I recently had the pleasure of seeing Chinlin Hsieh's Flowers of Taipei, along with the documentary Our Story, Our Time that's included on the new A Brighter Summer Day criterion disc, and thought it a good opportunity to write a few thoughts on Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang.
"They were the spark that made me believe our memories have value." - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
I can't remember which film I watched first, it was either Hou Hsiao Hsien's Millennium Mambo or Edward Yang's Yi Yi, but I remember thinking about islands. Islands with deep colonial histories, struggling through an awkward adolescence into modernism. I knew almost nothing about Taiwan other than that my good friend Gene had told me that while he had grown up speaking Taiwanese with his family in Hawai‘i, when he returned to Taiwan all the young kids spoke Mandarin and he got teased for speaking like an old man. This fascinated me, how quickly history moves. History, memory, islands.
"It was like the match I'd been waiting for." - Hirokazu Kore-eda
This was around 2002 and I was devouring Asian art cinema. Up until this point, growing up in Hawai‘i, I hadn't seen many Asian faces in movies. And when I did it was Hong Kong action, or old Bruce Lee, or B&W NHK films I watched with grandma. But here was a group of ragtag Asian filmmakers making artful, progressive, deeply personal works about their people and their home. For the first time, very briefly, I saw a future for myself in filmmaking.
I was only just starting to understand film language -- a language that still overwhelms me -- but I felt an immediate connection to Hou Hsiao Hsien's formal ambition. He wasn't making experimental films, but his composition and pacing felt unlike anything else I'd seen up until that point, one that captured a pace of life that felt lived in and real. I remember thinking: oh wow, Hou kept his distance, but it wasn't cold like Antonioni; Hou focused on the movement of bodies in a frame, but it wasn't theatrical like Fellini; Hou's films were elliptical, essentially plotless, but weren't heavy on allegory like a lot of plotless Western films were. Taiwanese New Wavers used real locations and real people. They were slow, relaxing, measured, and even though I could never understand the nuances of Taiwanese life, I felt there was a deep sense of history.
My favorite of Hou's films. Good Men, Good Women has it all: a film about filmmaking, obliquely connecting an untold historical trauma to the personal disaffection of modern life. A meditation on what it means to reconsider and recreate history, and on what stays constant over time: people and sadness.
And then there's Yi Yi, a masterpiece, I believe one of the best films of all time. I am trying to think of a few words to write to about this film, but fuck it, if you haven't seen it just go watch it. Then start from the beginning and watch the rest of Edward Yang's work. He's a fascinating, confusing director. Each film seems disconnected from the previous, but taken as a whole his work speaks to a profound understanding of how humans run from and collide into other humans, stumbling through life. While I was at USC, I would constantly think about how Yang was also at USC, but had dropped out, then later returned to Taiwan and just started making films. I wondered, if he didn't stay, why should I? Should I drop out, return home, and just start making films? Ultimately I stayed, because, alas, I am not Edward Yang.
"They were part of the reason I returned to Thailand. His work reminded me of home." - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Fifteen years out from my discovering these works, they still continue to nourish me. Whenever I'm confused about what the fuck I'm doing or where I'm heading, or just, why, these are the films I turn to, the gospel of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang, and I immediately know ah, of course, this is why: