Hsiao-Hsien Hou. I am in a difficult spot with HHH. The ranking of the best directors of all-time is a project I started in early 2019 (largely based on my list of the top 500 films of all-time- also completed in early 2019). HHH didn’t factor on that top 500 list at all. My knowledge of his work was severely lacking. However, I remedied that with a study of his work during 2019 and it’s obvious he’s a distinguished and worthy auteur—he has several films that will make for a nice addition to the top 500 when I updated it. So here we are—he wouldn’t be as high as 111th if I had stuck to the previously completed top 500 films list (prior to the study of his work) and if I had done this study in 2018 he would be in the top 100. So- this slot here is a compromise but I can no longer honestly keep putting auteurs ahead of him when he’s more worthy of the slot. His strengths are he’s a style-plus direct- a master of the mise-en-scene that could argue for the best in that stylistic category against anyone not named Ozu. There are clear commonalities in his work and as far as his filmography- he’d have at least two top 500 films if I paused and updated it today – and the only film represented on the top 100 of the decade list —Flowers of Shanghai– is HHH’s #5 ranked film—so yeah I’d at least 5-6 that would end up on the top 100 of their respective decade.
Best film: A Time to Live and a Time to Die
- This is the earliest Hsiao-Hsien Hou film I’ve seen and it’s an impressive work—it’s most outstanding for the hypnotically beautiful compositions. HHH doesn’t move the camera, doesn’t work in close-up really, we have these (below) elegant bodies in the wide frame, shoji doors, depth of field work
- Oddly enough HHH claims to have never seen an Ozu film at the time of making this film. That’s almost impossible to believe- HHH is his own filmmaker, but to say more than a few words about this film without mentioning Ozu would be crazy— static camera, immaculate mise-en-scene arrangements, family drama, shoji doors… I’m sorry but that’s Ozu
- #308 on the TSPDT top 1000 at the time I’m reviewing July 2019
- Portrait of loss and the macro and micro implications of that fallen patriarch
- Very observational—cooking, playing pool—bodies in the frame—we’re in living rooms often like Ozu, the use of bins, stools, chairs, half-open doors and window to great compositions (along with the bodies)—or the alley
- Starts and ends with voice over—very autobiographical from HHH – “memories from my youth”—Roma – Personal cinema – a meditation on death, the making of a monster or the ruination of a family/youth (of sorts) because of the political fallout (and death of a father figure)—in an odd way a coming of age story—Catcher in the Rye
- Certainly in many ways a neorealist film—naturalistic—not expressionistic – Satyajit Ray (HHH claims to have never seen a movie from Ray at the time either) or Ozu — influenced Jia Zhangke
- A great composition of a long conversation with the daughter and mother, sitting on the floor in the house, with the rain pouring in in the background—there are 30 of these – another is the mise-en-scene and framing of the grandmother’s death—again- HHH holds the camera at a distance in composition
- there are 25-30 or more of these compositions
- A family in free-fall—uprooted by politics and revolution (forced from Chinese mainland to Taiwan), devastated by death—when the father dies we jump forward and the family (notably the boys) are older. It’s a bit disorienting at first (certainly intentional) as there is no indicator on time passage. We have street crimes, cheating in class, fighting in the pool hall and “little thug” in the text
- the death of the father– background is details, the door blocking the front left, the figure in the background through another set of slightly open shoji doors
- It’s almost as if HHH is telling the story from 17 fixed camera positions (town square, alley, street where they live with tree, several in the house at set positions) and weaving them together in this compositional vignettes
- A Must-See film
total archiveable films: 11
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 1 (Flowers of Shanghai)
most overrated: The Puppetmaster. The TSPDT consensus has it as #300 of all-time. I’d have 1000 superior films on my list before getting to it. They also have it as his #2 film overall and I’m at #8 and haven’t even seen their consensus #1- A City of Sadness.
- Three-pronged film: an innovative biopic, a work from a clear auteur, and a political/historical film marking the end of the 19th century and a 50 year occupation of Japan in Taiwan
- Tien-Lu Li plays himself in both voice-over and talking directly to the camera updating us on his history. The film alternates between that (which I’d rather read in a book honestly), his puppet and stage work, and the recreation of his life events with actors – HHH weaves them together.
