A Question of Cosmic Closeness
"A distinction emerged between two kinds of films: one in which the film revolves around the viewer, and one in which the viewer revolves around the film. I estimate that 80-90% of movies are made under the first premise. City of Sadness is unmistakably of the latter camp; in fact, it's one of the best examples I know of a film that seems to exist independently of a viewership, self-contained in its own evocation of a specific time and place." So says Kevin B. Lee in Reverse Shot, after a discussion with a friend over the impenetrability of Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness. Is this difficulty vital to Hou's reputation? Cahiers du Cinema listed Goodbye South, Goodbye as their second best film of the nineties; The Village Voice and Film Comment named Hou the best director of that decade. Perhaps in keeping with this reputation for genius to the detriment of apparent ready watchability, Hou is one of the least viewed of the great modern filmmakers. Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-wai, even Bela Tarr and Alexander Sokurov, have a broad international audience, but Hou seems a director whose reputation more than any auteur outstrips his commercial appeal. As Geoffery Macnab says in an interview with the filmmaker, "not even winning a Golden Lion in Venice for his 1989 film City of Sadnesshas helped him emerge a long way outside the festival circuit." (Guardian) To understand something of this gap between brilliance and box-office viability (as well as the eccentricities of Cahier's selection), Carlito's Way comes in at number one and TheBridges of Madison County at number three. Whatever we might think of Brian De Palma's pulp fiction and Eastwood's weepfest, they are films most people could have seen unless they were works they actively wanted to avoid. Hou's oeuvre is more the other way around: films one may actively seek out and still fail to catch.
Does this reside in Lee's distinction: that Carlito's Way and The Bridges of MadisonCounty are clearly films in the 80/90% category? Yet as David Bordwell insistently points out, in his always pragmatic approach to film, Hou isn't averse to making commercial decisions. In Figures Traced in Light he notes: that Millennium Mambo starred "The Taiwan-born Hong Kong sex symbol Shu Qi." On his website Observations on Film Art, he says "Caf Lumire has recourse to one of Hou's favorite maneuvers, casting rising pop-music stars in his films. Yo Hitoto, who had her first hit "Morai-Naki" in 2002, became his lead performer. This was a shrewd marketing move, as she is of both Japanese and Taiwanese ancestry and personifies the "fusion" aspect of Hou's Shochiku project. Likewise, the male star Tadanobu Asano, an idol of Japanese cinema, has appeared in Thai, Russian, and even American films (e.g., Thor, 2011). Tadanobu is also a pop musician and model." It was also the case, we might add, that in City of Sadness a character's muteness came out of the simple fact that Hong Kong actor Tony Leung didn't speak Taiwanese.
Yet Hou's commercial strategies appear far outweighed by his uncommercial form. Though his earlier films like The Green Green Grass of Home, The Boys from Fengkueiand Summer at Grandpa's were more accessible in their shot length, lighting approach and emotional involvement, the films immediately following these in the mid-to-late eighties, were becoming hermetic: one can see the progression through The Time to Live, the Time to Die and Dust in The Wind to City of Sadness, with the latter covering a Chinese family living in Taiwan and terrorised by the government. The combination of political intricacy, familial complexity and formal innovation makes for a deliberate and demanding experience. Like many Hou films it has neither a central character nor a consistent focalised point, and much of Hou's work seems designed around not the centering evident in the 80-90% of films that Lee mentions, but on defocalising, on finding the ways and means by which to disperse the story and the figures. Even in films where there is more evidently a central character (as in The Puppetmaster and CafeLumiere) Hou finds methods by which to fragment our identificatory purpose.
