Hou Hsiao Hsien, A Rare Conversation at the British Film Institute, London

On 14th September, 2015, the legendary Taiwanese Director Hou Hsiao Hsien made a rare appearance in London where he was invited at the British Film Institute to talk about his films.

Director Hou Hsiao Hsien with Host Tony Rayns

Director Hou Hsiao Hsien with Host Tony Rayns

Tony Rayns, a world renowned expert on Asian cinema hosted the talk. I was surprisingly lucky to meet Director Hou Hsiao Hsien for a moment. Being near such a big personality from the world of international cinema was over whelming for me. I could only ask to take a picture with him, as i had nothing else to say. Therefore, shaking and in a bit of nervousness i stood next to Director Hou Hsiao Hsien and got a picture taken, which i would treasure for ever.
A fully booked hall waited for him. He had just made his way to London from Venice Film Festival, where he was a part of the international Jury. Unfortunately, Hou Hsiao Hsien was suffering from a mild flu which he got in Venice, but still he had a very fruitful conversation, and talked about his own life, the films he made along with the techniques he used with time, the real life characters whom he portrayed in his films and the actresses he chose.

Tony Rayns: In 1983, your career changed direction. You produced, directed and even acted in the film ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’. Can you say something about that transition which made you more ambitious?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: Yes, ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’ was a step that changed me and my carrer completely. I was at that time visiting Fengkuei for the first time as it is an island outside mainland Taiwan. I decided to go by bus and once when i reached and got out, I looked around and saw no one othen than a fan and a table. This environment looked quite interesting to me and i completely got absorbed in it. I made a note of it in my book. This particular instance stayed in my head like a beautiful picture for a long time. After i finished the film i was working on, i decided to make ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’.

Tony Rayns: Not only the story was different, but the style was different too. in ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’, you noticeably put the camera quite far back from the subject and had lots of long shots from a distance which you kept on running for a longer period of time than you did before. I’m determined to push you to say something about that.
Hou Hsiao Hsien: When i actually arrived in the small county of Penghu what impressed me the most was the horizon. Looking around made me think like i was looking at a very broad picture. It was all so beautiful and pictureque that i wanted to capture it all in my film. Cinematographer Chen Kun Hao was working with me at that time. I in order to capture the whole picturesque locations of Penghu, directed Chen Kun Hao to move the camera as far away as possible from the subject, which i think was a very unusual thing for him to do at that time. When we came back to the editing room, Chen Kun Hao literally told everyone that ‘Hou Hsiao Hsien is crazy!’. Although i did get criticised for doing that, but by taking those long shots from a far away distance and keeping them going for a longer period of time, i achieved in preserving the intimate relationship of the people of Penghu with the beautiful scenic environment around them.ADNK5884

Tony Rayns: After completing ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’, you made three films in a row. One was based on your own life story, while the other two were based on your two writing collaborators Chu Tien Wen and Wu Nien Jen. I wonder why till the late 1980s you decided to make films depicting real life stories of real people including yourself.
Hou Hsiao Hsien: I started my career by making comedies with really good themes which were very successful. That also made my producers quite happy as it brought a lot of money. When i started making ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’, my approach along with my writing collaboraters towards film making and story telling started to change. While doing this film i remembered my own childhood experiences which I placed as the raw material for ‘A Time to Live and A Time to Die’. Similarly, Chu Tien Wen, my screenwriter wrote a film reminiscing his memories in the film ‘Dust In the Wind’. The more i delved into my own childhood experiences, the more i grew more interested in showing them. Thus i achieved in bringing forward such films that showed that such memories are extremely touching.

Tony Rayns: In ‘A Time to Live and A Time to Die’, the grandmother is calling out for you and wishes to bring you back to mainland China. She in her senile old age thinks that she can just walk over the bridge and enter into mainland China while the reality is that she has come a very long way into Taiwan by boat and she somehow doesn’t register that anymore. Did your grandmother really think that she could go back to the mainland China?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: Yes!
Tony Rayns: So everything that we see in the beginning of the film, and the voice over that you’ve done yourself tells the precise story of your family? Also, to take filmmaking and story telling a further level up, you have used the exact location and the same house in which you’ve lived yourself when you were a child?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: Yes!
Tony Rayns: I think going to that kind of level of filmmaking and story telling not only brought a change in your style, but also changed the ways of making films in Taiwan itself. You were considered to be the centre of what some people called the part of a quite a big movement. Young directors and screenwriters came forward and made different kinds of films, and such a rush into filmmaking brought forward the term ‘Taiwan New Wave’, which unfortunately did not last for a long time and scattered and dispersed after four or five years. How did you feel to be a part of that?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: I did hear that there were groups of people working together to construct and create this New Wave together. Perhaps one of the reason was that I and Wu Nien Jen were born in 1947 and my other collaborators in 1949, therefore we belonged to the same generation. The other thing that influenced us were the French new Wave and the New German Cinema. We would get together and watch these films and discuss them along with the new European films that were springing up in those times.ADNK5896

