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Learning Hou Part 1: ‘Goodbye South, Goodbye’

 

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Goodbye South, Goodbye
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by Chu T’ien-wen
Taiwan, 1996

Up until now, I’d never seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, who is considered a true master of the cinematic arts. Despite his critical notoriety, Hou is not well-known in the United States where he has received frustratingly little distribution. Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of Hou’s most ardent supporters, wrote about this in a recent issue of Cinema Scope, lamenting that some of Hou’s best films are not available on DVD at all and the ones that are have abysmal transfers. The Puppetmaster(1993), which I planned on watching for this project, is only available in a pan-and-scan edition. I couldn’t bring myself to view it under such conditions, especially for my very first exposure to him. Instead, I opted for the film Cahiers du Cinema called one of the three best of the 90’s: Goodbye South, Goodbye (the other two were Carlito’s Way and The Bridges of Madison County. Oh the 90’s).

Focusing on a family as they plot and fail at being gangsters, it’s clear early on that Hou has much in common with Yasujiro Ozu. In some of Ozu’s most sublime moments, the Japanese master could begin a scene perfectly framed to illustrate the character’s mental state. After the scene’s action, a new picture would be created within the frame without ever cutting or moving the camera. Hou’s approach to action is similar, but he feels more free to glide the camera to different vantages, finding elegant framing through a long take. His style is remains detached from the action, but like Ozu it isn’t cold or distant, feeling more like an active observer. In his segment in the short doc Talking With Ozu, which can be found on the Tokyo Story(1953) DVD from Criterion, Hou confirms that he binge-watched a lot of Ozu’s films leading up to making films set in contemporary Taiwan, of which Goodbye South, Goodbye is the first since 1987’s Daughter of the Nile.

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In Goodbye South, Goodbye, the camera is more intent on showing the character’s place within their environment and the act of motion itself. Trains move in and out of stations, and several times the camera is placed on vehicles traversing long distances. While the idea is to show the characters moving from location to location, they aren’t actually going anywhere in regards to the frame. Despite the characters believing they are going somewhere, they are metaphorically stalled-out, and their petty schemes bring them no closer to their modest goals. There’s a feeling of nostalgia here, a lament that the moral fortitude of contemporary Taiwan has fallen on hard times, a result of industrialization and imperialism. The haze of neon and dingy concrete is juxtaposed with beautiful rural greens. When the characters are inside, it’s often dimly lit, and they’re either cramped or boxed into the frame. When they’re outside they’re shot from further back so that there’s more negative space around them which expresses a sense of freedom that the characters are totally blind to. The final shot of the film is a beautiful punctuation to these themes, creating a satisfying conclusion that comes about like a punchline by way of cosmic intervention. Because the film’s structural arc isn’t built in a typical conflict/resolution fashion, it becomes a most satisfying ending to a story about characters who just can’t seem to get their act together.

As my first exposure to Hou Hsiao-hsien, I can’t be more excited about watching more of his films. Hou’s methodology of expressing himself through the camera was so serene in Goodbye South, Goodbye, and I always felt mentally engaged with the subject of every moment. However, my eagerness to watch the next film on my list of his is met with disappointment that I can’t view his films on higher-quality formats. Several films I’ve had to find through torrents and some of those look like digital copies from a VHS edition.Cinephiles in Toronto are lucky that they can watch an extensive retrospective of his films at the TIFF Lightbox starting January 29th. I, on the other hand, will be watching some rough-looking copies on my computer monitor, wondering how film distribution works and why it’s so difficult to get quality copies of films in 2015.


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