To explore this more concretely, let us look at some scenes from his eighties and nineties work. In The Puppetmaster, the film explores the first half of the title character's life, and interlinks with the dramatized footage occasional interviews with the still living puppetmaster himself, Li Tianlu (who had appeared as the fictional grandfather in Dust inthe Wind and Daughter of the Nile). Numerous scenes are shot with little emphasis on transparent focalisation: the film often leaves Li Tianlu on the edge of the frame and devoid of point of view shots so that his centrality is formally diluted. Films that play to an audience usually create several factors that allow for identificatory focalisation. Even in very elaborately staged sequence shots as in De Palma's Snake Eyes and Welle's Touch ofEvil, the focal point is strong. In the former we are following Nicolas Cage around as he enters a stadium to watch a boxing match; in the latter we witness a couple cross the border before a bomb goes off. We appear to be in a safe pair of narrative hands as the directors tell the story. But Hou is more interested in showing a story rather than telling one, and that old literary clich of showing not telling is often nonsense in cinema: it is the telling more than the showing that puts the films in the 80-90% camp. When Kent Jones proposes, according to Macnab, that "Hou may well be one of the greatest story-tellers the cinema has known, a rival to DW Griffith," we would have to disagree, if only to insist that Hou is one of cinema's great story-showers. There is a scene from The Puppetmasterwhere the narrative concerns Li Tianlu as a young man falling in love with his mistress. He is a married man with children, but the sequence indicates no concern for the conflict of interest in his life and conflicting feelings he may possess. Instead the image concentrates on the process of a cigarette being passed between the mouths of Li Tianlu and his prospective mistress as a third character looks on. Hou holds the shot frontally, and during the sequence cuts just once to a slightly tighter angle on the three shot, and after that neither moves in closer, nor moves the camera to the right to remove the mainly superfluous friend from the shot: this is no mnage a trois. It is a good example of Hou's style, not because the camera remains fixed: though it is often assumed that Hou works in fixed frames, his camera movements are frequent. No, it lies more in the sense that there is a dimension within the story that interests him more than the story itself. The narrative content might reside in the burgeoning relationship, but there is a ritual of mise-en-scene that interests him still more. To move in too close or to excise the third character from the frame would be ritualistically impoverishing even if it would seem dramatically nourishing. If one insists that Hou shows stories more than he tells them, it resides in the significance of retaining the ritual dimension of the sequence over its narrative unfolding.
When Fergus Daly astutely insists that "so often in film magazines and newspaper reviews a summary of the Hou aesthetic could just as easily be describing a range of Modernist auteurs from Antonioni to Tarr" ('On Four Prosaic Formulas Which Might Summarize Hou's Poetics'), it is important to try and figure out where the singularities lie, and we feel ritual is a good place to start. The notion of a romance embarked upon can be explored well enough by Li Tianlu in the direct to camera addresses he offers with such long take eloquence, but Hou's long take eloquence lies elsewhere. It resides in generating sequences that must allow for the unfolding of time and space within the remit of the given event, and not allow the narrative dimension of the event to take over. Thus when Daly says one of the key tenets of Hou's work is that "my experience doesn't belong to me", Hou finds the form in which to make this manifest. In an early scene in The Puppetmaster, Li Tianlu speaks about his life in voice-over, but he as a baby is tiny within the frame. The three women figures in the frame dressed in white are prominently displayed with Li in the middle of them all but shrouded by the women and the director's low lighting levels: it takes us a second before seeing him in the shot. In Goodbye South, Goodbye, whether it happens to be character who has attempted to take her own life who is lying on the bed blocked by another character initially, and for much of the scene peripheral within the frame, or the grandfather who collapses in the background of the shot later in the film, we can see why in Hou's films it can feel like experiences don't quite belong to the characters. Life is less an agent led story, than the accumulation of events of which we happen only to be a part.
This helps explains Hou's reluctance to offer shot/counter shots, to rearrange screen space in a way that gives a strong sense of subjectivity and agency to a character. Though the director often moves from a medium long shot to a medium shot as a he reframes from a slightly tighter angle as we've noted in the seduction scene with the cigarette in ThePuppetmaster, he usually won't completely transform the screen space that the scene introduces us to. About as close as Hou gets to a shot/counter shot exchange in the later films takes place in The Puppetmaster, where an intermediary is discussing the possibility of Li Tianlu marrying into a particular family. The film cuts from a three shot to a single of Li in medium close up, and then to a shot of his interlocutor. However, it remains an event rather than an exchange as we are choosing to define the event. As the film cuts from his interlocutor to another scene altogether, there is no sense of agency in the sequence, no sense that Li has asserted himself in the scene.
