Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 12, 2006 1:45 pm 
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Hou Hsiao-hsien: Good Men, Good Women (1995)

Puzzling multilayered picture of Taiwan's past and present

Hou's concept is an interesting one: instead of a straight linear narrative either about the White Terror period in Taiwanese history or about an actor with a dead gangster boyfriend, he overlaps the two, and adds a further layer by putting the gangster a couple of years ago, and the actress now getting ready to act in a historical film about the White Terror, while being bugged in the present by somebody who sends her faxes of a stolen diary about the gangster, and calls and breathes into the phone. Hou isn't trying to spoon-feed us, and that's admirable. He is also allowing us to ponder complex inter-historical relationships. But the effect of the spliced layers is jarring and doesn't always work. Another DVD reviewer (like me), John Wallis, of DVD Talk, has already commented that he "could not see how the film about the White Terror atrocities affected the actress in any way -- other than it made her lamenting over her lost boyfriend and soiled past seem pretty trivial."

Is it that bad? Nick Schrager and Aquerello have offered the interpretation that after the gangster boyfriend's death, Liang Ching, the actress, is guilty of a " betrayal of his memory during her subsequent years as a drug-addled bar hostess." Schrager concludes that "The implication, as subtle as it is powerful, is that Liang’s struggle to come to grips with her own disloyalty reflects modern-day Taiwan’s attempts to confront (and accept) its own shameful past persecuting communists." Aquerello puts it that "Liang's betrayal of Ah Wei's memory is a modern day, personal manifestation of a national, historical event: the seemingly random persecution of Taiwanese people by their own government during the White Terror." That's a nice idea, but in fact Liang was a drug-addled bar hostess while involved with Ah Wei (Jack Kao), the gangster; when they have a discussion of her pregnancy while caressing in front of a mirror -- a stagy but compelling scene many writers have commented favorably on -- she points out that being a bar hostess, she has slept with many men, and she doesn't know for sure who the father is. ("Still, I'd like to see a little Ah Wei," says Ah Wei, rather lamely.) The guilt is not so clear. What is clear is that Liang Ching has had an unsavory past, and that her dissolute life has been a far cry from the dedication of the brave revolutionary she is going to portray onscreen.

What is also clear (though the Fox Lorber DVD tonal quality is mediocre, particularly in the black and while segments) is the idealism of the Taiwanese nationalist fighters, who go to China to fight the Japanese who have been oppressing them but then after the war is over, are systematically exterminated (in a policy designed to please America, by the way). Some of these scenes, such as one where one person after another is briefly interrogated, have an arresting and somehow heartrendingly tender vérité quality, as does the scene where female fighers are taken from a prison room to be executed. There is a wealth of beauty in the film, even when the present-day sequences seem most contrived and boring, like a gangster dinner with city contractors just before Ah Wei's shot.

It is also true as Acquerello says that, "As Liang becomes the entrusted emissary for the story of Chiang Bi-Yu's struggle, she gradually becomes the generational conduit between Taiwan's turbulent past, and the decadent, uncertain future." That's about all we can say; what Hou means by this linkage is hard to guess, and perhaps only meant to be pondered, without any conclusions being drawn.

Howard Shumann has written a typically clear and informative review of Good Men, Good Women for Cinescene that clarifies the general structure and historical references of the film. My own reactions are quite different, however. I wouldn't be as extreme as the IMDb commenter who has called Hou's filmmaking "cinematic masturbation," or use the language of Sam Adams of the Philadelphia City Paper (2002) who calls Good Men, Good Women "a confused exercise in pomo lit wank." But I have to agree with Adams that, "Good Men feels so arbitrary that its closing-title dedication — to the victims of the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s — is almost shocking; it’s hard to believe the director could take a subject that seriously and make a film this self-indulgent." The shifts from the present-day actress's discomfort and her flashbacks to life with Ah Wei to the historical filmmaking never seem predictable. Some might find that intriguing; to me is merely seems arbitrary and random.

Good Men, Good Women is far more multilayered and ambitious than a purely present-day musing like Millennium Mambo (despite the latter's tacked-on comment that the voiceover occurs ten years later). But the randomness of the splicings makes the implied relationship questionable, even frivolous. Hou may be better off separating his historical treatments from his modern ones, as he does quite simply with three segments in his recent Three Times.

Millenium Mambo (2001)

Such beautiful angst

In an interview included on the DVD, Hou Hsiao Hsien says he wanted Millennium Mambo to be a picture of Taipei night life and also "much more," a "multifaceted" film with "multiple points of view" that he would have liked to make six hours long; something post-modern and deconstructed and free-form and improvised, but "modernist" too in some aspects.

The actual film isn't so much multifaceted or plotless as it is a portrait in the moment of a few people composed, with a voiceover from ten years later, from the point of view of a pretty middleclass girl called Vicky (The bee-sting-lipped, doe-eyed Qi Shu, who also stars in the present-day chapter of Hou's recent Three Times) who's stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with a spoiled, also pretty, middleclass boy, the bleached-haired Hao Hao (Chun-hao Tuan), who does drugs and hits on Vicky when she least wants to be hit on and who won't work and, as Vicky's omnipresent voiceover tells us, at one point has stolen his dad's Rolex and pawned it for a lot of money. They live together and hang out at clubs and Vicky works at a bar as a "hostess," a euphemism for a lap dancer who does drugs and drinks with customers and probably has sex with them -- like Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) the actress-narrator of Hou's 1995 Good Men, Good Women. Vicky's bar job gets her involved with an older gangsterish man named Jack (Jack Kao, the actress Liang Ching's dead lover in Good Men).

MillenniumMambo doesn't show us Taipei nightlife in any collective or panoramic sense. It shows us -- a few times -- the hazy corners of a few bright clubs with little crowds of attractive young people playing games and doing drugs and alcohol, and it shows us -- many times -- corners of the apartment where Vicky and Hao Hao live, and bits of a mountain town in Hokkaido, Japan where Vicky goes, invited initially by a couple of boys she meets.

Atypically for Hou, the camera moves around quite a bit too in this film, following the people and hugging their faces and bodies -- but also lingering, in his old style, statically observing doorways, walls, light fixtures, or windows with a train going by outside. Many cigarettes are lit, many are smoked. Meth is puffed in a pipe. Hao Hao pouts. Vicky looks sad or angry. The couple break up, but Vicky comes back, or Hao Hao comes after her. It's approach/avoidance: he tells her she's from another planet, but he keeps getting her back. Jack is an oasis for Vicky; but at a crucial time in winter when she goes to Japan, he isn't available, leaving her a key and a cell phone, to wander the streets. She lies in bed. She stares out the window. In a long outtake on the DVD about her Japan sojourn, Jack actually calls her and she's got a cold. In the final cut, he never calls, and she remains healthy. What's left isn't much, though as always for Hou and for many Chinese directors, the visuals are lush and beautifully lit, even if the frames are empty and the plotline, though never absent as his interview promises, goes nowhere. Millennium Mambo's reference to the end of the millennium (and perhaps changes in China and Hongkong?) seems, like the six-hour movie and the portrait of Taipei nightlife Hou promises in his interview, to have come to us as little more than the pretty but empty fragments of a vague, lost intention. This is a remake of Antonioni's L'Avventura, in winter, with young attractive Asians -- and Qi Shu as the new Monica Vitti -- but without the world-weariness or awareness of any sort of fading cultural heritage, and with, instead of Antonioni's haunting white noise, a nagging techno score.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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