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Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao- Hsien:

Film Aesthetics in Transition, 19801982

In Hou Hsiao-Hsiens 1986 masterpiece, Dust in the Wind, a memo-

rable scene takes place in a mining village in the hills. Two young
lovers making a meager working in Taipei return home for a visit.
As part of an ancestral offering, an outdoor movie screening is set
up for the evening. There in the dark, country folks, both young and
old, sitting on benches and stools, watch a film projected on a big
white screen slightly fluttering in the wind. What is shown is none
other than the parade of ducks from Lee Hsings Beautiful Duckling
(Figure 1).
Made more than 20 years later, Dust looks lovingly at the older
film only to cut away to a group of young men and women. As the
cheerful music for the marching ducks chirps on the soundtrack, one
of the youngsters recounts the physical abuse he has suffered at his
workplace in Taipei. When the camera returns to the screen, the mov-
ing images on the screen within the screen come to a sudden halt due
to a power outage. Without complaints or chaos, the audience hangs
on with great patience and the scene ends on a comic note when an
old man mistakes a firecracker for a candle in the dark. Even at its
most dramatic, the film remains quiet and reserved. An utterly differ-
ent realism in 1986, New Taiwan Cinema at its peak pays homage to
its Healthy Realist predecessors.
Much happened between the end of Healthy Realism and the
height of New Taiwan Cinema, as the former dominant mode of cin-
ematic representation made way for the latter. This statement implies,
of course, a linear relationship between the two realisms, while the
notion of the new suggests a break separating them; the Interlude
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Figure 1 Dust in the Wind, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1986.

looks precisely at this historical problem. Before fully engaging with

New Taiwan Cinema, I am compelled to examine this short period
of transition. Instead of subscribing to a common fantasy scenario
in which Taiwans New Cinema simply bursts forth and takes the
global art cinema by storm, I take the notion of transition dialecti-
cally. Transition here does not mean a mid-point in a linear history,
a passageway for history to move from one stage to the next, as if by
design or destiny. Rather, the transition is one of dynamic tension that
shows historical transformation as struggle and negotiation, and, in
the case of Taiwan cinema, as a resistance to previous paradigmatic
structure as well as an emergence of a new aesthetic sensitivity in con-
tention with the sociopolitical reality it cannot but inherit.
Long before becoming a director himself, Hou worked extensively
between 1973 and 1980 on some 20 films as screenwriter and assis-
tant director to luminaries such as Lee Hsing. Notably, at the very
beginning of his filmic career, he served as Lees assistant director
for Heart with a Million Knots (1973), a highly successful adaptation
of a Qiong Yao romantic novel. James Udden has called this period
Hous strange apprenticeship, during which the future master
learned the nitty-gritty of his trade in commercial cinema and eventu-
ally emerged as a leading director of the Taiwanese New Cinema in
1983.1 It may not be surprising that, according to Shigehiko Hasumi,
Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 89

Hou himself does not consider his first three feature filmsLovable
You (aka Cute Girl, 1980), and the other two films that soon fol-
lowed, Play While You Play (aka Cheerful Winds, 1981), and Green,
Green Grass of Home (1982)as part of his directorial career. He
was paying his dues, as it were, for the greater creative freedom those
profitable productions would afford him.2 These three popular films,
made between 1980 and 1982, were often dubbed his commercial
trilogy. The year 1982, to be sure, marked the beginning of a very
different era in Taiwans cinematic history, entangled with shifts of
cultural policies and changes in social forces, of which Hou was and
continues to be a prominent figure.
As we have seen in the previous chapters, there has been very lit-
tle English-language scholarship on Taiwan cinema before the New
Cinema.3 Uddens Taiwanese Popular Cinema and the Strange
Apprenticeship of Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a rare exception. For Udden,
certain techniques, such as the quick zoom, out-of-focus objects in the
foreground, inattention to lighting, and unusually numerous camera
setups for a single scene, are the aesthetic norms of 1970s commercial
cinema in Taiwan; Hous early films are no exceptions. Therefore,
Udden concludes, the style of [Hous] commercial trilogy . . . is not
entirely distinguishable from other films of this time.4
I disagree. Even though Hous first three films are indebted to
the existing mode of production, they also challenge the commer-
cial cinema paradigm. If Udden is right that Hous apprenticeship has
allowed the future master to learn his trade, the transition period
had greater significance in the history of Taiwan cinema, I believe,
than what Udden allows.5 And if an aesthetic stasis of change in the
form of generic proliferation characterizes Healthy Realism, a careful
examination of this aesthetics in transition between 1980 and 1982
prepares us for the next set of questions regarding cinematic style in
Taiwans contested national cinema.

