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Essay

Departures:
Journeys with Asian Filmmakers

 

I‘M HALFWAY OVER the Atlantic on a 777, and I’ve just unfolded myself from my seat. It feels like needles are threading blood back down through my legs and feet. Teaching myself to walk again, I grimace up the aisle of the darkened plane.

As I go, I scan hundreds of small, bright squares—the passengers’ private movie screens. I recognize Madagascar 2, Twilight, Max Payne, and about fifteen close-ups of the ice-blue eyes of this generation’s James Bond. Many are sampling Adam Sandler’s latest comedy, Bedtime Stories, a family movie so overstuffed with clinically proven, committee-approved, crowd-pleasing elements that it probably won’t satisfy anybody.

Since my wife and I left the ground in Houston on our way to Amsterdam, I’ve been writing about movies instead of watching them, taking notes for a presentation on film interpretation. Looking around, I see a lot of entertaining, popular features—including a few of my favorites. But I don’t see many selections that I’d use as an example of cinema worth studying.

I shoehorn myself back into my seat and take out the DVD of various film clips I’ve brought along to share with the class. The viewers will probably find many of the scenes I’ve selected unfamiliar, but I’m eager to talk with them about my favorite of today’s working filmmakers—a director from Taiwan named Hou Hsiao-hsien (pronounced ho shee-ow shee-en). But the beverage wagon’s on the way, so I decide to leave my laptop closed. Waiting for the flight attendants, I switch on my own private view-screen and start browsing Continental Airlines’ menu of movies.

To my astonishment, they’re offering 250 films free of charge. And the World Cinema category is long and full of surprises.

I feel like I just discovered a million bucks on the floor beneath the seat in front of me, and I want to share it.

If I had access to the intercom, I’d love to let everyone know that the menu includes extraordinary, award-winning films that aren’t available anywhere in the US—films that they’ll remember and discuss like great vacations. I enjoy action-thrillers and Adam Sandler too, but here’s a chance to see movies that really will satisfy.

I admit, I’m biased. Twenty years ago, my first taste of Chinese food sparked an insatiable craving for exciting international cuisine. Likewise, an array of Asian filmmakers are transforming the way I watch movies. The options available at shopping-mall cinemas conditioned me to understand and accept only a narrow range of formulaic and forgettable meals designed for quick consumption. It wasn’t until after college that I began to discover how much more was possible, watching films from Poland, Russia, France, Mexico—and more recently, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, and Korea.

Lately, names like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hirokazu Koreeda, Tsai Ming-liang, and (brace yourself) Apichatpong Weerasethakul introduced me to styles worth savoring. Now they have my attention the way names like Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola once did. They have a way with visual poetry that few western filmmakers, who deal primarily in visual prose, can match. But they demand that their “readers” invest themselves in interpretation.

Some of their strengths lie in storytelling. At first, I was bored, convinced that nothing was “happening.” Puzzled over these directors’ acclaim, I started reading studies of their films, and I learned to look closer. I found that all kinds of action is happening, sometimes on the edges of the screen, or in a fleeting gesture. Suddenly, they seemed like movies full of secrets, mysteries worth solving. Rather than settling for standard, step-by-step narratives of cause and effect, conflict and resolution, these filmmakers sometimes challenge us to lean forward and make connections on our own that most commercial movies simplify and explain for us.

It’s not just the spoken language that’s different—the visual language is new to me as well. I’m learning to concern myself less with the progression of plot and more with the relationships of elements within the frame. In the work of great masters, elements that compose an image are only part of the picture; sometimes, the things we see refer us outward, making us aware of absences that are as important as anything present onscreen. “Composition is the strongest way of seeing,” wrote the photographer Edward Weston. If we learn to think about why things look the way they do, we enter a larger, more exciting experience.

This kind of seeing is good practice for life.

The flight attendant offers me a bag of processed snacks. I glance at the list of ingredients, which reads like a catalogue of toxic chemicals, and I hand the package back to her as politely as possible and ask for a cup of tea. That seems like the right beverage for my new plan.

Before we land in Amsterdam, I’m making the first of three unplanned “departures.” I’m going to Japan.

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The Blessing of Thwarted Dreams

 

What could be a more appropriate in-flight movie than something called Departures?