- Breaking down the three sections the direct to screen dialogue by Tien-Lu Li is really of no interest artistically. If you are a documentary enthusiast and interested in the influence of Kiarostami (specifically Close-Up) on HHH or this film I can see it. It’s an interesting genre blend. The puppet/stage work is more interesting—particularly the fact that HHH uses his normal long takes, medium-long distance shots, static camera on these- you can see audience members in many of them (people walking in front, standing)- great. The most remarkable aspect is the recreation of the history through actors. Here is where HHH users his trademark aesthetic most often though the best compositions are back-loaded and really don’t show up until the end of the film and the beauty of them (and # of them) can’t compare to A Time to Live and a Time to Die – some nice Ozu shoji-door compositions
- The historical/political aspect—Japan military cutting pigtails, not being able to perform puppetry outdoors
- The implication of family member deaths and the effect on the family—from A Time to Live and a Time to Die– the family breaks up, misbehaving, abuse
- The formal weaving of the puppets is great- death ceremony
- Long speeches giving us the background on family
- The scene where Tien-Lu Li has his faithfulness (to his mistress) tested is great
- Like I said above the best sections and most ambitious and beautiful mise-en-scene compositions are towards the end. One at 108 minutes—J & B scotch, depth of field, drunk Japanese soldier – stunning— another one 120 minutes in. An incredible composition. Sitting eating at night. 7 people in the frame for extended time with bars framing the family to the left, right and in the background with laundry hanging. Then the light goes out—really well done. We stay there for another strong composition the morning after
most underrated: Café Lumiere – not in TSPDT top 1000 yet and that’s shame. It’ll factor into my top 500 the next time I do it. They have it as the #12 fiction film of 2005 and that’s just not good enough—do better critics—this one is pretty obvious. I think the great Steve McQueen just picked it as the strongest film of the 21st century.
- Before the film really starts there’s a dedication to Ozu’s centenarian 100 year old celebration
- Apparently the film was conceived as an anthology film with 3 parts but HHH is the only auteur that remained as the project idea progressed — Hsiao-Hsien Hou ‘s one of the art form’s greatest masters of mise-en-scene this side of Ozu so the project and idea seems like a perfect marriage. Though at the time in the 1980’s he claimed he’d never seen an Ozu film- HHH’s great A Time to Live and a Time to Die also feels like a work (and artist) inspired by Ozu
- Shot in Ozu’s Japan (all of HHH’s other work is in Taiwan or China or both), opens and closes with long pillow shots of trains intersecting
- A near-staggering achievement of mise-en-scene that serves both as a devoted homage to Ozu and as a major triumph for Hsiao-Hsien Hou
- Second shot is a stunner as well- a fully-engaged and designed mise-en-scene, depth of field brilliance, laundry in the background, fan in the foreground (happens often in Café Lumiere), a door ajar creating a frame within a frame. Long take. One scene and one take—then we get the titles—incredible work
- After that we get another set mise-en-scene long take, medium distance, no camera movement or edits. There’s a row of books at the bookstore forcing your eyes towards the characters. Small talk and music (they are literally playing a cd) with a pet dog in the background. One take again
- Trains again and again in transitions—it’s not quite Ozu’s montage pillow shot poetics—but still
- The mise-en-scene 17 minutes in is a dazzler— three doors in the frame—another one 28 minutes in with the father sitting silently with drinks in the foreground
- Coffee seems to be repeated in many scenes
- The two lowers going by each other in passing trains
- An Ozu-like family drama with generational issues and disconnect (I love the father who just sits and drinks and never says a world)
- A sublime (and formally sound) final image on the canal with overlapping trains
- A Must-See film and one of HHH’s finest works
gem I want to spotlight: The Flight of the Red Balloon
- So Café Lumiere (from 2003, one of HHH’s strongest efforts) was an outward homage to Ozu while still staying true to Hou’s voice and brand as an auteur himself— this is much the same with a nod to Lamorisse’s 1956 short film The Red Balloon – these two films (both superb) are companion pieces
- Long takes for HHH- a stylistic indicator for HHH- starts with one here that’s like the plastic bag scene from American Beauty (1999) from Sam Mendes as we follow the red balloon
- HHH’s other trademark is being able to beautifully set the mise-en-scene and this film has it in abundance—8 minutes in we have a great shot of a red door, red garbage, red artwork on both sides of the door. The color choices are clear in the film’s title but it’s not just the balloon- it’s much more– it’s believable production color scheme design throughout the mise-en-scene like Kieslowski’s colour trilogy (Binoche- the star here also stars in Kieslowski’s Blue of course)
- HHH acknowledges the Lamorisse film in the text as a reference and in a dedication
- The red stop light reflected off the window while playing pinball is a stunner
- Another stunner is the red window drapes, red towel, at different depths—again- like Ozu HHH is a master at setting a frame
- Items in the color design in abundance—lamp, her dress, a purse dangling – composed so beautifully
- The tranquil positive nanny creates a 21st century new nuclear family to take care of Binoche (who is a frantic mess, flawed)’s son and create a home. Thank god for her
- HHH is making comments on generations here and the types of people that won’t stop and notice the beauty of the balloon. The kid is playing PlayStation often. The characters in HHH’s Millennium Mambo would not notice the balloon, the characters after the death of the patriarch in A Time to Live and a Time to Die when their society crumbles would not notice the balloon. Late in the film, at the end, the young boy sees the balloon finally because of the guidance and care of the nanny. It’s sweet- rewarding.
