A New Retrospective on Hou Hsiao-hsien: A Discussion with Organizer Richard Suchenski

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On Friday, September 12, 2014, the Museum of the Moving Image will launch a retrospective of the films by Taiwan’s celebrated director Hou Hsiao-hsien.  The internationally-touring series, titled “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” runs through October 17 in New York and includes all of the director’s seventeen feature films. The retrospective will also showcase Hou’s short movies as well as a number of related films and documentaries.  

In the interview below, Bard College professor Richard I. Suchenski, the organizer of the retrospective and the editor of the new book Hou Hsiao-hsien (available here), talks with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute about the remarkable experience of watching Hou’s films. 

In conjunction with the retrospective, Professor Suchenski will join Columbia film scholar Richard Peña and acclaimed writer and academic Ian Buruma in a public discussion about Hou’s films on Friday, September 12, 2014,  from 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM in Kent Hall 403 on the Columbia University campus. 

-What makes Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmmaking distinctive?

Salient features of Hou’s cinema include elegantly staged long takes, the precise delineation of quotidian life, and a radically, even vertiginously, elliptical mode of storytelling. His films place unusual demands on the viewer, but their sophistication is understated and their formal innovations are irreducibly bound up with the sympathetic observation of everyday experience. In the book, I argue that by combining multiple forms of tradition with a unique approach to space and time, Hou has created a body of work that, through its stylistic originality and historical gravity, opens up new possibilities for the medium and redefines the relationship between realism and modernism.

One often has the peculiar sensation when watching Hou’s films of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously, continually refining an understanding of preceding scenes even when immersed in the unfolding present. He goes furthest in this direction with “The Puppetmaster” (1993), but there are already extraordinary examples in his breakthrough film “The Boys from Fengkuei” (1983).

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The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)

-What inspired you to study Hou’s films? 

For a cinephile of my generation, Hou is a key reference point and the new Taiwanese cinema that began in the 1980s has a special status as a cinema that was (and is) in the midst of introducing an innovative sensibility and a fresh perspective. Hou is the most important Taiwanese filmmaker and his sensuous, richly nuanced work is at the heart of everything that is vigorous and genuine in contemporary film culture. This made him an ideal subject for the first integrated book and retrospective project coordinated through the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA).

-What is the significance of the title “Also Like Life” for the retrospective?

The title is a reference to the film that I consider Hou’s greatest, “The Puppetmaster.” A puppetry group is given this name because “puppets in performance are like people, so puppet plays are also like life.” Hou’s creative experiments are always connected to his deep commitment to realism, and the phrase suggests some of the subtleties of his approach to representation.

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The Puppetmaster (1993)

-How does Hou’s work illuminate the history of Taiwan and China?

Hou was born in 1947 to a Hakka family in Guangdong that immigrated to Taiwan in 1948. One year later, the People’s Republic of China is proclaimed and Chiang Kai-shek declares Taipei the provisional capital of the Republic of China. Hou has a strong sense of Chinese cultural identity as well as a profound attachment to his adopted home.

When I first started watching his films, I was struck above all by his prismatic treatment of Taiwanese history and the way in which he links that – formally and thematically – to questions of point of view. His sensitivity to character, location, and geopolitical nuance has enabled him to explore very complex issues with a remarkable degree of perspicuity and deftness.

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A City of Sadness (1989)

-What films would you first recommend to a person who is not yet familiar with Hou’s work?

The most important films, in my view, are “A City of Sadness” (1989) and “The Puppetmaster.” These are also the hardest to see on film. “Dust in the Wind” (1986) and “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” (1985) are excellent introductions to his work, and the new prints of “Good Men, Good Women” (1995) and “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998) that were struck for the retrospective are not to be missed.

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Richard I. Suchenski (Ph.D. Yale University) is the Founder and Director of the Center for Moving Image Arts and Assistant Professor of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College.  He organized “Also like Life:  the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” an international retrospective traveling to seventeen cities worldwide through 2015, and is the editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien (2014).

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