Is this partly what we mean by the event, taking into account Daly's remark "that my experiences do not belong to me"? But how do films usually make experiences belong to a character? Is this simply an issue of point of view? One thinks not. In Frank Borzage's 1927 film 7th Heaven, the film's leading female character is full of fear and fright and near the beginning of the film can't face walking along a plank of wood that leads from one top floor Paris garret to another. The only other way to visit the neighbours would be to go all the way down the many flights of stairs and back up the one across the street. As she attempts to cross this narrow plank, the film cuts to vertiginous shots of the street below. Though the man she is staying with is crossing the plank at the same time, when the film cuts to these vertiginous shots we don't doubt they are reflecting her feelings rather than his, even though no point of view is involved. Later in the film, aware that the man she is staying with has now fallen in love with her; she is scared of nothing and has no problem crossing. In both form and content the film has given her strong agency. In the first instance through registering her fear by giving us shots of how she feels about the height, and in the second instance by showing how she has conquered this fear by her awareness that a man loves her. This is 'early cinema', but where what Noel Burch calls 'the Institutional Mode of Representation' had already become well-established: Burch's book Life to Those Shadowscovers the years up until more or less the end of the silent cinema. "I see the 1895-1929 period as one of the constitution of an Institutional Mode of Representation...which, for fifty years, has been explicitly taught in film schools as the Language of Cinema, and which, whoever we are, all internalise at an early age as a reading competence, thanks to an exposure to films (in cinema or on television) which is universal among the young in industrialised societies."
7th Heaven is a good example of this institutional mode in its final stage of perfection, but Hou's work is countering that assuredness with an assurance of its own. The 'reading competence' required for a Hou film is quite different from that expected of the Institutional Mode, and central to it lies in the means by which Hou proposes that experiences don't quite belong to us as cinematic form. As Kent Jones says in a piece on Hou in Film Comment: "Being a non-American filmmaker is tough, since American culture in general and American movies in particular set the standards for so much: technology, philosophical outlook, narrative construction, modes of production, and, most importantly, the question of how a film should relate to its audience. Compared with a straightforward, visceral, traumatic history lesson like Saving Private Ryan, almost anything is going to look minoritarian and litist. God forbid if your country's history is as messy and complicated as that of Taiwan, where national identity is a permanent question mark. Trying to conjure up a form that will accommodate such fragmentation, and stay true to the odd sensation of losing what there is of your culture to mercenary capitalism, is a tall order."
Two areas in which we can explore the feeling of experiences removed from the characters themselves can be found in Hou's presentation of death and the numerous fight sequences that exist in his work. In The Time to Live and the Time to Die, the central character, Ah-ha's father is unconscious in his chair and we watch as the family gathers around and tries to revive him. The initial framing is a medium long shot, before the film moves into a medium close-up, with Ah-ha's face no longer in the frame. This move from a medium long shot to a medium close up is a common aspect to Hou's work: it allows him to move in closer without changing the angle of perception. He simply gives us a tighter angle on events so that we can see certain details more clearly, and yet at the same time by moving in closer inevitably other elements are left out. The Institutional Mode will also of course frequently move from long shot to close up, but what is removed in the long shot through moving in closer is rarely any longer of interest and can be excised from the drama within the frame. Once we know the characters are in a busy cafe, we can move in to the close up and only return to the establishing shot if there is some new information that makes the long distance shot relevant again. But if Hou is a great director of off screen space it is partly because he accepts that what is off screen is still relevant, but chooses to leave it as a felt absence beyond the frame. Another filmmaker would have held the camera little further back to contain Ah-ha within the shot, or cut to a reaction shot at the end of the sequence so that we could register his response. Hou does neither, even if shortly afterwards there is a moment where the mother starts screaming and Ah-ha in another room, turns round and we have a shot where he is reacting to his mother's cries. Perhaps later Hou would be more inclined to find another method within which to contain the child's reaction: perhaps by focusing on the boy's actions and leaving the mother's cry as an off screen sound. But nevertheless the approach to the father's demise remains generally aloof. If the mourning sequence in the film were presented as a radio play we might find it melodramatic, but as the camera shows us each member of the family expressing their pain, so Hou impresses upon us not only the sense of despair but even more the ritual of loss. Hou flirts with melodrama yet does so not because he wants a strong emotional reaction, but more because he wants to follow the ritual through to its conclusion. The most moving moments concerning the father's death come more at the end of the film. Here Ah-ha realizes that the reason the father seemed so distant from his children was because he was literally afraid of getting too close and passing on his tuberculosis.
