and centered on the family. Conversely, “A Time for Love,” set in 1966 in the port city Kaohsiung, is all nomadic ramble. (The tension between narrative anomie and formal precision gives much of Hou’s recent cinema its power.)

In preparing to shoot this segment, Hou discovered that traces of the mid-’60s have largely disappeared from Taiwan, so he concentrated instead, he says, on character and story. But it is atmosphere—a gorgeous aura of becalmed longing—that prevails in his account of a pool-hall hostess pursued by a lonely soldier. She drifts from town to town, billiard hall to billiard hall, and out on leave he travels cross-country to find her, road signs swimming out of the landscape to punctuate his detective quest. Hou establishes a surprisingly Wongish vibe, with the patterned glamour of Shu Qi’s retro outfits, those Bakelite-looking pool balls, and the pop nostalgia of a music track that switch hits between “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by the Platters and a persistently repeated “Rain and Tears” by Aphrodite’s Child (a Baroque-pop classic improbably based on Pachelbel’s Canon that will surely lodge in your brainpan, if not your iPod, after its second insidious iteration). More astonishing, Hou gives his love story a happy ending—albeit a tentative one, bliss being provisional in his world of flux and farewell.

Each of the film’s three stories has its own visual style and tone, and in the second, longest, and most remarkable of them, “A Time for Freedom,” set in a society brothel in 1911, Hou turns exigency into invention. The film’s short production period forced Hou to forego the literary dialect then spoken in such a rarefied enclave, which would have taken too long for his actors to master. Instead of indulging in the anachronism of contemporary dialogue, the director made the bold choice to turn his period piece into a silent film, complete with intertitles and musical accompaniment. (The stylistic daring exists not only in Hou’s choice of form, but also in his refusal to recreate the traditional style or syntax of silent cinema.)

Here, Shu plays a courtesan, languishing in the lacquered world of the Dadaocheng brothel, who secretly pines for the patron (again Chang Chen) with whom she talks poetry and politics. They both long for freedom, though of different kinds: He wants Taiwan to liberate itself from Japanese rule, while she yearns for the same tenderness and autonomy he has accorded a young concubine by paying off her indenture. The setting and dress recall Hou’s amber-lit masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai (1998), whose clatter of mah-jongg tiles and hypnotic score are replaced here by silence, muted music, implied sound. (One can almost hear the hiss and slither of silk, the hushed negotiations over the girl.) Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin resists the clichéd halation of period films: Shooting in fluid pans punctuated by dissolves, he illuminates the confined spaces of the perfectly preserved wooden house with distilled twilight. As materialist in its way as Flowers, though less heady and suggestive, “A Time for Freedom” is organized around a series of entrances and exits, oblique glances, and nebulous gestures; its world seems closed and immutable but fragile, unfinished. As in many Hou films, the atmosphere of emotional privation, in the gulf between the stanched passion of the courtesan and the obtuse fervor of the man who looks past her longing to a wider realm of release—historical, political, national—works slowly like an opiate, so that the episode seems dreamed.

“A Time for Youth,” the last of the three segments, set in present-day Taipei, returns to the terrain of two of Hou’s most controversial films, Daughter of the Nile (1987) and Millennium Mambo (2001), both punished by critics as misguided ventures into contemporary pop culture. The director made Daughter as a bid for a wider audience but inevitably produced a work that was purest Hou: still, disciplined, elliptical. In it, Taiwanese pop star Yang Lin plays a young woman trying to keep together what remains of her family. Working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and attending night school, she frets over the gulf between her absent father and her burgling brother and loses herself in the fantasy world of the Japanese comic strip that gives the film its strange name. Hou’s formalist eye turns every shot into a study in absence and detachment, and his attention to the anomic rhythms of Taipei youth culture reminds one of Godard’s early ’60s portraits of Paris.