Then again, the summary of Yôjirô Takita’s movie did not exactly compel me to seek it out. Concert cellist loses job. Watches dreams fade. Sulks his way home, dragging his new wife along. Takes a lousy job that brings him face to face with death. Learns that life is hard…and fleeting.

Great.

But Takita’s film, based on the memoir of Shinmon Aoki, a Japanese mortician, is as much about blessing as it is about loss, more interested in the faces and hands of the living than the shadow of death.

When Daigo (Motoki Masahiro) leaves his career as a cellist behind, moving back home to the Yamagata Prefecture on Honshu island, he anxiously searches for a job that will sustain him. One opportunity gets his attention, promising that the person hired will work with “departures.” Thinking it’s a travel agency, Daigo applies. The poker-faced boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) gives him the job at once, and then reveals that the ad was a misprint. It should have read “working with the departed.” Daigo now has a high-paying job presenting bodies of the deceased to emotional families during funeral ceremonies.

Daigo’s task is called “encoffining” or “casketing,” and it involves covering the dead with elegant drapes, undressing them beneath that covering, painting them with makeup until they seem to glow with life, and then sculpting their stiffening forms into poses of dignity before incineration.

Hard to watch? At first, yes. But eventually the beauty of the ritual gets to you.

Casketing isn’t a chore; it’s an art. Like a magician preparing to make a beautiful lady disappear, Daigo learns to make grand, theatrical, and yet efficient gestures. I’m moved by the ceremony. It’s a beautiful thing to see Daigo humble himself and take on the role of a servant.

And not only a servant, but an outcast. Daigo can’t tell his wife about his job because of the shame he feels. Ancient Shinto beliefs assert that those who deal with the dead become unclean, carrying something of the grave with them everywhere. In the era of feudal castes, undertakers and grave diggers lived as social rejects called burakumin. Political progress of the late nineteenth-century did away with that caste system, liberating such outcasts from formal rejection, but the prejudice persists today.

Given the film’s political implications, the biggest surprise of all is that Departures is a comedy. Masahiro and Yamazaki, playing the bewildered apprentice and the stoic mentor, are hilarious together as they stumble out of one complicated family dynamic and into another, dodging the landmines of family feuds, secrets, and grudges all the way.

Takita skillfully navigates our journey through light situational comedy into chapters of surprising emotion. This would have been an easy context in which to make fools of the mourning or the prejudiced, but Takita admirably refuses to let any of his characters become a scapegoat or a joke. He treats even peripheral characters with compassion and affection.

What is more, while the filmmakers do not display favor for any particular religious views—Japanese Christians are portrayed with no more or less respect than anyone else—Takita’s characters seem inclined to suspect that death is not the end. Notes of consolation and hope resonate with surprising force. In one memorable, moving scene, Daigo blesses a modest Christmas celebration with a reverent performance of “Ave Maria.”

If Departures plays well for American audiences, I won’t be surprised if it’s remade as a film about Americans. The story will probably be rewritten. Daigo will find an opportunity to play his cello at a funeral, only to be discovered and win an opportunity in the global spotlight.

Takita’s conclusion is not so trite. This film serves as a necessary corrective to that ubiquitous lesson of American movies: “Follow your dreams and let nothing stand in your way.” Departures is not a film about wish-fulfillment, but about real fulfillment. Daigo’s musical ambitions aren’t vain, but the path of necessity leads him into a fuller, more meaningful life, and his artistic inclinations assist him in “performing” for audiences who need his sensitivity and solace.

Departures is already relevant to people in any part of the world. In its admirably delicate balancing act between the absurd and the profound, it asks us to consider love and fidelity, calling and vocation, art and business, prejudice and reconciliation.

Those were two in-flight hours I’ll probably never forget.

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Seeing the Backs of Our Heads

 

So long as viewers are willing to read subtitles, Departures is an easy movie to enjoy. Its uniquely Japanese story is entirely accessible to western moviegoers like me.

Takita’s narrative is linear, his actors appealing, and the score classical and sentimental. The film has a strong, if predictable, tear-jerker of a conclusion. Perhaps Departures will serve as a sort of gateway drug for some American moviegoers, encouraging them to climb out of their comfort zone and explore a bigger map of movies.

My own guides into that larger world were two world-renowned Far-East filmmakers.

