Tag Archives: Hou Hsiao-hsien

LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Japan-Taiwan 2003)

Yoko and Hajime (centre) on one of several train journeys.

I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.

The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.

I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.

This is the ‘real’ railway shot that Mark Lee frames (more poetically) but even in this Creative Commons photo from Wikipedia it looks magical.

Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.

Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the child to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.

The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).

Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.

Millennium Mambo (France/Taiwan 2001)

Vicki and Hao-hao. Note the colour palette with the 'glowing' white bra and the shallow focus.

I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.

As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.

The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.

The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!

This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:

We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.

I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?)  At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.

I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.

The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.

Le Voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2007)

Fang Song and Simon Iteau in Le Voyage du ballon rouge

I saw this in the cosy and comfortable seating of the Old Town Hall, Gateshead — the temporary home of Tyneside Cinema — at the end of a very hard day. As a result, I found it hard to concentrate on a film which requires proper attention. But I struggled on with determination because the film had been recommended. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed the experience — although at the end I wasn’t sure I’d understood everything. Fortunately, a group of young Chinese behind me were talking after the screening and I picked up some ideas and later I trawled a few websites. Gradually it started to make sense.

There isn’t a lot of plot. A single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) lives in a two story apartment in Paris with her young son. She advertises for a childminder so that she can work as the narrator on a Chinese puppet show. The childminder turns out to be a film student from Beijing, the quiet and implacable Song, who seems to be creating her own version of the classic children’s film Le ballon rouge (France 1956). Song helps Suzanne with some translating and also with the transfer of some home movies to a digital format. Other than that there are some journeys around Paris and Suzanne falls out with her lodger, an old friend of her (estranged ?) husband’s who lives in the downstairs rooms.

I guess what kept my interest was the contrast between the quiet Song and her charge, Simon, and the much noisier Suzanne and also a sense of mystery about exactly what was going on. There was a very slight sense of the menace of Hidden in the scenes both in the apartment and around Paris. Does the boy actually see a red balloon? Is it following him? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the original film — perhaps it has some of this mystery?

Because it is directed by Hou Hsaio-hsien, a disciple of Ozu Yasujiro, the film invites the audience to spot Ozu traits. I can report that there are several train trips which I enjoyed and that it is possible to summon up some Ozu-like compositions in the tiny apartment. Unlike the minimalist style of Japanese interiors, however, Suzanne’s apartment is cluttered and cramped with piles of books and eventually the piano from downstairs. Most of the time the camera remains static, focused on the table which seems to be at the centre of the life of the room. After a while, I began to think about Michael Snow’s famous avant-garde film Wavelength (in which the camera very slowly zooms/tracks in towards a photograph on the wall of a warehouse floor). I became fascinated with the detail of the room and the small movements of characters in it.

I’ve looked at several websites and blogs on the film and they point towards other familiar traits from Hou such as the cultural differences between China and France — the Chinese film student attempts to recreate a French film, the French actor narrates a Chinese puppet play etc. There is also a sense of history with the past (the original film, the family’s history on film) bleeding into the present. Many critics and audiences have apparently been bored rigid and some are outraged by being seduced into seeing an ‘art film’ like this. I found it restful and intriguing.