Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 30, 2022 4:42 pm 
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"The idea of history as a fluid relationship between past and present has been a constant throughout Hou’s films. Certainly this is the case with his period films: the ‘Taiwan trilogy’ of A City Of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) and Good Men, Good Women (1995); or Flowers Of Shanghai (1998), stunningly set in a 19th century brothel" -Kevin Lee, SENSES OF CINEMA, 2003.

A particular personal nostalgia hovers about The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), which Hou considers his first distinctively personal film - nostalgic in itself, in evoking his own youth, and also nostalgic in being a relatively simple kind of filmmaking he moved beyond and couldn't return to. It concerns a group of boys who have finished high school and decide to leave the sticks to go and live in the big town of Kaohsiung. They're given access to somebody's house there. A bonus: there's a girl living there, or nearby, and a pretty one, Hsiao-hsing (Hsiu-ling Lin). One of the boys, Ah-ching (Doze Niu), the main character, falls in love with her. But she ostensibly belongs to a neighbor, they are "just friends," and toward the end of the film she abruptly announces she is leaving for Taipei to join a sister and find work. We feel Ah-ching's desolation. Where I have found this restored version, by the way, it is 109 minutes long. It's date is 1983 and it's his fifth film as a director.)

The film, The Boys from Fengkuei was not easy to get a look at back when I first heard about Hou in 2005. Now there is an "Early Hou Hsiau-hsien" three-disc set as well as a separate DVD, the growing streaming scene has changed everything, and I've just watched it, in a restored internet Archive print found by Googling, with decent English subtitles. My current Hou exploration started last week when Metrograph announced a new restoration of the Taiwanese auteur's 2001 Millennium Mambo, and sent me a gorgeous screener. It reevokes Wong Kar-wai when he was working with Christopher Doyle at his most free and blurry, and, they tell me, this isn't very typical of Hou's style at all.

It turned out the Criterion Channel had The Flowers of Shanghai available and last night I watched this static, episodic, but in its more conventional way also gorgeous survey of a late-19th-century brothel, Shanghai-style, full of men and women (including Tony Leumh Chiu-Wai) dressed in beautiful silk robes eating, drinking tea, playing games, and smoking opium.


So in the space of a week I have traveled with Hou from the early 21st century to the late 19th and back to? The mid-twentieth? It's clear this one is the most personally nostalgic. Hou underlines, yet cauterizes his emotion by depicting skinny boys running around inarticulate, punching each other. Their feelings are inchoate and unarticulated. I did not notice a single smile till someone's older brother announced he is opening a table to sell cassette tapes the next day. There is not much development of character but in compensation there is the energy - they seem to be constantly running, and built like distnce runners to do so; and a vérité quality. Kevin Lee points out that in the opening sequence there are no establishing shots or voiceover to cozy us in. We're just thrown in with these rough kids, and this is the beauty of the watch and why it feels so alive even when midway it may begin to feel a bit random.

The opening sequence is famous, of a group of the boys around a pool table, but the camera shifts from their arms and chests and faces to the face of a wrinkled old man crouched beside them smmiling and writing a score on a small blackboard - which is the same neutral eye as we see through in Flowers of Shanghai, though the two films are so different. Then there is a theft and a fight and boys running, a chase sequence that's more conventional, except that the cast of characters, these skinny, slight boys in tight pants and open shirts, differ sharply from the usual action movie cast.

One may contrast Jia Zhang-ke's 2002 Unknown Pleasures with its two pathetic young dead-end male protagonists, whose overwhelming sadness and obvious link with, and yet distance from, Pasolini's 1961 Accatone I noted. They are not so far sociologically perhaps from the boys from Fengkuei, but they have the vast megalith of modern China hovering over them, a world that feels both more specific and less controllable. And Jia's method differs. There is the neutral stare, perhaps, but by focusing so closely on these two youths a stronger sense of pathos is aroused. I also have the feeling that Jia performs feats of vérité coverage, whereas in Fengkuei as in Shanghai, Hou's accomplishment is more one of planning, staging, and wrangling.

Lee naturally speaks of Hou's distinguished fellow Taiwanese auteur, Edward Lee, and also of Ozu and Mizoguchi. He thinks the liberal use "jarring juxtaposition[s] of classical Western music playing non-diegetically" throughout (though he just refers to combining it with an old Kung-Fu film excerpt) must seem "cliched" by "western serious standards" but "in a Taiwanese context" but "may help" to "distance the viewer" in a way that "aids" his purpose of "contemplating and contemplating" the action (or "way of life" ) depicted on screen.

That is exactly my feeling: that the Viivaldi and Bach sentimentalize and universalize, both drenching us in emotion and distancing us from the events on screen, which are already distanced by the camera method, the relative lack of closeups and the sheer "ineloquent" quality (using the word from Bernard Berenson's suggestive little book about Piero della Francesca from the 1950's) of these young, jumpy, unformed men. Rather than "clichéd" I'd say Hou's use of music suggests he'd been watching French New Wave films, which often use recurrent classical music, as does Louis Malle's The Lovers - but that's the Brahms "Sextet." It's Pasolini who used recurrent strains of Bach in Accatone and of Vivaldi in Mamma Roma, contrasting the humble, scrappy street world of his Italian settings with the exalted, highly emotional music. Vivaldi and Bach have the same effect in The Boys from Fengkuei: the music is a way of saying "this is special" and freezing moments in time forever, using music like Proust's madeleine. These humble moments are very special for Hou. But they remain vernacular and rough. Sometimes a "cliché" is exactly what is needed. The Boys of Fengkuei is rough and its principals "ineloquent." But it's also complex, with a lot of visual tricks going on.

THE BOYS OF FENGKUEI can be streamed free on Internet Archive (

Hope to talk about some other Hou discoveries shortly.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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