In the last fifteen years, I’ve sought out almost every animated feature by Japan’s beloved storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, whose boundless imagination—unleashed in films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro—have earned Disney distribution and made him almost a household name in America. Even before that, my brave high school English teacher introduced me to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran during a study of Shakespeare. (Kurosawa’s name was familiar to me because of my enthusiasm for Star Wars, and George Lucas’s acknowledgement that he drew inspiration from the Japanese master’s Hidden Fortress.)

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And yet, while both Miyazaki and Kurosawa introduced me to traditions and styles quite foreign to my experience, their movies appealed to my appetite for action and fantasy.

It was Edward Yang’s film Yi Yi that taught me to seek more challenging work.

Yi Yi is far more complicated in its narrative than Departures, and Yang asks us to decide for ourselves what it’s all about. That’s a tall order, considering the number of characters and stories interweaving. For an American equivalent, you’d have to look at something like The Royal Tenenbaums or Magnolia—but those films are far more stylized and arresting. They shout, where Yi Yi speaks softly.

Set in Taipei, Yi Yi follows an eight-year-old boy, his teen sister, their parents, and their grandmother through a time of crises.

The boy, Yang-Yang, is as charming a youngster as you’ll find on film. Through Yang-Yang’s eyes, the world’s a wonderland. He’s a Curious George in a yellow shirt, investigating everything. But it’s a lonely journey. Yang-Yang’s family members are caught up in their own searches for understanding.

The boy’s name and curiosity aren’t the only things that connect him to the film’s director—Yang-Yang has strong creative impulses. When he starts an art project late in the film, he provides for us a way of understanding the questions compelling Edward Yang in his own art. In a moment of surprising emotional crisis, the boy asks his father, N.J., “How can I know what you see?”

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That inquisitive spirit brought Yang to the forefront of a group of filmmakers credited with a 1980s phenomenon called the New Taiwan Cinema.

Like rising waves of new style in the films of Hong Kong and mainland China during the same period, New Taiwan Cinema broke with the state-approved romances and melodramas and offered a thoughtful alternative to Hong Kong’s popular, escapist action movies. New Taiwan Cinema offered a more realistic, and thus more controversial, representation of modern life, exploring subjects and questions that had been suppressed in Japan’s colonial era. In Yi Yi, we can sense Yang’s angst over the spread of industry and capitalism, and the toll such progress takes on families, communities, minds, and hearts.

This conflict was probably inspired by Yang’s own struggles. Attending film school at USC, he found that film-industry commercialism discouraged him, so he turned to a career in technology. Later, while working in computers and defense software in Seattle, he discovered Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and his love for movies was reborn.

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Thus, we watch N.J. suffer symptoms of emptiness and spiritual dissatisfaction brought on by the business world’s competition and compromise. His family is falling apart. His wife Min-Min has a career too, but she feels similarly unfulfilled. We see her silhouette reflected in the office window of a skyscraper as we look out at nighttime traffic. Lines of lights on the freeway flow through her reflection like a circulatory system. In what must have been a happy accident, Yang captures flashing red emergency lights right at Min-Min’s heart.

Wei-han Yang’s camerawork is elegant and inventive throughout, one of the picture’s greatest pleasures. He often stands back and allows the viewer to decide what is important in the frame, and whose action to follow. His subject is not a main character, or even a few main characters, but a community. He wants us to consider a web of relationships, and because of the range of ages, viewers are likely to give strong consideration to those whose experiences they can understand. Thus, the film seems to deepen as years pass. I saw it first in 2000, and when I watch it today the effect is much stronger.

It is a film about Yang-Yang’s curiosity and exploration; about how he copes with schoolyard bullies, girls, a tyrannical teacher, and neglectful parents. It is also about his sister Ting-Ting’s adolescent awkwardness, her crush on her best friend’s boyfriend, and her first bold step into romance. Yang gazes without flinching at the children’s psychological turmoil as they are caught in the tremors of adult infidelity and violence. Yang considers the grownups’ spiritual yearnings, which are unsatisfied by professional pursuits, religious counselors, pornography, or opportunities for extramarital affairs.

Still, while the whole family seems broken and lost, Yi Yi is a film of great hope, which shines most clearly in Yang-Yang’s growing artistic proclivities. If there can be healing on this side of the grave, the possibility seems to rest in learning to see “the backs of our own heads”—which happens to be the subject of Yang-Yang’s early photography. It rests, that is, in our capacity to see ourselves wholly, clearly, honestly.

