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In Search of New Genres and Directions
for Asian Cinema

Hou Hsiao-hsien

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  Translated, Edited and Introduced by Lin Wenchi  

 

 

In the past few years, Hou Hsiao-hsien has reluctantly but resolutely taken a more active role in helping to boost Taiwanís film industry. He set up a website, SinoMovie, to provide information on Taiwanese cinema. He created and taught in a film program to train young filmmakers. He started an annual festival to encourage people to pick up their DV camcorder and shoot. He also built a small place called Taipei Home to be what he calls a base to show art films and provide a space to nourish passion for cinema. He gave up his own film project for 2002 to devote his time exclusively to the promotion of Taiwanese cinema (more recently, he began work on a project designed as a homage to Ozu). When Hou can easily go on to make his own films the way he likes, one cannot but admire this generosity of his to put himself on the firing line both as a fighter and a symbolic presence to lead the Taiwanese film industry out of its current stagnation, if not demise.

This text, with Houís permission, has been edited together from his various verbal contributions and comments made at a seminar at Taipei Home on 18 December 2002. The other participants were Japanese producer Shozo Ichiyama, Korean producer/distributor Taesung Jeong, Hong Kong director/producer Peter Chan Ho-Sun, and Thai producer Duangkamol Limcharoen. Houís urgent concern in finding new directions for Taiwanís film industry is vividly captured here. How can Taiwanese cinema become more genre oriented to open up its Asian-Pacific market without losing its Ďlocal colourí? Most of his remarks focus on this difficult but inevitable issue. He does not talk about abstract theories, only the most practical aspects of trans-national cooperation, the need for creative producers, and a sound industrial structure to sustain the writers and directors.

 


 

 

I have seen so many films, Taiwanese films and Asian films, that I could not but notice a trend, a direction. I feel itís of tremendous importance to the future of Taiwan and the whole Asian-Pacific area. I know that Korea is doing very well by following this trend closely, while actively seeking new directions and possibilities. I would like to share some of my experiences from inside this trend. Among the films I saw, I feel Cheng Wen-tangís Somewhere Over the Dreamland (2002) is a relatively Ďheavyí film. By heavy I mean it looks very much like a film of the 1940s or Ď50s. Itís about the Ď40s, and he was born in the Ď40s. So itís relatively heavy. What is this heaviness? Itís less an issue of emotions than form. On the other hand, there are films like Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) from France and My Sassy Girl (Kwak Jae-young, 2001) from Korea: their form is relatively Ďlightí. A significant issue should be brought up here, which concerns the mindset of the young generation as well as the change of rhythm and form in the contemporary world. It has nothing to do with the content, for the content remains the same.

Of course, society is changing all the time. We sense this change when we feel the pressure of the world or the transformation of forms and a shift in approaches. In the past we might have experienced the coming of a new epoch with its revolutions and suppressions, all the familiar things under an authoritarian regime. You would harbour a revolutionary sentiment or embrace socialism. But now itís completely changed. Now, in this age, which is absolutely modern and individualistic, there is this so-called Ďunbearable lightness of beingí. But essentially itís still very heavy. This lightness of an individualís love and feelings, however, has to deal with a world thatís as hard as a rock. The drastically new genre of contemporary cinema is basically an attempt to find a form to deal with this heavy burden on the individualís love and feelings, or simply the burden on his existence. Isnít our existence an endless marching along under suppression? Thatís what I call the burden of existence.

Therefore, films like Amelie, Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and My Sassy Girl are on the other side of the spectrum of weight. On this side we can also add films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) which deal with the same issue with an even more humorous attitude, as well as cinematic glamour (which requires a powerful film industry). They are examples of a kind of film that Taiwan does not have. I mention them because I think Amelie is realistic in the style of Japanese manga comics. As you know, manga is basically composed of signs. Each frame is an exaggerated sign. For example, a facial expression with many stars on the side with words embedded in it, like a big star with ĎAy Yo!í (Damn!) or some similar verbal expression. And then there are many bubbles with words in them, which may appear on the margin too. These are all forms of sign language on paper. The characters in Amelie are like that, with certain kinds of facial expressions. This way, the film successfully depicts the characters and the complicated plots they are in. Nevertheless, despite the multitude of events in the film, it eventually deals with only one issue: how is Amelie going to face her own love and feelings, how is she going to break through her old self? She is shy and unsuccessful in dating boys. She is full of passion but cannot break through her old self. She resorts to various ways of dealing with her problems. They are all Ďlightí ways, not heavy ones. Even though we live in a real world and are fully aware that no problem can be solved this way, the film still suggests to its audience a motivation. They find it acceptable and moving. Thatís modernity to me. Itís the atmosphere and rhythm of modernity and modern society which produces films like Amelie.

Taiwanese films, from Somewhere Over the Dreamland to Hsiao Ya-chuanís Mirror Image (2001), have attempted to catch certain aspects of life by following this rhythm and assembling fragments of life together. What is conveyed through this collage is a subjective view on fate, life and the limitations imposed on human beings. Cheng and Hsiao to me are quite similar in that they do not see the world from the perspective of how it is commonly felt. In this camp we can include Chang Tso-chi (The Best of Times, 2002), who was also born in the Ď50s. Dai Li-renís film Twenty Something Taipei (2002) is more visual and kinetic. Dai plays a role in it, so he has a good idea of how to depict the characters and the rhythm.

