Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Syncretic Cinema

Legendary Taiwanese Filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien celebrated his 72nd birthday. He was born on April 8, 1947 in a rural area in southern China, Hou and his family immigrated to Taiwan before he turned one.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Syncretic Cinema Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Syncretic Cinema Source : EFS Publication


Hou Hsiao-hsien pressingly dwells in contested political territory like state, region, national culture and transnational identity. Hou's father passed away when just a young boy. The absence of a male authority figure forced him out and he got involved in the gang culture that surrounded him. In order to bear the street life, Hou learned the Hoklo language which is popularly referred to as "Taiwanese".


The four elements of Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion are important characteristics of Hou's oeuvre. Hou is always concerned with the complicated and multifaceted nature of cultural identity. Hou's style has garnered most attention among all the facets of his work. One thing that have always intrigued Hou Hsiao-hsien is the issue of voice which is critical to his cinematic art. Going back to his earliest films like Summer at Grandpa's, A Time to Live, A Time to Die and A City of Sadness, and beyond, voiceover is effectively used to establish a narrative coherence. At the beginning of Daughter of the Nile, the protagonist addresses the camera directly. In later films, such as Millennium Mambo, Hou remains dedicated to this device, although in this case the image of Vicky on the screen is in "real time" while the third-person voiceover is cast in past tense, forming a retrospective for the visual narrative.


Finally, there is also no question that in a variety of ways motion is integral to the cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Motion is something inherent in the perception of the action, the phenomenology of film, the way the lens absorbs the action of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien loves the stationary camera, but he also has a passion for the slow pan. His way of creating shots with a stationary or slow-moving camera eye, combined with the focus on what is conventionally considered to be the inessential details of a given film's story, are matters that concern motion.


Considered by many cinema aficionados to be one of the most innovative, provocative, and enthralling directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien has earned international acclaim for his work over the past three decades. Hou has been interested in juxtaposing motion and stasis, the fact that the more characters pursue teleological goals the more they wind up very close to where they began. His films are not mere documents of monumental accomplishment. On the contrary, they are closer in many cases to being monuments of colossal ineffectuality. But the feebleness of human endeavor, in the face of attempts to overcome individual flaws and social forces, is a quintessential human trait in itself. Hou Hsiao-hsien is an ethnographer of such vain quests.


Hou's use of the premodern texts as inspiration for his cinematic project also demonstrates some of the most observable examples of his distinctive style. The literary subject matter allows the audience to see in clear visual relief just how Hou works and how he uses the editing knife to fillet his master takes into laconic and suggestive interpretations of the literary originals. Hou's style on the set is inductive. What happens on the set on a given day is somewhat unpredictable, because, as he says, "when I get to the set, I let the location talk to me. It's an instinct, a sort of good fortune, rather than the subjective determinism of the creator."


With A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), Hou Hsiao-hsien had slammed shut the door on all the cornball comedies, Cold War historical romances, and lachrymose melodramas that had dominated the cinema scene in Taiwan, and much of East Asia in the postwar era, as well as a hefty portion of, if not all, the excessively commercial martial-arts kick ‘em ups as well. The qualities that initially impresses in early Hou classics- the stationary camera and long-take sequences that foster a ‘theatrical' cinematographic style, with the set functioning as a stage as it were; the measured pace; the focus on individual, seemingly inconsequential, conflict and familial repercussions with deeply submerged but stubbornly persistent historical implications; the studious evasion of overwrought melodrama and teleological resolutions of plot-driven film narrative; the cacophony of contending voices and sounds that include various national and regional languages, accents, and natural audible emissions from the environment, as well as the subdued nondiegetic music; and the meticulous attention to detail-have largely remained in Hou's aesthetic repertoire and conferred on him the approbation of film aficionados worldwide.


His rise has occurred through an unequivocal insistence on excellence in film style and an unrelenting attention to the marginal status of his subjects, as well as to the theme of marginality in general and the problem of communication that it entails. Hou's films abound with the inability to establish clear links of communication and the doomed yet dogged attempts to foster community. Hou has arranged a range of formal peculiarities and idyllic concerns, inspiring comparisons with the Yasujiro Ozu, the great Japanese filmmaker. It is in line with icons of Taiwanese nativist literature in theme to acquire a unique voice that speaks as powerfully in the local vernacular of Taiwan as it does to the expectations of a global film-viewing public. His films operate on different levels simultaneously-the local and the global, the carefully crafted and the politically engaged-etching characters who while caught up in their own personal struggles are nevertheless emblems of larger public forces.



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References: Christopher Lupke-The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao, Cambria Press (2016)

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