And art, like Edward Yang’s uncompromising film, can help us see. Ting-Ting’s boyfriend, a film enthusiast, raves: “Movies are lifelike. That is why we like them.” He explains that movies give us the chance to live other lives vicariously, and return to our daily routines wiser.

It’s a strange kind of freedom I discovered watching Yi Yi. What at first seemed frustrating—What is the story? What do these storylines have to do with each other?—eventually revealed itself as liberation. Yang was not treating me as a consumer, packaging everything for easy consumption. He was inviting me to explore alongside him and contemplate these various journeys. No pressure. There is only space to wander, and the more I revisit it, the more I’ll discover.

Yang passed away in 2007. Fans around the world were dismayed, for he was only fifty-nine and at the peak of his powers. I’m working backwards through his catalog, hoping to see A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Taipei Story (1984). Without the lessons I learned from watching Yi Yi, I might never have been prepared for the movies that would eventually be made by the young star of Taipei Story­­—Hou Hsiao-hsien.

In fact, even though his films rarely play on big screens in the US, Hou is respected by some as the world’s greatest living filmmaker.

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Not “Look at This!” but “What Do You See?”

 

The credits are rolling on my second selection from the airplane’s menu­—Sparrow, a comical crime caper from Hong Kong’s prolific and celebrated stylist Johnny To.

The film’s story is a simple genre exercise, but as Roger Ebert writes, “A film is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The primary characters—pickpockets who seem to steal for the love of the game—underline To’s own modus operandi. Sparrow steals stylistic flourishes from a variety of genres. As the contentious thieves compete for the heart of a beautiful woman, oh the style! The film is a carnival of color, choreography, music, and light. At times you half-expect hoodlums to break out into song, and in the rainy tempest of their climactic, Sergio Leone showdown, they glare out from beneath the brims of their umbrellas instead of cowboy hats.

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Do I have time for another film? On a display at the front of the cabin, I watch the airplane’s icon closing in on the bright red circle of Amsterdam.

And that’s amusing, because it means I have time to watch some scenes from a film about a big red circle—Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2008 film Le Voyage de Balloon Rouge, or Flight of the Red Balloon.

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Throughout the movie, Hou plays with our perception, giving us such a longing for that red balloon that we start seeing red circles everywhere.

For a short, blissful period, we’re brought into the world as it is experienced by a young boy named Simon (played by Simon Itaneau) who wanders alone through Paris, making meandering progress to the Metro that will carry him home.

As the film begins, Simon is distracted, talking to an off-screen entity—a red balloon. Whether it was his and he lost it, or whether he just noticed it hiding in the boughs of the urban tree, we’re never shown. But what follows suggests that Simon is on the verge of losing something important, if he hasn’t lost it already. He’s standing at a sidewalk entrance to an underground Metro station that will draw him into the push and hurry of the adult world. Simon climbs on the railing around the stairs, seemingly unconcerned about the heavy traffic rushing past. His appeals are unpersuasive, and he gives up, reprimanding the balloon with his hand raised. He descends to the Metro.

The balloon, as if disappointed, drifts down from the tree. We’re so easily drawn into attributing emotion and intelligence to this object as it moves, as though it wanted the boy’s attention and was teasing him. It’s like the balloon served a purpose: to keep Simon looking upward, and prevent him from being sucked into the chaos. The balloon is almost like the guardian angels in Wings of Desire—a fantasy that we wish were real.

The first time I saw this film, I quickly read the Metro station as a metaphor. For Hou, trains are always suggestions of change, of irrepressible motion, and of threads that connect the world and carry pulses of life. And Simon is at an age where he’s about to take on adult concerns, leaving his curiosity and imagination behind.

Yes, the boy stands in a moment of transition. But there is a strong visual suggestion of something more drastic here—severance. A station advertisement, a poster for an upcoming movie, provides part of the backdrop for Simon’s one-sided conversation. It’s an ad for a movie called Severance, which movie buffs will recognize as a dark comedy about businesspeople who end up wreaking bloody havoc in the wilderness.

Not only that, but the poster itself, and the title of the film, are “severed” by the vertical line of the structure around the Metro’s entryway. The line directs our attention upward, to the balloon and its dangling—severed—string.