Can we sense what is the most needed film rhythm in the Taiwanese and Asian-Pacific areas? Take My Sassy Girl for example. It sold some 5 million tickets in Korea and also did very well here in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. On the other hand, another Korean film, Friend (Kwak Kyung-taek, 2001), sold some eight million tickets in Korea but was not equally successful in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The issue here is a filmís local elements. Another good example is the popular TV series Liu Xing Hua Yuan (Garden of Shooting Stars), which is based on a Japanese manga. These films are absolutely worth our attention and discussion.

Peter Chan Ho-Sun has made the good suggestion that about ten or twenty per cent of an Asian national cinema should try to incorporate trans-national elements. This is exactly my point also: a cinema cannot be merely local within the Chinese-speaking region. It has to be Asian-Pacific. We have all suffered from economic regression. The best film markets now are Korea and Thailand. If they can become more international or Asian-Pacific Ė that is, if they take the whole region into consideration Ė their film industries will last even longer. Why? You simply cannot stay in your local space and shoot and shoot without any box office. Then your local audience gradually loses interest and leaves. It happened in Taiwan and Hong Kong was subsequently brought down, for it relied heavily on Taiwanese investment. It began with Chow Yun-Fat and then Stephen Chiau and Andy Lau. Whenever they had a hit, Taiwan would send in money for similar films to be made as quickly as possible. This frenzy led Hong Kong to repeat the same films in great quantity for ready money. About five or six years ago, not many Taiwanese wanted to see Hong Kong movies. Why? Because they all seemed to be the same film, with their predictable stories. Often there would be three films showing all starring Andy Lau and another three starring Stephen Chiau.

What I want to say is that as long as many films from different countries on different subjects are poured into Korea and Thailand, and there are also local films that are doing well, then this kind of cooperation will benefit both sides. With more films doing well in other countries, the local audience would be able to see a greater variety of films. And Korean and Thai directors would have more inspiration from all these films. Thatís why it is of vital importance to have trans-national film industries. Since every director is facing different situations, he has to find his own way to break through the local restrictions, both in terms of filmmaking and culture, and find the fine balance between film genre and personal vision.

Wong Kar-wai is a good example here. He is no doubt the kind of director who can make the best of the material he has in hand. His Fallen Angels (1996) is a Ďhired killerí genre film. But he has his own unique approach. Of course there can be conflicts between genre and auteurism, i.e., making the films the way you like. Take my own Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) as another example. I made that film about gangsters, gang societies and social outcasts because I was very familiar with them. I knew them very well personally. But itís not exactly a genre film, and I still didnít like how it came out. What I am getting at is, just like Wongís example shows, what you are doing is searching for new directions. Of course you have to start from your own position, your uniqueness. But you need to have a good picture of the situation of the whole Asian-Pacific region.

Let me follow up on the point made by Jeong on the positive role a government can play in the film industry. You can see clearly that Shiri (Kang Je-gyu, 1999) was the turning point for the Korean film industry. Prior to that the country was in financial crisis. Since 1996 the Korean government has been actively promoting film. With that kind of eagerness and those conditions, an atmosphere was created. Taiwan is doing much better this year than the year before. Just like the numbers that are here today show that there is an audience for film. If we can extend and expand this atmosphere via the mass media and all possible channels to attract an audience, and the government helps too, we may attract an even broader audience. Then one film will come out to ignite the bomb and mark the turning point. More opportunities will then be available as more money is invested in film. The film industry of Taiwan lacks a sound industrial structure for the distribution and use of investment, and the sharing of profit. You need this structure so that the profits go to the writers and directors. Otherwise you write for days and days only to be scolded by your wife, for you get nothing at all even if your films win festival prizes or become hits. Why would new talent want to come into this profession? I hate to tell you how the profit was shared in the past. Basically you got a list telling you the total cost of the film. You got what they felt like giving you and there was simply no way for you to argue with that. It has always been like that. Therefore itís very important that we create an atmosphere to bring about this turning point and set up a good profit-sharing mechanism.

We can now approach the issue from another direction after the success of the Japanese film Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1988), which was the ignition point that brought about an explosion of ghost movies. Just like Shiri was the ignition point of Korean cinema, Ring started the Asian frenzy for making ghost movies. The crucial element of their success lies in the use of local elements. The films are firmly rooted in local culture. Peter Chan Ho-Sunís Going Home in Three (2002) also has its strong local element, that is, the way it uses traditional medical herbs to preserve a human corpse and revive it. You may be surprised to find that the Japanese audience has no problem accepting a story like this. In fact, they know a lot about traditional Chinese medicine and medicinal herbs. Chinese medicinal herbs have become well known as essential oils in Europe, but the idea is the same.