The fight sequences in earlier Hou films like The Boys of Fengkuei and The Time to Liveand the Time to Die are less radical than in later works like Goodbye South, Goodbye, but they are still almost farcical in their ritualistic dimension. As with grief, Hou finds a way of remaining outside the expected emotional content of the scene. The Boys from Fengkuei's early fight sequences combine elements of standard drama with Hou remove. Two cars pull up outside a house in a typical moment of dramatic tension, with a group of young men piling out of each with bats in their hands. One of the boys receives an immediate beating; the other runs for his life. Here Hou films the chase with a suspense his later films' formal precision would deny, but it still has an element of farce as one of those chasing stumbles and falls with Hou's camera looking on, half indifferent. In The Time toLive and a Time to Die, as a fight breaks out in a pool hall Hou films it with his expected aloofness. He shows the altercation in long shot, and then when Ah-ha is taken outside the shot/counter shot utilised nevertheless still keeps the situation removed. As Ah-ha pushes someone over and runs away, the moment is filmed from inside the pool hall. As Ah-ha and his friends take off, Hou shows them exiting the frame, and shows Ah-ha reentering it as he lobs a stone in the direction of the pool hall. Any adrenaline buzz possible in the scene is secondary to a distance that says life is made up of ritualistic behaviour and the filmmaker's purpose is to film it. Often in Hou's fight scenes we are trying to find our bearings within the scene rather than identifying with a given character's situation.
This is constantly the case in Goodbye, South Goodbye, where the actions of the small time gangsters appear haphazard and poorly executed partly because of the distinctiveness in Hou's execution and his careful use of the frame. When older brother Gao (Jack Kao) talks about opening a restaurant or a disco, his girlfriend's demeanour suggests it isn't probably going to turn into anything, and the film seems in sympathy with her perspective by virtue of the film's refusal even in pretending to generate the enthusiasm of its possibility. This isn't a narrative of failed success; more a spatial exploration of petty cock-ups and numerous hassles. In one scene Gao's friend and fellow hoodlum harasses someone over a debt and the friend drags the man away, but as the image turns to black this isn't a cut to a new scene, but a moment where the electricity goes off. We hear them talking for a couple of seconds in the dark: a moment of hard man terror reduced to a farcical moment. The next shot shows Gao driving, and then cuts to him arriving at his brother's place. Younger brother Flatty's girlfriend Pretzel, whose wrists are bandaged up after a suicide attempt, created a scene in a club where she owes a large sum of money. It is like a reversal of the earlier sequence with the gang trying to get money out of a debtor, but this time an off screen event where any progress Gao and the gang might think they are making is countered by the money Pretzel owes. Any progress is contained by a greater sense of purposelessness, and this is reflected in Hou's mise-en-scene. In the first scene, Gao is on the phone to his brother when he gets distracted by his friend's business, and while Hou reverse dollies as Gao enters the room where the friend and debtor are talking, Gao remains during the exchange out of frame. Even when the debtor says he wants to deal with Gao, the camera keeps him off screen as the friend insists that the debtor deals with him and not Gao. We have no idea how Gao reacts to this statement, as he remains out of cinematic sight. In the latter sequence the focal character in the scene for much of it remains peripheral. Initially we don't even see Pretzel at all as Gao's girlfriend is sitting on the bed and the camera's angle leaves Pretzel out of visibility behind her. It is only when the girlfriend leans forward that we see Pretzel on the bed,while as they talk about her she remains prostrate as if unconscious, and it is only after a minute of discussion she shows she isn't out cold. She becomes suddenly and hysterically animated when Gao throws a can at his brother and Pretzel goes over to protect her beau. Even the exchange between the brothers is filmed in a dramatically tempered way. As they talk Hou doesn't only forgo the expected shot/counter shot exchange often utilised in scenes where the director wants to crank up tension; he doesn't even allow for us to see Flatty's reaction as Gao questions and browbeats him. Gao stands with his back to the camera in front of Flatty so that the facial expression on each remains outside our viewable jurisdiction. If many of Hou's scenes feel ritualistic, whether remote in their emotional delineating, or farcical in their presentation of potentially violent moments, it rests partly on this question of the viewable aspect: what we are entitled to see in a Hou film.