 Tony Rayns: Why do you think the ‘Taiwan New Wave’ didn’t go on and after a few years seemed to break up?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: I believe that when we started making films together, and afterwards watched each other’s works, we realised that we had different approach towards life. Our approach towards story telling were very different from each other, and our vision towards cinema had no similarity in perspectives. This was mainly because we did not share the same background. I was born in a country side, while some of my colleagues were born in urban areas therefore having different perspectives towards life made us go our own ways. Therefore i think that was the reason the the Taiwan New Wave did not last for more than four or five years.
Tony Rayns: I mentioned earlier that you did a small acting role in The Boys from Fengkuei’, and that was a cameo infact. Before you made ‘A Time to Live and A Time to Die’, you played main roles in two films, ‘A Taipei Story’ and ‘Lao Niang Gau So’. Were you secretly wanting to be an actor?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: Yes. In the beginneing i liked to sing songs as it was my first passion. I had learned to sing and read music as a kid, and was determined to be a singer later in life. In my university i joined a competition. When i went on stage to sing i lost my voice and could not sing. Thus as a result i made up my mind that i would not sing and would learn filmmaking and be an actor.

Tony Rayns: After making some personal life stories you made a trilogy about Taiwan’s moden history. It started with ‘City of Sadness’, continued with ‘Puppepmaster’, and concluded with ‘Good men and Good Women’. Why did you decide to go form telling personal stories to telling the nation’s story?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: As i had been making films on my personal childhood experiences, i delved into the lives of my parents, and then through them i started seeing more details in a broader perspective. I saw that the lives of my elders and people of their age were in one or the other way somehow connected to the political situations that Taiwan had gone through. This pushed me to read more about Taiwan’s history which brought me to some historical incidents which include the White Terror, which was supported by the American Government, along with the 28th February incident which was a large scale massacre of local Taiwanese people who had their differences with the nationalist government of that time. Such incidents ecouraged me to make ‘City of Sadness’. The Taiwanese government at first did not want it to be shown, but then it cut out a part of the film and later released it. When the film won an award in Venice Film Festival, it got a lot of media coverage and that pressurised the Taiwanese government to release the film in its entirety. This resulted in the people of Taiwan wanting to question about their own history and identity in the world.ADNK5881

Tony Rayns: Tell us about Li Tian Lu. He keeps coming up as a grandfather in ‘Dust in the Wind’ and ‘Daughter of the Nile’, and then comes up as an old and senile patriarch of the family in ‘City of Sadness’. Then surprisingly you make a film based on his life called ‘Puppetmaster’. He was in real life a puppetmaster, and a national treasure as a matter of fact. Tell us how you met him and why did you decide to make his story in a film?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: I was looking for an actor to do the role of a grandfather in the film ‘Dust in the Wind’. My assistant director actually introduced me to Li Tian Lu, who was at that time performing in Taiwan University. His performance a touched me and thus I asked him to play the part of the grandfather in my film. We had a little conversation and he was very impressed by me, and later came to love the collaboration with me.
At that time there was a trend of dubbing in Taiwan. I realised while working with Li Tian Lu that he could simply not be dubbed or even mimicked because his style of dialogue delivery was so unique and extempore that when it came for the time for dubbing, he himself could not remember what he said. Therefore i decided to put a huge quilt around my camera with a recording equipment attached, and thus succeeded in recording on location sound. This became a turning point for me as i realised that there was a new way for me to bring out the best in me cinematically.
Tony Rayns: I must also add that Li Tian Lu himself is a very salty character. It’s not just that the language that he uses is filthy with a use of a lot of swear words in a strong Taiwanese dialect, but he’s also a living witness to a period when Japan had its power over Taiwan for forty five years. Now coming back to the film ‘Puppetmaster’, i kept noticing that in the start of the film there are only two shots. The first one is a very long take with the people around the table and the focus on the baby, and then there is a second shot which also focuses on the baby. By this time you filmmaking techniques have evolved and instead of taking long shots like you did in ‘The Boys from Fengkuei’ and ‘A Time to Live and A Time to Die’, here you hold the shots. Seems to me that you are doing it for several other reasons but one of them is to give more prominence to the actors. Is that right?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: By that time i was getting a bigger budget than before. This enabled me to insist upon using synchronised location sound. in ‘Dust in the Wind’ i was using a big quilt but till the time i shot ‘Puppetmaster’, i was using professional sound recording equipment. The on location sound recording made me realise that i could concieve and construct a shot in a different way. Also with a bigger budget it became possible for me to buy longer film stock than before. Now i could buy a thousand feet of film stock instead of the hundred feet which i was initially using. This was a blessing as i could shoot for a longer period of time than i could before.