Moments later, we begin to see that this is not just a film about Simon, but about all of us. A bus moves past, painted with brightly colored spheres like balloons. In the windows above those circles, the faces of the passengers, grim-looking adults, gaze out at the world. The advertisement plastered on the bus is distracting—it’s a promotion for the movie Children of Men. If we’re familiar with that movie, then we might find this as a clever joke, or a note of strange foreboding about where society is headed.

With effortless visual poetry, Hou has introduced his main themes—the fragile interior life of a child, the haste and dangers of the adult world, and the ways we can be severed from love and innocence. (A short while later, we’ll learn that Simon’s parents are divorced.)

Simon’s slow progress stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city. Viewers are likely to feel a mix of emotions as they observe him—joy, longing, even sadness and fear for his inevitable “progress.” In his review, Michael Koresky wrote:

The peripheral presence of the balloon stands in sharp contrast to this film’s gorgeously maintained mess: never has a film felt so spontaneous, slapdash, and utterly controlled all at once. It’s become a cliché to say that a film floats, that it exists in reverie, yet Flight of the Red Balloon may come closer to embodying an earthbound heavenly state than any film I’ve seen. Its casual bliss is buoyed by a regard for beauty so accessible that, in its self-reflexive final scene, even a group of schoolchildren can notice it.

Referring to the “gorgeously maintained mess,” Koresky may be referring to the chaos of Paris, or to the character played by Juliette Binoche, who sports a shocking blond hairstyle that seems to be exploding.

Binoche plays Simon’s mother, Suzanne, a woman bound by many tethers that pull her violently in all directions. Suzanne is “severed” from Simon’s father and from her beloved teen daughter. Her heart is in pieces. As she scrambles from work as a voice for a Japanese puppet theater—again, characters in distress being manipulated by strings—to other responsibilities, she must also contend with maddening and irresponsible renters at her property.

Needing a guardian for Simon, Suzanne hires Song (Fang Song), a beautiful and soft-spoken Taiwanese film student. Song is making a short film homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s film The Red Balloon. Song is a quiet soul, and her silent attention has a gravitational pull that endears her to those caught up in busyness.

As Simon and Song walk through the city, they are often surrounded by reflections and windows, which allow Hou to emphasize the city’s fragmented nature beyond the frame. When Simon enters an arcade, Song films him through the window. As his attention is drawn to the glass square of the video game, he’s oblivious that he, too, is the subject of an awestruck gaze.

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The films I’m accustomed to watching only introduce details that contribute to the central storyline. The camera zooms in, simplifying the view, directing our attention to only one focal point. The smoking gun. The speeding car. The kiss. The little girl in the red coat. Spielberg loves the slow-zoom on someone’s wide or tear-filled eyes before showing us another wonder—“Look!” he insists. “Look at this!” He’s only interested in building suspense and the big revelation. He’s interested in whatever will move the plot forward, or provoke the most immediate and familiar emotional responses. It’s as if we aren’t trusted to take in a scene and notice important details, gestures, or expressions for ourselves.

By contrast, Hou stands back, asking us to lean in and examine various focal points. He’s not indifferent about what we watch; he does direct us. But his is a wide-ranging curiosity, and we can sense the things that interest him. He doesn’t force us; he invites us to inquire along with him.

This kind of freedom requires patience and willed contemplation, but it’s worthwhile. Details that might have passed unnoticed under the tyranny of narrative catch our eye, inspiring emotions inaccessible during the rush. The balloon’s hypnotic effect draws us into its drift. It frees us from the rigid ways we’ve learned to look at a screen, allowing our gaze to wander about the frame. We see things in a more realistic proportion, and thus we can see their relationship with all that lies around them.

Hou is literally redeeming the rest of the world for our apprehension. The emphasis on reflections and details on the edge of the frame continually direct our attention to the world beyond the screen. Your attention is likely to drift. That would probably please the filmmaker.

This can help us understand some of Hou’s other masterworks, films that might otherwise frustrate us on a first viewing.

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Hai shang hua (Flowers of Shanghai), 1998

 

In a nineteenth-century brothel, inebriated men lounge in an opium haze. They feast and play games, and they fill the rooms with raucous laughter.

The “flower girls” who attend to them, as competitive as aspiring pop divas, dream of winning a rich man’s heart. Their seductive arts are games of desperation as they hope to keep their families from poverty, but the work takes a heavy toll. As banquets go on, watch closely. Important conversations are often peripheral and sometimes silent altogether, electricity sparking in furtive glances and whispered gossip.

