Michiko Hada sparks up an opium pipe in Flowers Of Shanghai
Here's the thing. I usually find it not very hard to watch a film and then put down some words about it, perform a little "close reading", point to a few of its aspects that interest me. But what I find fiendishly hard is to say about a director I like, in bullet form with some clarity: These are the precise reasons — bang, bang, bang — why I like his/her films.
And yet, I often feel like this could be an important activity, a distillation of an artist's appeal for you, lucidly articulated for yourself. Should lead to a clearer understanding of that artist in your mind, no?
Well, seeing as I've trumpeted Hou Hsiao-Hsien as my favorite living filmmaker, it's only fair that I try to do as much with him (or to him, the poor fella). So, here goes.
Some reasons why Hou's films truly....knock, me, out:
The long takes, with all manner of activity or inactivity in the frame, forcing you to (1) observe, (2) in real time.
A non-judgmental presentation within the shot that doesn't guide your eye away from the "less" dramatic to the "more" dramatic areas of the frame. In other words, drama is everywhere.
Ellipses. One of my favorite aspects of his work, in which time and events are passed over, elided, when moving from one scene to another, leaving "gaps" in the narrative.
This has the miraculous effect of disengaging the connection between cause and effect. Most Hollywood cinema is of course based upon tight linkages between cause and effect, in which all explanation and motivation is strenuously laid out.
He almost never uses close-ups. Instead, he keeps you at a distance, and you're craning your neck, leaning in, dying to get closer and soak in every detail, visual and aural. But he holds you back, on purpose. And your curiosity mounts because of it.
Most films cut or fade from one scene to another at a point soon after the dramatic arc of the scene has peaked. When Hou transitions to a new scene, it almost always floors me because he chooses a quiet, seemingly unimportant, "undramatic" moment and then (later, in your mind) makes you realize that in real life, any moment can be a dramatic moment if you're being mindful.
His attention to these moments of undramatic "dead time" ennobles ordinary life, yours and mine. What are 99% of our days if not ordinary? Hou shows us beauty and significance in the ordinary.
No matter what the story of a Hou film, it's also about history.
This one's close to my own heart: Hou never disparages so-called "low" culture. He's a lover of pop music and a karaoke addict, and has made both weighty historical films as well as teen movies (the wonderful Daughter Of The Nile) and techno-driven studies of modern life (Millennium Mambo).