* * *

Lovable Enough, Not Real Enough

Hou Hsiao-Hsiens directorial debut is something of a curiosity.
Unlike the prolific body of work widely known and revered in inter-
national art cinema circles for more than two decades, Lovable You
is a lighthearted romantic comedy, served up with even a few musi-
cal sequences. Feng Fei-Fei, a Taiwan pop music diva, stars alongside
90 Taiwan Cinema

Kenny Bee, a popular singer from Hong Kong and lead actor of Lee
Hsings last two Healthy Realist films, Story of a Small Town (1979)
and Good Morning, Taipei (1980). The story is simple. A young
woman from a rich family residing in Taipei escapes to her hometown
in the countryside before an arranged marriage. A young engineer vis-
its the same town as a member of a highway construction crew. They
meet and fall in love. The woman is then summoned back to Taipei
to meet with her fathers chosen son-in-law-to-be, but the engineer
does not give up pursuing her, which results in a few comic sequences
before the lovers reunite. There is yet a final obstacle for the young
couple: the womans father insists that she be betrothed to someone
with a comparable family background, which means, of course, equal
social status and financial affluence. Without much prior hint, the
young mans father is revealed in the last minute to be no less wealthy
than the womans.
All problems thus solved, the final scene shows the couple, the wife
now pregnant, back in the countryside by the giant tree where they
first professed their love. In an extreme long shot, the couple embraces
under the tree with the lush rice fields stretching into a mountain
range in the distance. A bright red title appears to address the audi-
ence directly by wishing them a happy Chinese New Year, an ending
befitting the raison dtre of the film: an entertaining piece produced
for the holiday season6 (Figure 2).
The film was a box office success, profitable enough to allow for
Hou to direct two more similarly commercial films before making his
breakthrough in 1983 with Boys from Fengkuei, immediately pre-
ceded by His Sons Big Doll earlier in the same year.
I want to stay with this final shot a little longer, and, indeed, the
film itself stays with it for several seconds more. As the happy couple
slowly makes their way out of frame, the red title also disappears.
What remains is the beautifully composed image, a still as it were,
without human subjects or extradiegetic titles, of Taiwans rural land-
scape (Figure 3).
It is a familiar scene; we have seen variations of this image in many
films before 1980 and will see many more later. Healthy Realism in
the previous two decades established a cinematic space within which
a diversity of genres on screen displayed a stunningly consistent set of
dialectical relationships: sociopolitically, between city and country;
thematically, between family and nation; and aesthetically, between
on-location depictions of physical reality and soundstage reconstruc-
tions that combine different degrees of physicality into a total effect
Figure 2 Lovable You, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1980.

Figure 3 Lovable You, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1980.

