Learning Hou Part 2: ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’

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The Green, Green Grass of Home
Written and Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Taiwan, 1983

Having started with Goodbye South, Goodbye, we go backwards in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career to one of his earliest films, The Green, Green Grass of Home. This particular film is the last in a trilogy of commercial-minded vehicles for pop star Kenny Bee that also included Cute Girl and Cheerful Wind. Bee got his start in Hong Kong as a part of a pop group called The Wynners and when that group split Bee made his way to Taiwan to make a go at acting. This won’t be the last time Hou works with a musician as an actor. Lim Giong was in multiple films including Goodbye South, Goodbye (for which he also did music for the soundtrack), and popstar Lin Yang made her debut in Daughter of the Nile, which I’ll be discussing in the future.

For The Green, Green Grass of Home, Kenny plays a substitute teacher who teaches the kids about conservation and how it’s wrong to use electric poles to shock and catch the fish. Of course there’s another pretty teacher close to his age at the school and the two are set on course for an eventual romance complete with light, comedic twists to add some sort of superficial drama to their relationship. However, the film splits focus with the kids in the picture, feeling more like Ozu’s I Was Born But… and its “reimagining” Good Morning. Good Morning in particular feels very similar to Hou’s film – both feature young rascals trying to navigate their rural life with modernity and balancing the hope of future aspirations with the nostalgia of youth and simpler times. They also both feature some humorous poop jokes (like there’s any other kind, right?).

Stylistically it’s quite different from his later work, but you can clearly see his growing artistic sensibilities butting up with quick commercial film-making in the economy of his shots. While few shots approach the masterstrokes he’d later develop, the pans, tracking, and overall framing feel familiar in a watered-down way. I couldn’t help but laugh that the film begins with imagery of trains moving through the countryside – imagery also present in Goodbye South, Goodbye; and I’m willing to bet it will be a part of more of his work as I dig deeper into his oeuvre.

It’s been noted by other Hou Hsiao-hsien enthusiasts and scholars that this film was the first in which he started allowing actors to improvise, specifically the young school boys. This explains the difference in tone between the main love story and that of the kids. Despite Kenny Bee’s charm and charisma, segments involving him are painted with the kind of broad strokes that perhaps reveal Hou’s disinterest in the commercial appeal of his own film. The real vibrancy comes from the kids playing games and reacting to each other and their situations. There’s one scene in particular where the son of a fisherman who illegally uses electric rods gets to let his frustrations out on the set. Hou shoots it in one take and after a moment you can tell the kid knows to keep going until the director yells cut, as his eyes dart around looking for something else to pick up and throw down in a tantrum. By letting the scene go a little longer, Hou is able to find something humorous in a understandably painful moment.

While these first few three films of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “commercial period” might be overlooked by people today, it’s important to go back and see not only how these great filmmakers developed their craft but how they operated within the confines of commercial cinema, particularly The Green, Green Grass of Home, where we watch an artist struggle within a structure based on profitability and create a movie that feels slightly more than the sum of it’s parts. We’ll see as we look at his next two pieces of work – a short in the anthology film The Sandwich Man and his next feature The Boys From Fengkuei – how he broke out of those constrictions and to what success.

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