Now of course cinema has a long history of viewable jurisdiction through the issue of censorship. The Institutional Mode Burch talks about that was more or less fully in place by the beginning of the thirties, also coincided with the Hays code in the US that was brought in in 1930, even if it wasn't forcibly practised until four year later. Nevertheless, what we have is the Institutional Mode leading to a certain privileged sense of spectatorship where the viewer feels that nothing is removed from presentation except for the purposes of offences to taste and decency (usually sex and violence). This withholding became part of one's expectations in the viewing experience. Just as we would technically expect a counter shot after a character looks longingly in a particular direction, so we would expect a transition shot when a couple would start kissing. We wouldn't expect them to start taking their clothes off. This is so much part of our viewing expectation in classic cinema that we readjust our moral vision when rewatching classic film. We accept the Institutional Mode in the era of the studio system also has a constitutional dimension: a moral writ dictating what can and cannot be shown.
Hou might be a filmmaker who eschews nudity in his work and whose violence is very rarely graphic (Daughter of the Nile perhaps the closest to an exception), but if he is such an important filmmaker it rests partly on his own perspective of viewable jurisdiction. Now if Burch talks about the Institutional Mode coming out of the early years of cinema it was because it replaced what he calls the primitive mode of representation. "...Was there 'a primitive mode of representation' in the same sense as there is an IMR, a stable system with its own inherent logic and durability? My answer is clear. It was both these things at once. There really was, I believe, a genuine PMR detectable in very many films in certain characteristic features, capable of a certain development, but unquestionably semantically poorer than the IMR." (Life to those Shadows) We can see how the Institutional Mode greatly expanded viewer jurisdiction: close-ups, shot/counter shots, parallel montage etc. However can we not also talk of an aesthetic mode of representation that became prominent from the sixties onward where directors would not play fair by the institutional approach and consequently created new problems in the arena of viewer mastery? Whether it happened to be Antonioni leaving a character on the edge of the frame and tiny within it rather than large and at its centre, Resnais dislocating the coordinates of time, or Herzog holding on to an establishing shot without moving to the expected close-up, many of the great directors of the sixties and seventies weren't augmenting the Institutional Mode, but finding another approach within which to generate perceptual possibilities.
What would be the benefit of such restrictions beyond countering institutional hegemony; the feeling that films could be made only in a certain way? We return to Daly's remarks about our experiences not belonging to us, and Hou's need to find a form with which to reflect that belief. By restricting access to viewer privileging, Hou captures well a world that does not belong to the individual, and thus reveals the nature of ritual much more than the singularity of motive and action. As Jones says, "In Hou's work, the question that obsesses the mind of every Western filmmaker - "What makes my characters tick?!?" - has been settled, and the sense of mystery lies elsewhere." (Film Comment) The question becomes properly formal because the problem has shifted from the purpose of character to the purpose of form. Yet this isn't an 'empty' aestheticisim, but instead a 'full' ritualisation. If Jones can talk of Hou in Proustian terms - "In Hou, as in Proust, nothing is taken for granted, and you get the whole architecture of the world in which the characters live" - we are more inclined to think of a writer closer to Hou's home: Yasunari Kawabata. Like the Japanese novelist, Hou doesn't quite trust the force of character against the ambience of atmosphere, with Kawabata's The House of Sleeping Beauties resembling for example Hou's The Flowers of Shanghai, with both writer and director capable of creating a dream of a life within the confines of a specific environment: in the former as older men spend the night sleeping with young virgins; in the latter as men lose themselves in the opiate world of prostitution. Strength of character is irrelevant next to a milieu where people exist in a pocket of light. If Hou rejects institutional modes it is partly because in the Institutional Mode atmosphere usually serves story; in Hou it is often the other way round.