Attempting to capture the sheer weightlessness, the inertia and amnesia of life today in Taipei, Millennium Mambo focuses on free-spirited bar hostess Vicky (Shu) as she floats into the new millennium, seemingly unfettered by work, love, or family. Vicky drifts from night to night, club to club, Ecstasy and techno fueling and flattening her abandon. Hou has said that Vicky is a modern-day version of the courtesans in Flowers of Shanghai, free to choose what men she wants in her life, and she finally leaves the abusive addict Hao Hao for a gentle older businessman. Escaping the tethers of Taipei altogether, Vicky lights out for Japan with two men to attend a film festival in snowy Yubari. Hou always posits some sort of Eden for his characters—a place to remember or long for; that Japan, once Taiwan’s brutal colonizer, provides the paradisical hiatus here, compounds the film’s sense of history absented.

Some of Hou’s erstwhile champions felt baffled or betrayed by Mambo, owing to the incessant superficiality of its young characters and the film’s lack of history and politics. One might argue that these are Hou’s point and purpose; he is genuinely fascinated with Vicky’s (non)life, and he wants to get at its sadness, its seeming freedom. (The theme of entrapment carries over from Flowers of Shanghai.) The stately rhythms and deep-focus, static, often symmetrical and extended shots for which Hou has been celebrated are replaced in Mambo by the throbbing, spectral beat of rave music and a nervously roving, claustrophobic camera, which employs narrow depth of field and urban sfumato—a smoky blue nightclub stippled with spots of hot red, for instance—to capture a world he finds shallow, disconsolate. Hou describes his visual approach as that of a microscope, using an 85 mm lens to bring things close, so close in fact that they can be blurred, obscured, or oddly cropped, rendering Vicky’s neon-lit world chaotic, indecipherable. Hou’s time sequences have always been challenging, and Mambo’s has a confounding effect. A voice-over tells us at the beginning that the events “happened ten years ago in the year 2001,” and the narration often announces what will happen a few scenes or sequences later, a spiral of time complicated by Vicky’s sudden trip to Japan. Like compatriot Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? (2001), Mambo is a ghost story, but what has died is more than a single soul—rather, history, memory, a sense of being and belonging.

Hou’s aversion to modernity in Millennium Mambo (an aversion that attenuates “A Time for Youth”) was palpable in his great Taiwan trilogy, which he has called his “Three Tragedies”—A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Men, Good Women—a monumental chronicle of his country’s postwar history. Establishing the past by which the present is measured and found wanting, the first two films in the trilogy are perhaps Hou’s greatest—certainly his most complex and demanding. A City of Sadness was the first film to address the event that most deeply scarred postwar Taiwan’s body politic, and which was left suppressed and suppurating in the national memory: the “2.28 Incident,” as the Taiwanese call it, referring to February 28, 1947, the date on which a struggle between a policeman and a Taiwanese woman erupted into an islandwide conflagration. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the corrupt Kuomintang regime, whose forces, many dispatched from Nanking by Chiang Kai-shek, massacred as many as thirty thousand Taiwanese natives and broke the independence movement. Hou’s intimate epic focuses on an extended family, the Lins, in the years between Japan’s defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Taiwan in 1945 and the 2.28 Incident and its aftermath. The uprising had been expunged from official history for many decades, and the polyphonic density of A City of Sadness seems as much an act of historical restitution as a formal approach: from enforced silence, a sudden, mournful counterpoint of voices. The indrawn, watchful quality of its compositions, all long takes and framed space, intensifies this sense of apprehensive disclosure; in Hou’s typically oblique method, the incident is not portrayed but only alluded to.