92 Taiwan Cinema

of a cinematically constructed reality. However, although Healthy

Realist films, particularly in the late 1970s, mastered realist tech-
niques of outdoor locations and indoor sets, they were confronted
by increasing difficulties in representing human subjects, as seen, for
example, in the final scenes of He Never Gives Up which I discussed.
Such incongruity is particularly stark between high-profile stars and
faceless social actors. I call the latter social actors advisedly. Rather
than mere extras whose presence serves as backdrop or accessory,
those people occupy the cinematic space as themselves, appearing
real, perhaps too real, and belying all the artifice that is the only
truth of film realism.7
In Lovable You we encounter precisely this representational prob-
lem, but with a subtle and yet significant difference. The two leads
star quality has no doubt contributed to the commercial success of the
film, but their physical presence is out of place at best. In Lee Hsings
He Never Gives Up, the villagers in the last few scenes appear awk-
ward within Healthy Realisms constructed visual field. In Lovable
You, however, a crucial change begins to take shape: it is now the
stars hyper-presence that seems misplaced, with their high fashion
and overly made-up faces, not to mention the musical-song sequences
mandated by the star-singers package deals. This shift of the weight
of the human figurestar versus real peasant, for one example, and
child actors versus real children, for anotherprovides us an oppor-
tunity to observe how Hou, even if intimately connected to Healthy
Realism and other earlier commercial cinematic paradigms, and his
budding aesthetics of realism contend with and transform the aesthetic
field woven by its many predecessors.8 It is as if the stars were but a
facade, and very close to being exposed as such; the backgroundthe
heretofore faceless country folks and schoolchildren embedded in the
voiceless landscape rich with hidden histories and untold storiesis
now on the verge of becoming the real stuff of an emerging cinematic
In the following I locate a few critical moments in Hou Hsiao-
Hsiens commercial trilogy. By bringing to light Hous still only par-
tially visible aesthetic traits during this transitional period, I hope to
open up in chapter 4 a much fuller discussion of the New Cinema
between 1982 and 1986, a dynamic period when Taiwan leapt onto
the center stage of global international art cinema. New Taiwan
Cinema would soon mark, perhaps for the first time, a critical moment
for a potential national cinema of Taiwan to come into view, one
Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 93

that is decidedly different from any previous official representation

dominated by the Nationalist ideology of a Chinese nation.

* * *
Men at Work, Children at Play
The representation of labor has often been a tacit requirement of
Healthy Realism. The hardworking highway construction crew in
The Road and the diligent duck farmers in Beautiful Duckling are
but two examples that showcase the act of working. The physical per-
formance of labor on screen guarantees the subjects status as a pro-
ductive citizen. By contrast, play is a rare occasion permitted mostly
to children, normally brief and always tucked into some insignificant
narrative pockets. In Hous first three films, however, childs play
comes in prominently. Lovable You features a group of young children
whose omnipresence on screen is striking. Even during the scenes of
the young lovers courtship, a narrative space formerly reserved only
for heterosexual romance, particularly in Qiong Yaos melodramas,
the children in Lovable You are their oddly inseparable companions.
Hous next film, Play While You Play, further emphasizes childs
play, albeit with an interesting twist. Again starring Feng Fei-Fei and
Kenny Bee, the film begins with the former walking around a seaside
village, apparently as a tourist who photographs the fishing village
and its fishermen at work. Several other characters, also visitors from
the city, are introduced, whose presence is again not explained. As
the credits roll, we see one character urinating on the wall of an old
military guard station by the beach, now deserted (Figure 4).
Feng slowly makes her way toward the man, who quickly finishes
his business, just in time before Feng joins him, and together they walk
off frame. What remains on screen is but a sign stating, Photography
Prohibited (Figure 5).
Almost like an inside joke or a sight gag, this sequence references
and pokes fun at the prohibited practice of photographing the coast-
line in the name of national security. It does so precisely by having
the area photographed twice: by the diegetic characters and, before
that and always already, by the cinematic apparatus. We may here
recall the final image of Lovable You when the screen is cleared of
human subjects and the cinematic image becomes enriched with a
material rawness previously hidden, or at least obscured or distracted,
by the actors presence. Different and particularly noteworthy in this
Figure 4 Play While You Play, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1981.

Figure 5 Play While You Play, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1981.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 95

instance in Play is the marked presence of state interdiction, even

though it has already been ridiculed by the yet unknown mans excre-
tion, a crude but highly effective tactic.
Immediately after the opening credit sequence, the film cuts to a
long shot of a group of children playing with firecrackers. As if the uri-
nary playfulness were not enough body humor, this second sequence
details how these children discover a perfectly formed cowpie in the
middle of the country road. The children conspire to stick a fire-
cracker in it and time its explosion to coincide with a grown man
passing by (Figure 6).
Unfortunately their improvised explosive device turns out to be a
dud, allowing the unwitting man a safe passage. Disappointed, the
children gather around their makeshift weapon when it suddenly goes
off and turns the pranksters into the butts of their own joke. Just as
surprising as the dung explosion, a sharp call of Cut! interrupts the
comic scene of childs play. The entire sequence is, in fact, a film within
a filmthe nonphotographable now doubly double-photographed
and childs play is not play but work after all (Figure 7).
It turns out that Feng and company is a production crew filming a
laundry detergent commercial. To make matters worseor, better
the perfectly shaped cowpie is in fact made of flour, a fake produced
for the sake of realistic effects. Running out of flour to make another

Figure 6 Play While You Play, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1981.