Hou understands the pull of fragmented light, the ways in which well-distributed light sources can enfold us in their world. Most restaurants and many cafes do exactly the same, but of course they have no story to tell, placed as they are in the realm of architecture rather than narrative. But who is to say that film should be closer to narration than architecture, to temporal flow over spatial glow? Of course Hou doesn't ignore the fact that his films take place in cinematic time, but he gives more room than most to the possibilities in cinematic space as he is interested more in the time evident in the shot, than the time evident in the narrative. Even a finely detailed scene like the one in Vertigowhere Scottie first sees Madeleine is more concerned with the time in the narrative than within the shot: after all Scottie has been asked by his friend to follow her around. Where will she go; what will he discover? But Hou's concentration on time in the shot gives much of his work a pressure within the scene that in most films is released because of the time that is given over more to the narrative than to the shot itself. Even in the scene in Goodbye South, Goodbye, where the brothers argue over the money Pretzel owes, the scene is pressurized: in other words there is more tension within the sequence than anticipatory tension beyond it. It is not that Hou ignores the temporal, it is that he intensifies the scene to the deliberate detriment of progressive narration. This is also partly why we describe Hou as a great director showing rather than telling. Few directors have put more pressure into the shot and less into its narrative parcelling.
In Goodbye South, Goodbye, and in moments in The Boys from Fengkuei and The Time toLive and the Time to Die, the pressure is offered as low-key aggression; in the gentler Dustin the Wind, Caf Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon, the pressure is slightly different, no matter the spats between the central character and her ex in the latter; the family tension when the daughter announces she is pregnant and is not staying with the father of the child in Caf Lumiere. In each of the latter films they reflect a gentler world, even if on occasion the characters within them are constantly rushing around (as with Suzanne in Flight of the Red Balloon) or off doing military service (as with the central character in Dust in the Wind). However, the films have a reflective dimension more than a tension within them, and though Ozu has often been invoked in relation to Hou, there is usually, finally, too much low key aggression (let alone a far more mobile camera and frenetic movement within the frame) for Ozu to be a major influence. Caf Lumiere however was made as a homage to Ozu, and there are moments in Hou's work that share a certain coincidence of sensibility. The tranquil domestic scenes in Caf Lumiere hint at resignation and acceptance, while the calm filming of Paris in Flight of the Red Balloonaround Canal St Martin indicate a gentle sense of puzzlement and inquiry. Dust in theWind could have played up much more the threat the postman happens to be for the main character Wan who will lose his sweetheart after joining up; however the film is sensitive but wise: sympathetic to the loss, but demanding no melodrama in the form with which to express it. There are scenes of a train going through a tunnel in Dust in the Wind that are similar to moments in Goodbye South, Goodbye, but where in the latter this can suggest the sympathy towards the main character Gao, but an indifference towards his gang's numerous schemes and plans, in Dust in the Wind the sympathy seems more manifold and encompassing.
Yet though we sometimes find a gentler sensibility in some of Hou's films than in others, what is consistent through most of the work from the mid-eighties onwards is a particular aesthetic mode of representation that doesn't expect access to a character's thoughts easily available as we've in indicated is vital to the institutional mode. Instead Hou has found a method that asks in Lao Tzu's words, quoted by Stephane Bouquet in relation to Hou, "you walk without knowing what pushes you, you stop without knowing what bars you, you eat without knowing how you digest. All that which you are is an effect of the irresistible cosmic emanation. Therefore, what belongs to you?" In most films characters do know if not exactly why they do the things they do, that they feel at least a purpose in the process of doing them. In Hou's ritualised approach to cinema a deal done or a love lost, a failed demand or a gang fight, are all contained by a sense that existence is beyond our ready understanding. Of course Hou flirts with indifference in his rejection of so many tenets of the cinematic norm, but it is a risk he takes perhaps because he is looking for a greater gain. This would be a feeling at the end of a Hou film that nothing has happened not because nothing has, but that Hou has shown the nothingness contained in all things. As Lao Tzu says: "The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world - that which is without substance entering that which has no crevices. That is why I know the benefit of resorting to no action. The teaching that uses no words, the benefit of resorting to no action, these are beyond the understanding of all but a very few in the world." (Tao te Ching) The line between wisdom and indifference as form in Hou is a very slim one, and thus it is understandable why his films can seem empty to some; ineffably full to others. As Kawabata astutely proposed, "Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way." (Beauty and Sadness) If we can access Hou's interest in temporal immensity, one's distance from the characters seems irrelevant next to the cosmic closeness he searches out. Lee might be right in saying Hou's films appear to be turned inward on themselves, but perhaps its also useful to see them turning outwards towards something much bigger, aware that they need to escape the Institutional Mode to do so.
© Tony McKibbin