Do we have no local elements of our own in Taiwan? There are many. For instance, we often pray to the god of house foundations. If we come to think about this god he is in fact quite terrifying, for he protects you by staying in your house and constantly watching you high up there. He has his own biography. So if you want to tell a story about him there will be plenty. What Iím getting at is this: a director may have certain good ideas or visions, but it takes a good producer with acute sensitivity to turn it into a hit. How does a producer achieve this? He does it by placing it on the right track. Your film may just be one of many similar films but it can be turned into a unique one. Letís take Wu Mi-senís hour-long film Fluffy Rhapsody (2000) for example. It can be turned into a ghost story, you know. It is already heading in that direction (a dead man is in it, though itís in fact a soul), depending on how scary you want it to be. Whether you want it to be scary or not is an adjustment of direction.

I donít think there are any fixed rules. Everyone is different. A producer has his own perspective. If he understands his director well and vice versa, there will be good cooperation. We all work differently. We watch all kinds of films, Hollywood and European films, and we may try different things. But local elements are the indispensable foundation on which each should try to find his ignition point. We saw Hollywood grab My Sassy Girl and Ring to make its own versions. Itís an empire and will go after films with potential, as it did to Luc Bessonís Nikita (1990). We shouldnít think that our own films are no good. Chan Ho-Sun has told me he also feels there is a unique Taiwanese creative consciousness, which is closely related to this earth we grow on and our whole cultural background. And Korea also has a flourishing market of prose and poetry publication besides cinema. On the other hand, the Hong Kong industry has mastered the techniques and they are second to none in the management of capital. Only if we work can we truly do very, very well.

A good film industry should have two areas: mainstream and alternative. The alternative sector should always be experimental and independent, surrendering to nothing other than its own creative force. However, how do you locate your unique quality and position and reach out to a wider territory from there? Every director is different in this respect. Some can only stay on the alternative side. Some never figure out that they belong to the mainstream and stand on the wrong side from the start. To be sure you are making the right choices you canít simply rely on yourself. You need to be well informed and have long-term working relationships with good producers and executive producers. I am not saying you must find one partner. I am saying you need to open up your vision, otherwise you will be working all your life and still without any hope of success.

In my own case, I was surprised to get my first award. My films before that were doing very well at the box office. I never pondered on what film was. I simply made the films I liked to make and they were extremely popular. Thatís why I had access to many resources with continuous investment in my films. But after The Boys from Fengkuei (1983) my films were no longer popular. However, since my earlier films were popular, I could still find investment. Then the first award came as a surprise. All it meant to me was a long trip to accept it. After that was City of Sadness (1989), a unique film for it has a very local subject. I had been heavily influenced by Chen Ying-chenís novels for a long time already, and was ready to make a film on subjects that were forbidden in the martial law era. When martial law was lifted and Taiwan began to change, the timing seemed right and I went ahead and made this film. It not only got a big award but was also extremely popular in Taiwan.

There was no way it could sell outside Taiwan, due to its complicated historical background, so that was about the best it could do. Did I consider the international market then? Frankly speaking, no. I still had many subjects I could film and I always chose what I thought was best at that time. When I made Flowers of Shanghai (1998) I didnít even give it any consideration. I simply made it. It wasnít in my plan. I happened to read the novel and for no reason at all I decided to go for it. I was happily surprised to see it so well received in France. Unlike in Japan, I didnít really know anyone well enough in Europe to work with them. My films were very popular in Japan, so I worked closely with Japan. Now I have got more and more opportunities to work with the French. But other than the money I need, my films are still about this land and how I feel towards it. I am not saying you should not cross over national boundaries. To me itís only a technical matter, nothing difficult at all.

Itís like if Tony Leung wants to be an actor, then he has to seriously be an actor. He knew very well that City of Sadness had to sell and he had to get paid when he had done his job. But he also knew that he fought to get his part because it would help him upgrade himself, to act even better. You know when he was doing Days of Being Wild (1990), he was acting in two other films. He came to Wong Kar-waiís set at night. After the make-up was put on him he just slept and didnít begin to shoot until a week later. But let me tell you about the effort he put into his research for his role as a gambler. He went and talked to a gambler and noticed that he had very beautiful fingers. He asked him why he kept his fingers and fingernails in such good shape. The gambler told him hands are the most important part of the body in his profession. Tony came back and got Carina Lauís manicurist to do his fingernails every day. He closely watched how it was done and quickly learned to do it himself. When he was on the set he would do his fingernails before he had to act. This is a vital process for an actor. He had found a way to get into his role. It was not through abstract conjectures. He was focusing on the role by examining his hands and from there the necessary feelings would come up. Your whole person could enter this role of a gambler thanks to the hands and be as realistic as one can be.

You have to find the right way to approach the right subject for yourself. No one can do that for you. You may not be aware of your great potentiality. You do not need to make films that we think are proper, or feel compelled to make certain kinds of films because they have been praised or recognised. Never let yourself be tied up by these thoughts. Be creative and unpredictable for every film you make. Thatís best. This is all I want to say.

 

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© Hou Hsiao-hsien and Rouge 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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