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January 29, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 4

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Goodbye, South, Goodbye/Nan guo zai jan, nan guo
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1996

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Flowers of Shanghai/Hai shang hua
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1998
Both Sino All Region DVDs

Goodbye, South, Goodbye was made in 1996 but made me think of some American films made more than twenty years ago. Along with film critic Jeffrey M. Anderson, I was reminded of Mean Streets, with small time hoods in big time trouble. Much of Goodbye, South, Goodbye is devoted to Hou's characters traveling from place to place, much like the "road" movies that appeared after the success of Easy Rider.

The film follow two young men, brothers Gao and Flat Head, usually known as Flatty, and Flatty's girl friend, Pretzel. In order to pay off a debt created by Pretzel, and to set themselves up financially, a scheme is set up when it is known that some family property is to be sold. Not only does the scheme fail but the trio are in hot water with the police, some Taipei gangsters and a politician. As a film about contemporary Taiwan, Hou's film is also in part about the anxiety felt during the time that mainland China was transforming itself as a financial power and was a year away from taking back Hong Kong.

Hou begins this film as an opposite of Dust in the Wind, with a point of view shot from a train going away from its point of origin. The three main characters are introduced while inside the train, Flatty and Pretzel playing with each other while Gao looks ahead. Hou also has an extended traveling shot of the trio on motorcycles while facing the camera, as well as an extended shot of the three barely seen past the windshield of a car driven by Gao. The motorcycle ride could also be seen as a reference to Good Men, Good Women and the scene where Annie Shizuka Inoh's television is glimpsed with a scene from Ozu's Late Spring with Setsuko Hara on a bicycle.

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Unlike Ozu's films, there is an extraordinary amount of camera movement in Goodbye, South, Goodbye. Like a Scorsese film there is a rock music score, though both contemporary and original. Lim Giong, who played Flatty, wrote and performed the mostly techno soundtrack. One of the songs won the "Golden Horse" award, high honor among Chinese language films. Goodbye, South, Goodbye is the film to watch for those who assume Hou's films are too rarefied, plus the soundtrack kicks ass.

I am not sure if I can much of substance to what has been written about Flowers of Shanghai. For those who know, or have seen Hou's work, this is probably the best known film, or at least the most widely seen until the recent Flight of the Red Balloon. Viewed after seven other films in chronological order, it is also arguably the least like Hou's other films save for the stringent visual style. The entire film takes place in interior settings, mostly dimly lit, so while the outside world is sometimes referred to in conversation, it is as if there was no other world than that of the small group of Shanghai brothels, known as Flower Houses.

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My own sense is that aside from the subject matter, the confusion regarding love and money, and the messy relationships between men and women, what interested Hou was the opportunity to make a film within the limited settings, emphasizing the closed in spaces with equally limited camera work. I am certain Hou also was attracted to the opportunity of working with a pan-Asian cast topped by Tony Leung Chiu Wai at his most self-effacing. The structure of the film is mostly in small vignettes that fade to black at the conclusion. While much of the film's reputation rests on its formal qualities, what is of real interest is the interaction of the characters whether it is the patrons playing a drinking game, or the women trying to manipulate the patrons.

Certainly one of the benefits of seeing eight films by Hou in a short time is to get a better grasps of the elements the different films share, and also the differences. It may be comforting to some to know that they may not be the only one to fall asleep viewing one of Hou's films with their deliberate, unhurried pacing. While the DVD versions of the eight films are letterbox formatted, with the noted exception of The Puppetmaster, the collection is currently the only way to see the four earlier films. There are no extras as in some of the now out of print DVDs. It should also be noted that previous Hou collections have sold out and command high prices among collectors.

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

Posted by peter at January 29, 2009 12:48 AM