Tony Rayns: The films i mentioned all centre on women. In each case the protagonist is a young woman, and that is true in other films too. Why do you tend to focus your films more on a woman protagonist?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: My father passed away when i was twelve years old and i was brought up by my sister, mother and grandmother. They had a great influence on me. When i was in junior high school i met my first love. I first saw her near a temple and her aura was so attractive that i fell in love with it. I watched and read a lot of japanese films and novels, and the aura of japanese women enchanted me. This made me realise that women are the most beautiful creatures of God. It wasn’t only their beauty that attracted me, but their will of percevierence, flexibility and strength also impressed me the most. When i was looking for an actress to play the part in ‘City of Sadness’, I again came across a temple and saw a girl. Once again i was taken in by her aura. Later i followed her and plucked up the courage to talk to her. I took out my ID to prove that i am indeed Hou Hsiao Hsien the film director, and i want an actress to act in my film. This i think proves that i am always attracted to female characters in my real life along with the ones that i portray in my films.

Tony Rayns: You have developed a professional relationship with actress Shu Qi, who is originally based in Hong Kong and has worked extensively there. She acted for you first in ‘Millenium Mambo’, and then in ‘Three Times’ and now lately in ‘The Assassin’. Talking about ‘Millenium Mambo’, in the beginning of the film you show a magician, and i wonder if you are that kind of magician because your critics accuse you of taking up western fashion. I wonder if that is true.
Hou Hsiao Hsien: In the Year 2000 i started an internet company, and at the same time digital technology was starting to emerge. The idea was to make a film concerning this web company with mutlitple stories in it. It started with one female character, that stripped into two and then multiple other female characters. This film was in a way beyond time, it was like a dream and i thought that i should do this therefore the film was made based on a western concept.

Me, standing with Director Hou Hsiao Hsien.

Me, standing with Director Hou Hsiao Hsien.

Audience questions:
QUESTION 1: in ‘Dust in The Wind’ The role of the almost unseen post man who we realise wasn’t actually delivering the letters i’m just intrigued to know wether this character was inspired from a real life person in your or Nien-Jen Wu’s life?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: It is in a matter of fact true. It happened with writer Nien Jen Wu, who used to write a love letter daily to a woman he was in love with. She did get all the letters from the post man, but instead of falling for Nien Jen Wu, she fell in love with the postman.
Question 2: You went from making films related to the past and then suddenly you make ‘Millenium Mambo’, which represents the present and the future. What inspired you to make such a kind of film dealing with the contemporary environment which is the complete opposite of the films that you made before?
Hou Hsiao Hsien: The millenium was a huge time around the world and that was an inspiration for making ‘Millenium Mambo’. By the time i had finished filming ‘Flowers of Shanghai’, Techno music had become the trend in Taiwan which captivated me. Many of my friends were techno DJs, and thus through them I got invited to clubs. There I saw first hand how people reacted to this music. They shaked their heads and danced around, thus making me realise that this is the new era for the youth of Taiwan. Then I saw Shu Qi in a TV advert and she interested me. I got in contact with her through my manager, and she flew over to Taiwan from Hong Kong. When she entered my office she said to me ‘Well, I know that you are a big director and are known around the world, but, so what?!’. This attitude of hers towards me attracted me towards her personality and I immediately knew that she would be the best choice to act in ‘Millenium Mambo’. Thus I collaborated with her then, and have been doing ever since.

Director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s latest film ‘The Assassin’ starring Shu Qi will be shown in the BFI London Film Festival 2015

The Title Picture and the Pictures used within the article are All Rights Reserved: The London Tree, and have been taken by Freelance Photographer: Adnan Kundi


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