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January 20, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 1

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The Boys from Fengkuei/Feng gui lai de ren
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1983

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A Summer at Grandpa's/Dong dong de jia qi
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1984
Both Sino All Region DVD

I am slowly working my way through four discs containing eight films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. The earlier films have not been made available by any U.S. company. While not a definitive collection, this "Ultimate Collection" does provide a solid overview of Hou's career from 1983 through 1998 when he had begun to establish an international reputation.

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In an early scene in The Boys from Fengkuei, Ah-Ching and his friends sneak into a movie theater and find Rocco and his Brothers is playing, English dubbed with Chinese subtitles. While Hou's film has some similarities with Visconti's, especially in the story about small town young men in the big city, Hou's film may be closer in spirit to Fellini's I Vitelloni. Both films are about young men with no jobs, no ambitions and no particular place to go, with one of them coming to realize that there is a limit to how long one can waste one's life.

The Boys from Fengkuei is noted as being the first of Hou's film to clearly bear the style of long takes, often with a static camera observing the activity from a distance. While the influence of Yasujiro Ozu is periodically evident, Hou also makes use of some crane shots so that we can see several of the characters who are also neighbors, climbing up and down the apartment stairs or walking across the building's exterior passageway. It may also be worth noting that one of Hou's admirers is Jim Jarmusch, and that most likely unknown to each other, Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, released in 1984, shares similar subject and the determination to minimize the dramatic in favor of letting any kind of narrative concerns slowly reveal themselves.

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The use of classical music, notably by Bach, gives The Boys from Fengkuei an elegiac feel. Even if Summer is not over, the music indicates that this is Ah-Ching's last summer with his friends. With nothing to do but hang out or get in fights with other young men, Ah-Ching and two friends go to a larger city in the hopes of getting some kind of work, essentially biding their time before mandatory military duty. Ah-Ching flashes back to a happier summer with his father, who has since become incapacitated by a baseball fracturing the front of his skull. For Ah-Ching, the future is as uncertain as the space blankly stared out by his father.

The alternative English language title, All the Youthful Days, could perhaps be judged fairer in describing the story. Part of what instigates Ah-Ching's newfound sense of seriousness is his encounters with the women his age, all with a greater sense of purpose to their lives. In a greater sense, Hou's film is about the conflicts of ideals with the practical realities of contemporary Taiwan for those whose futures are limited. The film ends with a wistful goodbye both to Summer and to youthful irresponsibility.

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Summer a Grandpa's is an extension of some of the same themes of Boys from Fengkuei. The focus is on two young children, a boy, Tung-tung, and his sister, Ting-ting. A sense of sadness pervades the film from the beginning, as the set-up is that the siblings are sent to their grandparents in the country while their severely ill mother is being hospitalized. A reversal of sorts of Boys from Fengkuei, the big city children learn some life lessons in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else. There is what may be a deliberate echo from To Kill a Mockingbird in which Ting-ting is saved from an accident by a retarded woman, described as mad by the other children, a distaff version of Boo Radley.

Lighter in tone, there is one wonderfully comic scene. Tung-tung and the boys swim naked in a nearby river. Ting-ting is told to leave, informed that viewing the boys will cause germs to grow on her eyes. Her revenge is to gather up the boys' clothing and have it float down the river. The scene provides a humorous counterpoint to the other scenes in which men determine the lives of the female characters.

The visual influence of Ozu is most obvious in a montage of nighttime shots. In terms of the story, one can also see the similarity with the juxtapositions of generations and geography. There is also the conflict of family ties versus the sense that the presence of family members within the household as an imposition. Unlike the characters portrayed by Chishu Ryu, Koo Chuen as Grandpa, the small town's doctor, uses an exterior indifference to mask his own sense of humanity. Also to be mentioned is that one of the cast members is fellow Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, who also composed the music for this film.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 20, 2009 03:37 PM


I've been curious about picking up this set, mainly for the first four films, however, I've been told that these four are not anamorphic (which the original Asian box was) and the other four films are weak ports of the Fox Lorber discs, including the pan and scan version of Puppetmaster. Is this true?

Posted by: filmbo at January 20, 2009 11:35 PM

I haven't gotten around to The Puppetmaster yet. The earlier films are not anamorphic. On the other hand, any anamorphic versions are currently out of print and very costly to buy. Considering the reasonable cost of this set, I think it is an acceptable tradeoff.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at January 21, 2009 09:45 AM