- Binoche is one of cinema’s all-time great actresses and she’s terrific here overall- but the long scenes of her wailing doing the high-pitched puppet voices are a tough hang.
- It’s not quite on the level of Café Lumiere with the mise-en-scene masterly but there are a ton of great frame set-ups in the apartment. For all of those great shots, there are still some weaker moments like the long take of Binoche on the phone in her car- just does nothing for the film
- Reoccurring shot of dining room table with kitchen off to right depth of field. Daughter of Nile (1987 from HHH) has the same thing—mark of an auteur
- Traits of HHH- no close-ups medium shots
- No editing within a scene. There are realism elements- plants the camera
stylistic innovations/traits: Hsiao-Hsien Hou is simply one of the all-time great masters of mise-en-scene. He shoots almost everything in a medium-long shots, static camera, long takes with bodies in the frame- hypnotically beautiful compositions. I don’t know how you get more than a few words without bringing up Ozu though HHH is is his own artist. HHH doesn’t move the camera, doesn’t work in close-up really, we have these (below) elegant bodies in the wide frame, shoji doors, depth of field work . Certainly in many ways a neorealist filmmaker—naturalistic—not expressionistic – Satyajit Ray (HHH claims to have never seen a movie from Ray at the time either) or Ozu —and influenced Jia Zhangke. He uses. observational wide shots– bodies in a frame. Often uses candles or natural lighting. No editing within a scene. There are realism elements- plants the camera. HHH’s trademark long takes, mostly static camera, medium shots (or at least lack of close-ups). HHH has a history of making short films and taking part in anthology films (even the brilliant Café Lumiere started out as an anthology project). Hsiao-Hsien Hou worked with Qi Shu 3 times (The Assassin, Three Times, Millennium Mambo). Often worked with cinematography Mark Li Ping-bin (who also did some work with WKW) on 9 of the 11 archiveable films below. It’s not just about the visuals for HHH. The narrative themes are there– the implication of family member deaths and the effect on the family. There is also the effects of foreign occupation or meditates on Taiwan’s lost generation—the loss of identity. There’s also the critiques of commercialism, westernization. The title of Daughter of the Nile is about a fallen empire—Egypt destroyed by the influence of Rome – absolutely marvelous.
- A Time to Live and a Time to Die
- Café Lumiere
- The Flight of the Red Balloon
- The Assassin
- Flowers of Shanghai
- Daughter of the Nile
- Dust in the Wind
- The Puppetmaster
- Millennium Mambo
- Three Times
By year and grades
|1985- A Time to Live and a Time to Die||MS|
|1986- Dust in the Wind||R/HR|
|1987- Daughter of the Nile||HR|
|1989- City of Sadness|
|1993- The Puppetmaster||R/HR|
|1998- Flowers of Shanghai||HR|
|2001- Millennium Mambo||R/HR|
|2003- Café Lumiere||MS|
|2005- Three Times||R|
|2007- The Flight of the Red Balloon||HR/MS|
|2015- The Assassin||HR/MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
Did you catch any of HHH’s work that you did not archive?
@Zane- Nope, it was 9 for 9 I believe
HHH has gradually become one of my favourite directors ever. I would easily place him inside my top 50, maybe even higher. I agree with you, there’s pretty much no one as skilled as him when it comes to mise-en-scène, and although he mostly works with static shots, he’s not unwilling to move the camera when he needs to, which gives his scenes a very unique and mesmerizing quality. A time to live and a time to die’s design in particular could be included up there along the best ones in cinema history (it’s absolutely stunning, there are like 50 shots from that movie that I could hang on my walls). I hope you got the chance to watch City of sadness, because it is absolutely marvelous.
What is your grade for City of Sadness? Its usually in the top 3 of everyone’s HHH list.
@Alt Mash- No grade here- I saw it 15 years or so ago and the quality was so poor- so I’ve seen it and it is in the archives- but I need another look (with better quality) to compare it to others. I’d love to watch a decent quality version of the film- so if you ever see it on MUBI or something please let me know if you could.