Flowers of Shanghai should intrigue anyone who has enjoyed upstairs/downstairs dramas and mysteries, such as Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing, due to the number of clients and flower girls involved in this complex community, and the attention required to observe the subtle differences between these long, static scenes in dimly lit chambers.

Filming through an amber haze, Hou gives us the sense that we’re gazing through secret windows at a candlelit world of Quing-dynasty Shanghai. Each scene is shot like a decorous mural, the camera fixed in one place, turning slowly left and right to encompass rooms full of activity. Drama comes from the actors, but also from the surprising moments when scenes begin to fade, and from the strange gaps between chapters. Sometimes, beginning and end points seem arbitrary, raising questions about what events are most important, what signals we might have missed, and what will happen next. We’re left to deduce how much time has passed between scenes, that is, if we can first figure out where we are from scene to scene.

But this is not a film about linking one event to the next so much as it is a study of power. The more time we spend with it, the more we become aware of similarities between the scenes, the arrangement of the players, and the geography of the rooms they inhabit. Thus, the slight—and occasionally startling—variations take on tremendous importance.

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Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière), 2003

 

When Yoko (pop star Yo Hitoto) tells her parents that she’s pregnant, and that she does not intend to marry her Taiwanese boyfriend, they’re reasonably dismayed.

It’s not just about tradition, although the aging Japanese couple are troubled by the priorities of a youth culture they cannot understand. It’s about Yoko’s lack of income and her uncertain future here in Tokyo. They’ll be dependent on pensions soon. Who will look after them?

Yoko doesn’t seem too worried. She’s a freelance writer, preoccupied with her interest in the life of a Taiwanese composer who worked in Tokyo during the 1930s. She’s tracking down all of the places he frequented. But this nostalgia leads to nothing at all—the places he worked and played are gone, replaced by businesses. She’s also developing a crush on an eccentric, distracted bookseller, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), whose hobby—recording the sounds of various trains—keeps him too distracted to notice her.

If you’re familiar with Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, you may already have sensed a similarity between this film and that revered Japanese masterpiece. Once again, we have a story of generational impasse, in which parents must chase down their children and try to comprehend what they’re doing with their lives. Café Lumière is Hou’s response to an appeal for an homage to Ozu.

And the echoes don’t stop there. Hou fills the film with long shots in which action takes place at the edge of, or outside of, the frame, and reminds us of Ozu’s composition by presenting many-layered sets, including action obscured by wavering layers of hanging laundry.

This is not a bleak, condemning picture. It’s not a judgment, but an inquiry. Yoko’s path is full of risks, and rather disrespectful. But there are grand possibilities in her choices as well. She is living with a sort of spontaneous grace, and her interest in jazz seems to confirm that.

All the while, trains crisscross through the city, tracing threads of possibility. It is on one of those trains that Hou finds the story’s conclusion—or rather, its final shot, which is more a beginning than an end. The camera observes someone else observing—and in that isolated act of focusing a gaze, one character represents a world that is heavy with possibility.

It just may be that Hou is suggesting that new generations desire only observation rather than engagement. Or it may be more hopeful, implying that the contemplative, wandering gaze can discover a kind of grace that the resolute adherence to fixed forms disallows. Perhaps by seeing, we can be drawn into life more abundant.

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Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times), 2005

 

In Three Times, Hou gives us a trilogy of scenarios set in different periods of Taiwan’s history—1911, 1966, and 2005. Like Flowers of Shanghai, this film invites us to consider correlations and differences between the chapters. The most obvious provocation to do so is his casting of the same actors in important roles in all three. Hou makes it clear he wants us to ask what has changed in the progress of time, and what has remained the same.

But as you might expect, this is about much more than characters.

In the first scenario, “A Time for Love,” the romance of Chen (Chang Chen), a soldier on a break from the Vietnam War, and May (Shu Qi), a pool hall hostess, is conveyed in a flirtatious jazz of gestures, silences, and casual body language. It’s as sexy as any dance. The camera finds details like a billiard ball moving across a pool table or smoke trailing from a cigarette—another illustration of the impermanence of experience—just as interesting as the characters. Hou wants us to pay attention to everything.

