Saturday, 7 November 2020

Thoughts On... Early Hou Hsiao-hsien: Three Films 1980-1983 (Spoilers!)


You may be aware that back in 2016, one or more lifetimes ago, I attempted to write a review of The Assassin because I didn't enjoy it and had some thoughts as to why, then this time last year (November 2019, a pandemic ago) revisited the film and commented on the original review with some new thoughts.

Second time around, I felt that it was working as it intended, but still didn't offer me much. This was frustrating, because The Assassin is a well-regarded film by well-regarded filmmakers, so what was I missing? I thought I'd take a chance on exploring more films directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien and picked up the Eureka Masters of Cinema boxset containing Cute Girl (1980), The Green Green Grass of Home (1982) and The Boys of Fengkuei (1983).


Cute Girl's a weird one. I think it's safe to categorise it as a romantic comedy, about two young people from Taipei, who fall in love when they come into conflict on a stay in the country, and then are pushed apart on their return to the city by the arrival of a prospective (arranged) fiancé.

It is a musical, although very lackadaisically, has fantasy segments, although the indication that you're going into or coming out of them isn't particularly clear, there's crass scatological humour (overplayed for my tastes) and some inspired cinematic storytelling - I'd cite particularly the montage sequences that bookend the film.

There's some good comedy business in there too, the part that most stands out for me being a sequence with two suitors in adjacent phoneboxes calling up a house with two phones, side by side, and it does pretty much everything it can with that set-up. Bits like that and the twist/gag with which the film ends suggest that this should really be a screwball comedy, but in a few fundamental ways, it's really not.

The stylised reality of a screwball comedy which some of the film inhabits is really in contrast to parts where it is earnest drama, and characters are emotionally open in direct, almost naturalistic ways. As silly as it sometimes gets, Cute Girl never takes its eye off siting people in places in entirely credible ways. Its eye is grounding, even if its script and performances are, say, up the tree.

In conclusion, I found Cute Girl a mixed experience but I was mildly diverted, more so than bemused.


The Green Green Grass of Home is the third and final collaboration between director Hou and Hong Kong actor Kenny Bee (after Cheerful Wind, not included in this boxset). I don't know why Tom Jones isn't on the soundtrack either.

For me, the film is a marked improvement on Cute Girl in its dimensionality. Ostensibly framed around a romance between a young man and woman (two teachers), it introduces some of the school children in their care and branches out to show us the landscape and the society from different perspectives; the children's, the parent's.

There's real violence here too, accidental (one child is eletrocuted by their friends while fishing with an electric rod) and domestic violence. There's violence against animals. There's lots of repressed emotion forcing itself out in unhealthy ways.

There's a strange point at which Da-Nian's (Kenny Bee) city girlfriend turns up on the school field, during a martial arts demonstration, gaudy, glossy and out of place, and emotionally blackmails him away from the school, into her car and effectively abducts him. The character of the woman seems outlandish, but it's a disturbingly real moment, with weight and consequence. The film is littered with such moments, although reluctant to hold on anything for too long (that elliptical editing). I found the sequence of events in which one boy feels ashamed by the actions of his father and runs away from home, leaving a polite note, taking his very little sister all the way to the city, and the father does nothing, heart-wrenching.

All this, and there's an environmentalist thread running through the thing too. I found The Green Green Grass of Home deeper, more grounded, more involving and more insightful than Cute Girl. That bodes well for the progression to The Boys from Fengkuei, right?

Yes, absolutely. I liked both Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home to certain extents, but I loved The Boys from Fengkuei.

It almost immediately resonated with me; the desultory, rundown coastal town, indolent youth with nothing to do. I know so little about Taiwan (and Taiwan of the Eighties), which I think made the previous films somehwat more distant for me, but I immediately knew where I was with The Boys from Fengkuei. The young men of the title, caught between school and national service (which certainly adds a frisson of politics in the background) belittled and berated at home, try to amuse themselves and end up getting up in escalating street violence over petty grudges.

The sometimes oblique editing style of the previous two films really works here, in the context of something that is far more documentary-like. I guess you could call it social realism. It is also about subjective, interior experiences and the structure and editing fit this so well.

Initially, all the young men get equal focus, but then the film starts to let us more into the internal life of one, Ah-Ching, and where we got ill-signalled fantasy sequences in previous films, we get really considered memory sequences, carefully led into and out of by eyelining and match cuts, and the sequences at a lower colour saturation than the rest of the film. This is really well crafted, and potent. We've already met Ah-Ching's father, who sits on the porch with an unchanging gentle grin on his face and a visible injury on his forhead, and we learn very swiftly, very passively, while Ah-Ching should be watching a film, that his father sustained brain damage during a game of baseball. We cut back to Ah-Chin with an intent but unmoved expression, and the ellipsis speaks magnitudes. It's all about the ellipses.

Three of the young men, Ah-Chin included, seek their fortunes (before drafting) in the city, and while the story is, to some degree, about all of them, it focuses primarily on Ah-Chin's experience, and secondarily on the experience of Hsiao-hsing, a young woman with whom Ah-Chin becomes involved. Ah-Chin begins to change and grow, but time and again, he comes up against experiences he's not equipped to deal with emotionally, he has no outlet for his feelings, no road to expression; he's never learnt. Even the classical music needle-drops point to the rich interior life of Ah-Chin that he has no means to express. That's the ellipsis we're being shown, that's what the film is all about for me.

I've certainly been amazed by my own journey through frustration to mild interest to outright adoration in four films directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien and I'm keen to explore more. As a fan of Shu Qi as well, I might try to track down the early 21st-century films Millennium Mambo and Three Times. I might report back on those.

On a note on Eureka's presentation of the films: Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home come on one Blu-ray disc, and The Boys of Fengkuei and three video essays (one on each of the films) on another Blu-ray disc. The set also includes a booklet with stills and a brief introduction/assessment of the films by Philip Kemp.

I think these films probably look and sound as good as they can at 1080p, with uncompressed LPCM audio. The first two are a little soft and there's some occasional mild fluctuations in colour, but I well believe these are issues with the original materials. The Boys from Fengkuei looks great, a lot sharper and more precise in colour. It's a richer experience all round.

As for the supplements: the booklet essay offers some brief context for the films. The video essays by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López range from 14 to 23 minutes in length and comprise a verbal essay over edited footage from the films. They're all pretty dry and offer a little context, a little on technique, but mostly interpretation from an auteurist point of view. They're OK, but particularly in the case of The Boys of Fengkuei, I think they fall short of a useful argument or analysis. To be honest, I would've been much more interested in a supplement that gave me an insight into Taiwan in the period these films were made.

I am very grateful that Eureka has put this boxset out, it's been well worth it to me for The Boys from Fengkuei alone.

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