Arts Review, Movies
TIFF Cinematheque offers filmgoers unique opportunities to see rare films throughout the year. You can see everything from “world cinema” to old Hollywood classics depending on the theme of the programmes. The Cinematheque is an essential part of film culture in this city.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a name that too few people know. He was the first Taiwanese director to make a major impact on global cinema, creating a body of work starting in the ‘80s that brought the complex history of his island to the attention of filmgoers throughout the world. Now, TIFF Cinematheque is showing a complete retrospective of his work entitled Good Men, Good Women.
I met Hou in 2003 when I was in Taipei at a documentary festival. A French journalist and I spent a very enlightening hour and a half with him one afternoon at a café located in the same building as an excellent bookshop and movie theatre. We praised him for his storytelling skills, which involved using flashbacks, dramatizations and documentary in ways that were always germane to the film. Hou seemed pleased enough with our remarks but made it clear that his mission with many of his films was to make Taiwan’s political background evident to people like us, and to younger Taiwanese who might already be ignoring their past.
While Hou’s finest films were generally set in the period when he shot them—the ‘80s and the ‘90s—a mainstay of the narratives was when past events intruded onto what was then present-day dramas. Taiwan was a territory—really a colony—of the Japanese empire from 1895 to the end of World War 2 and then three years after that global conflict ended, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces retreated to the island after Mao’s Red Army took over the Mainland. Inevitably, that meant another form of colonization as Chiang’s forces spoke a different, more “educated” Chinese than the Taiwanese—and even more importantly, the defeated Nationalists began to exert a dominant, imperialist regime on the islanders. It was only with the election of Lee Teng-Hui in 1988 that a genuine Taiwanese native took control of the island.
Two of Hou’s masterpieces will be screened soon at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This Saturday, February 7, Good Men, Good Women, the titular film in the retrospective, is a drama that shouldn’t be missed. It is the story of two women, Chiang Bi-yu, a patriot from the 1940s and Liang Ching, an actress preparing to play her story in a movie in the ‘80s. Annie Shizuka Inoh gives a brilliant performance as both women, in a role that has led her to a career as an actress and singer.
Chiang Bi-yu’s story is real: she was part of a group, who left Japanese-controlled Taiwan to fight with Mao’s revolutionary forces on the Mainland. When she and her husband Chung Hao-Tung returned to Taiwan, they got caught up in the right-wing oppression called “The White Terror,” which saw the destruction of all leftist opposition to Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime. Chiang’s tragic tale is contrasted with a fictional narrative about Liang Chiang, an actress who is haunted by memories of her dead lover, a minor criminal who was killed in front of her a couple of years earlier.
These highly emotional stories, one true, the other not, are structured in a series of flashbacks. In the contemporary story, Liang is being “stalked” by someone who stole her diary about her ex-lover; faxes (it would be emails now) keep on arriving, with details of her doomed love affair. Good Men, Good Women has numerous scenes set in the past, some from Liang’s recent doomed affair and others from 1940 when Chiang and Chung went to the Mainland and 1948, when they were arrested in Taiwan. Adding another level of complexity, all the scenes about Chiang may be Liang’s fevered dreams of what will appear in the film.
Two weeks later, on February 21, the Cinematheque will be screening The Puppetmaster, arguably Hou’s finest film. Once again, it’s a story of Taiwan’s past, which commingles a variety of forms and time periods. The Puppetmaster is the true story of Li Tian-lu, a national treasure in Taiwan, who lived and worked as an artist during much of the Japanese period and all of the regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. Concentrating on Li’s early days, Hou’s film dramatizes his difficult home life as a child—his mother died early and he was maltreated by his step-mother and neglectful father—and quick emergence as a fine puppeteer while still an adolescent. Li’s early marriage and his long affair with a woman who ran a brothel are dealt with, as well as an extended period when he had to work as a puppeteer for the Japanese troops during World War 2.
These fascinating stories unfold in a manner that is comparable to Dickens—only set in Taiwan. Li’s life is vividly told, with much anger, strife and love. Just as in Good Men, Good Women and other Hou films like City of Sadness, the past infuses the present. Li Tian-lu, who acted in a number of Hou’s films, plays himself, adding a documentary element to a film that is usually devised as a drama—or perhaps, a docu-drama. Scenes will often play out as if we’re in the past only for Li’s narration to remind us that he’s in the present—an old man, who can and does reflect on what we’re seeing, which is, after all, his life.
Hou’s films are shot in long takes, with the camera positioned to allow the players in a scene to move around in a naturalistic, improvised style. Eating, quarreling, drinking and fighting erupt while the placid gaze of Hou’s camera remains still, capturing the drama that is unfolding through the lens. It’s an exquisite style that helped to stimulate a movement of filmmakers who also luxuriate in long takes and static cameras.
Good Men, Good Women is a complete retrospective of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work. It’s a programme that is absolutely worth seeing. For more details, please check tiff.net
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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