What is going on outside of these spaces is inflicting tremendous pressure on these cool characters. The war that threatens to separate the lovers permanently is also largely responsible for the particulars of their romance, for Taiwan is assisting the US in the conflict, and American pop music is playing in the pool hall. It’s as if they’ve stumbled into a blissful limbo. Chen will leave, and there will be love letters. Their reunion contains no lines worth quoting, but the expressions and awkward silences are a joy to behold. We know how much they cherish these moments together.

The questions we’re inclined to ask will probably never be answered. What matters is the dance, and how love plays in 1966, in contrast with all that is yet to come.

By contrast, the second chapter—“A Time for Freedom”—is about how the manners, gestures, and dialogue of 1911 cloaked just as much emotion, while differing forces threatened true love from beyond.

Mr. Chang (Chang Chen again) is drawn to a courtesan (Shu Qi again). But instead of a war, it’s the tension between China and Japan during deliberations about governing Taiwan that threatens to interrupt and complicate love.

Chang and Shu Qi come back again for “A Time for Youth,” the third and final chapter. Set in 2005, it follows Zhen and Jing, a photographer and a rock singer apparently in love. But what kind of love is this?

They speed through the world on Zhen’s motorcycle. Around them, the city seems a ruin, the past out of view behind the mess, the present suspended, empty, hungry for meaning. They seem despondent, disengaged, distracted even in intimacy. They may be free of the constraints and responsibilities of the lovers in the first two chapters, but what has freedom given them? They’re rebellious, but against what?

I suspect they don’t even know. They lash out against this life that lacks so much, that has no past or expectation of them. They’re obsessed with creating nostalgia about a present that they don’t know how to engage. They take photographs as if eager to apprehend in images meaning that they cannot discern in the midst of those moments. They come to life in their creativity—Jing in her attention-seeking rock-show gyrations and Zhen in his photography. They want to see and be seen.

Jing is blind in one eye, an all-too-obvious metaphor for a lack of vision in these urban youth. Alienated and self-absorbed, they’ve lost their ability to see in dimensions, and are left staring at the flat surfaces of the moments they’ve preserved.

In a Los Angeles Times interview, Bob Dylan once said, “Nostalgia is death.” Perhaps that explains the chill that runs through “A Time for Youth.”

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This sense of having lost touch with something wonderful gone by, of being lost far from home—is a recurring theme in Hou’s work. It begins to make sense when we read about his life.

Born in China’s Guangdong province in 1947, Hou was taken with his family to Taiwan to catch up with his father who had moved there. His father intended to take the family back to China after 1949, but wartime had changed things. They couldn’t go back. And Hou never has.

His films have not been popular there, either. Perhaps his clear vision of the effects of industrial capitalism make him too unsettling. Or perhaps he’s just too slow and meditative for a culture saturated with frantic, sensationalistic media. In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, Hou described Taiwanese moviegoing culture by saying, “Art movies and commercial movies are (considered) opposites…. It’s like they hate each other.”

Nevertheless, international film critics surveyed by the Village Voice and Film Comment heralded Hou as the 1990s’ “Director of the Decade.” Several documentaries and tributes have been produced. But the Chinese government does not support Hou’s films. His funding comes from other cultures where his genius is appreciated.

Americans couldn’t find Hou’s films in theaters if they tried. But if they’re not careful, the style of eastern masters will find them.

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Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Beyond

 

In the last twenty years, no one has done more to influence American cinema with eastern style than Ang Lee, another prominent artist from Taiwan.

Lee has charted an intriguing course, bringing a distinctly Chinese sensibility to English and American storytelling. After graduating from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975, Lee came to the US and studied filmmaking at the University of Illinois and at New York University. He was an assistant to Spike Lee for a while, then moved on to making his own films. His trilogy of Chinese movies (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman) earned him raves from critics around the world, and won an enthusiastic reception from western audiences due to his accessible, engaging style and his subtle flair for comedy.

When he turned to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, his soft-spoken version of the novel earned a Best Picture nomination. Lee had captured enough drama, humor, and romance to make period-piece enthusiasts swoon, but had the patience to move slowly and appreciate the eloquence of a curtain wavering in the wind.