96 Taiwan Cinema

Figure 7 Play While You Play, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1981.

perfect dung, the frustrated director asks the prop master to find
the real stuff, which in turn occasions a comic scene when the reluc-
tant production team member chases after and pleads with a cow,
aiming a bucket at its rear. Play, scatological or otherwise, is thus
transformed into work, and playfulness into a commodity for con-
sumption, thereby self-reflexively unraveling previous realist films
concealment of artifice. One may say, therefore, the playful opening
of Play While You Play exposes that aestheticsstyle, artifice, film,
and filmmakingto be the real stuff of cinematic realism; the cinema
is not the reality captured and presented, but rather, always and first
and foremost, representation through and through.
Film style is a key element which would eventually take center
stage as soon as the New Taiwan Cinema movement commenced.
Critics often comment on Hous exquisite use of long takes. Udden,
too, notes the prominence of childs play in Hous early films as the
result of the directors conscious effort to enhance the child actors
performance by allowing them to improvise; that is, to do their work
by playing. This practice results, Udden continues, first directly in the
necessity of longer takes and then indirectly in Hous other privileged
stylistic choices in his later films.9 That granted, I nevertheless see
far greater implications in the turn toward an aesthetics driven by
the relentless desire to document not only what unfolds in front of
Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 97

the camera with as little human intervention as possible, but also by

doing so through a substantial period of time and at a considerable
distance. Recall here how Healthy Realism works so painstakingly
to present a narrative embedded within the nation-building project.
The more Taiwan cinema tries to capture the present political and
cultural reality, most clearly in policy films in the 1970s, the more the
cinematic representation loses its hold on the real.10
What we see in Hous early films, then, is a restrategizing of the
ever-elusive chase after the real. I will have more to say in chapter 4
about how important members of the New Cinema, such as Hou and
Edward Yang, bring film style to bear upon the difficult question of
nation and national identity in a time of increasing transnational pres-
sure. For now, it is important to understand clearly what the repre-
sentational impulse is and what it means in this transitional period of
Taiwan cinema. Even more than the previous two films, Hous third
film before his artistic breakthrough prepares us for just that. Green,
Green Grass of Home oscillates dynamically between the commercial
mandate of a film stars presence (the ubiquitous Kenny Bee) and the
desire to stay with children at play. But what of long shots and long
takes that insist on looking from a distance, over time? What specific
effects are created by that aesthetic choice and how do they work?

* * *

Dure at a Distance: Long Shot and Long Take

Commentators on Taiwans New Cinema have long noted, if only
briefly and in passing, that Hous first three films forecast an immi-
nent new aesthetics. Veteran film critic Li You-Xin, for one, char-
acterizes Hous early works as showing, first, a strong anarchistic
tendency, which includes the obsession with the irreverent or even
unhygienic portrayal of seemingly random activities;11 second, a
longing for fields and nature, that is, a continuing interest in the
dialectics between town and country and between control and spon-
taneity; and, finally, his masterfully directed mise-en-scne of chil-
dren at play, a surprising shift from the thematics of films to his
direction and style.12 According to Li, another veteran film critic, Liu
Sen-Yao, also praises Hous refreshing directing and shaping of child
actors as a key reason for Greens success.13
Uddens insight into Hous direction of child actors that leads to a
film style privileging improvisation will prove productive here. In the
98 Taiwan Cinema

first three minutes of Green, Hou deftly introduces the child actors who
are not marginal or merely functional, but central to the film. During a
typical school day, scores of children make their way to the daily morn-
ing flag-raising ceremony. Many inventive and spontaneous activities
take place; in one case, a group of kids races a train as it comes out of
a tunnel, and, in another, a boy twirls his water bottle on a bridge only
to lose hold and send it into the river while his older sister watches dis-
approvingly in the background. Most strikingly, when the school bell
tolls, a medium shot shows a childby now a familiar face, as he is the
main child actor in He Never Gives up, Lovable You, and Play While
You Playhastily wolfing down breakfast. The scene cuts to a medium
long shot when the kid rushes out of the house to the insistent ringing
of the bell. The child runs toward the camera, making his way down
some stairs, and, instead of a cut, the camera pans as he runs down
even more stairs, and slowly recomposes into a long shot of the schools
athletic field, where many students have already gathered in formation.
As the child runs off the frame quickly, the visual field suddenly shifts
its visual weight to what was previously its background, all within one
take: from a medium shot of the single child to an extreme long shot of
the entire school field, only to be rejoined by the child appearing from
the lower left corner as he rushes to make it to the required, patriotic
ritual that starts a normal school day (Figures 811).