If the sprawling, abstruse City sometimes seems to require a full exegetical apparatus of family trees and background notes on Taiwanese history, The Puppetmaster—about Li Tien-lu, one of Taiwan’s official “national treasures,” whose life (1909–1998) spanned the turbulent modern history of the island, from the early years of Japanese occupation through the coming of democracy—is even more difficult. After using Li as an actor (most memorably in Dust in the Wind), Hou decided to fashion the puppeteer’s life into a film, focusing on the four decades under Japanese rule. Hou treats Li’s craft (and craftiness), which was perfected despite strict censorship by the occupying forces, as an expression of Taiwanese identity and lovingly re-creates some of the master’s most vivid performances. The director characteristically employs modernist strategies to celebrate a traditional art form. As he would henceforth, Hou compresses time, sometimes conflating past and present within the same frame or leaping a decade in a single cut. Temporal shifts and caesuras between narrative events are abrupt, unmarked, or provisory. He elides central events or leaves them offscreen, collapses fact and fiction, history and performance, moves between a multitude of characters without transitional devices, and fills his deep-focus, long-held compositions with so much quotidian detail that one’s eye is left to roam a field of potential signifiers that may be mundane, even indifferent, but seem so implicative that they demand deciphering.

It is in the final panel of Hou’s historical triptych, Good Men, Good Women, that his desolate view of contemporary Taiwan is most urgently expressed. The film explores another topic long taboo in Taiwan: the period known as the “White Terror,” during which ’50s cold-war paranoia escalated into full-scale repression. The Chiang Kai-shek regime, now ensconced in Taiwan and abetted by the US, imprisoned or executed thousands of leftists and nationalists, and Good Men, Good Women examines the legacy of that brutal era. Hou is less interested in how “red scare” intensified into “white terror” than in how the inhibition of political memory continues to exact a psychic toll decades after the event. His most wrenching film, Good Men, Good Women is a tribute to Chiang Bi-yu, a brave patriot who joined the anti-Japanese resistance in the ’40s only to be imprisoned as a threat to the state in the ’50s. The film assertively braids past and present, art and history, to suggest that contemporary life has lost its sense of purpose. Hou juxtaposes the story of Chiang Bi-yu (shot in black-and-white) with that of an actress who, five decades later, is rehearsing to play her in a film (in color). Hou further complicates his structure by layering another “past” into the contemporary story, which doubles and deepens his theme: Good men and good women still exist in modern Taiwan, he suggests, but idealism, and commitment to anything but the immediate and the monetary, seems impossible.

Alas, the final segment of Hou’s new film lacks the conviction of either Good Men, Good Women or Millennium Mambo, even as it extends their critique of modernity. An unconvincing coda to Three Times, suffering from compression and tendentiousness, “A Time for Youth” appears both overloaded and thin. Shu plays an epileptic bisexual goth art-song chanteuse, burnt out, losing her sight, and bedeviled by her jealous and finally suicidal lesbian lover, Micky, whom she ignores to spend more time with her boyfriend, a photographer (Chang). Text messaging has replaced the wistful letters of “A Time for Love” and the elegant calligraphy of “A Time for Freedom”—all is speed, media, and entropy in today’s Taipei, every image alterable, every word (including Shu’s broken English) depleted. The closed, composed worlds of the previous two episodes—billiard hall and brothel—give way to steely, anomic spaces, rapt romanticism replaced by anxiety, infirmity, and neglect. It is a measure of Hou’s mastery that “A Time for Youth” manages to overcome its enervation in a final motorcycle drive, photographed in one tricky, traveling long shot, a reminder of similar wild rides to nowhere, especially in the final sequence of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).

Three Times encapsulates a career but hardly encompasses it. The film’s privileged moments remind us of the intense pleasures of Hou’s cinema. Patiently waiting for his stories to coalesce out of floating, notational detail, for the relationships between his characters to emerge from a nimbus of uncertainty, for the muted and indistinct to slowly flare into incandescence—the fires at the end of Good Men, Good Women literalize this sensation—one knows precisely what Dickinson means by her edict about dazzle. Hou’s is gradual, then engulfing.

James Quandt, senior programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, organized the current traveling retrospective of the films of Mikio Naruse.

Three Times appears this month at the New York Film Festival.