The Ice Storm, my personal favorite of Lee’s films, led to a Criterion Collection edition. Rick Moody’s novel considered the consequences of late-sixties ideology and individualism for the American family. That fit nicely with Lee’s interest in stories about the tension between repressive social structures and the passions of the heart. Since then, most of his films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk; Brokeback Mountain; and Lust, Caution—have all portrayed emotions and convictions that overpower people, breaking apart marriages, families, and communities. (Hulk broke apart everything within reach.)

Of these, I would argue that Crouching Tiger, Lee’s Chinese martial-arts epic, was most influential. It introduced western audiences to a more artful form of action, in which duels play out like dances. And it paved the way for another Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, in America. Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers went on to enjoy high-profile releases across the US. They stand among the most visually enthralling films to play on American screens in the last few decades.

Moreover, Lee and Zhang’s films made Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Chow Yun Fat into stars so popular they began appearing in established American action series like Rush Hour, James Bond, and Batman. We cannot ignore the influence of popular Hong Kong action films, shootout maestro John Woo, and the crossover success of martial-arts star Jackie Chan, on commercial American movies. But Lee and Zhang proved that mainstream Americans could get used to subtlety. And subtitles.

Even as Lee was winning accolades, a new generation of American filmmakers began demonstrating surprising skill and eloquence with contemplative styles—David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), Jacob Aaron Estes (Mean Creek), Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), Lance Hammer (Ballast), and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), to name a few. Each shows an interest in environment, texture, and pacing that suggests they’ve been watching Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World) and, I suspect, a lot of Asian cinema.

Accepting an award, Jim Jarmusch, the Zen master of American art films, called Hou Hsiao-hsien his “teacher.”

Young Sofia Coppola has developed a style that has more in common with Hou and Yang than her father’s famously violent visions. The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation (perhaps the finest “Tokyo Story” yet made by an American), and Marie Antoinette drift along in a meditative melancholy that feels distinctly eastern.

My favorite film of 2009 so far is a story set in Africa, told by an American film student who grew up in Korea. Lee Isaac Chung traveled to Rwanda to capture a story of two young boys—one from the Hutu, one from the Tutsi—whose unlikely, fragile friendship is tested during a journey across that war-torn country. It’s called Munyurangabo, and it demonstrates a patience and power of observation remarkable considering Chung’s youth. Film Movement is distributing it with a limited theatrical release and a DVD release this summer.

All of these gifted artists seem to embrace an idea that film critic Kent Jones names in his Senses of Cinema essay “Parametric Narration and Optical Transition Devices: Hou Hsiao-hsien and Robert Bresson in Comparison”:

The ancient Chinese aesthetic concept of liu-pai—allowing what’s visible within the frame to open out in the mind of the viewer onto the world that extends beyond its parameters….

This kind of apprehension captures a greater truth. It opens, as e. e. cummings once wrote, “the eyes of our eyes.” We’re invited to consider relationships and connections that give us a healthy, humble perspective.

But there’s the rub: We’re invited, not compelled. Great artists beckon quietly for us to discover the truth of a matter, instead of baiting us with candy and prizes and frantic, sensational energy. When we pull our tires out of the deep ruts of mainstream highways, we just might make some eye-opening discoveries on the art-house back roads.

We might find our gaze begin to stray during the rest of our day as well, as if drawn by a meandering balloon. We might start noticing the backs of people’s heads, or notice beauty in the dance of billiard balls across a table. We might step back to see the world around us, breaking out of the small frames that mainstream entertainment has placed around our lives.

It occurs to me that this is something like the fullness of the psalmist’s vision. For David, a man acquainted with the hardships of shepherding livestock and governing a kingdom, the most relevant and necessary visions were those that allowed creation itself to speak into a situation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”

Some of these big screen artists I’m enjoying seem to assume that things like sky, wind, and grass are speaking into the circumstances on the screen. If only we had eyes to see what skies proclaim, and ears to hear such speech. Maybe we can learn. Maybe they can teach us.

Speaking of the heavens­­—the pilot has just turned on the Fasten Seatbelts sign. I’d better wrap this up.

Standard-issue cinema still flickers on small bright squares throughout the plane, but James Bond is paralyzed and Adam Sandler is stuck. The pilot has paused the presentations so he can give us instructions.

During the speech, people begin to push up their shades. Windows light up like movie screens from the front to the back of the plane, revealing bright views of sky, clouds, unfamiliar horizons, and hints of a world that’s new to me coming into view below.

Time to pry ourselves out of these confining quarters, adjust our eyes to the light, and explore.

 


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