Figure 8 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

Figure 9 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

Figure 10 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

100 Taiwan Cinema

Figure 11 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

This scene, particularly that brisk and efficient long-take sequence

shot, is remarkable in several ways. First, different from the previous
two films where the setup in the opening sequences situates the star at
the center, Green immerses its star, the lead female character, among
many schoolchildren without letting her stand out. Even though her
stiff posture and thick makeup are incongruous with the rest of the
framethough less conspicuous, of course, than her predecessors
many ostentatious hatsthe long-shot composition works to contain
her as part of the scene, rather than making the scene the background
in front of which the star appears. Similarly, the privileged long shot
creates a space for mise-en-scne in depth.
The depth of field is further elaborated in subsequent scenes
throughout Green. One striking example brings the two thematics
of work and play into a dynamic interplay. Halfway into the narra-
tive, two children are playing by some rice paddies as farmers work
the fields. Often in the same frame in long or extreme long shots,
the carefree childs play and the rewarding labor of abundant harvest
complemented by a cheerful soundtrack suggest a harmony of rural
bliss, rivaling Healthy Realisms optimism at its best (Figure 12).
If the scene strikes a balance between work and play, it is soon
disrupted when the stars enter the frame. In an extreme long shot,
Kenny Bee and his cohort rush down a windy country road on their
Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 101

Figure 12 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

shiny bikes in fashionable casual wear en route to a picnic by the river.

In accordance with its commercial mandates, the camera dutifully
follows its stars. Very soon both children and farmers disappear; the
play and work space for the villagers is transformed into a stage for
the stars on display (Figures 1314).
Interestingly, what immediately follows and performs a recupera-
tion of sorts is a scene when the farmers take a lunch break and one of
them joins the children in play. Such subtle staging is made dynamic
by the use of long shots and depth of field. As is well known by now,
both of these traits will become part of Hous signature realist aes-
thetic. And it is clear by now that Hous visual style is developed in
the context of working within and against the commercial cinema
The average length of a shot in Hous early work is indeed notably
longer than in that of his contemporaries. The average shot length of
Taiwans commercial cinema in the early 1980s is at slightly above
eight seconds, while that in Hous first three films is almost 50%
longer, at eleven to twelve seconds per shot. However, Udden him-
self admits the limitations of such empiricist, quantitative study that
only gives us a crude measurement. There are shots, he contin-
ues, that are much shorter than [eleven to twelve seconds], and a few
that can reach almost a minute in length.14 What this signals then
Figure 13 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

Figure 14 Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao- Hsien, 1982.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien before Hou Hsiao-Hsien 103

is Hous observable tendency toward longer takes instead of quicker

editing. Here we see a classical, manufactured tension between a for-
malism emphasizing the creative and analytic potential of montage
and a realism favoring the faithful and accurate representation of
reality. What Hous early films exemplify is, finally, how film style
is intimately linked to its historical context, the limits and limita-
tions of its production and consumption, and not purely an aesthetic
One can go further still with this stylistic shift and what it tells
us. Along with other long-shot and long-take scenes already preva-
lent in Hous early films, which are often free of drama and with-
out clearly defined plot motivation, the opening sequence of Green,
Green Grass of Home anticipates the arrival of an emerging realism
in Taiwan cinema. In its quiet insistence on observing its profilmic
physical environment and physical persons, coupled with a respect for
action and its temporal integrity, this new realism is distinctly differ-
ent from its predecessor not only in its aesthetic style but, much more
significantly, in the orientation toward a point of view. This notion
of the point of view is not, of course, tied to any diegetic characters
perspective. Rather, as will be elaborated in chapter 4 and continued
throughout the rest of the book, New Taiwan Cinema collectively
offers a new way to look at Taiwans past and present, a point of view
that is at once historical and historiographic.