Early Hou Hsaio-hsien: Three Films 1980-1983
“Success is elusive. Something lost is difficult to find. Progress takes time.”
That quote comes from the last film on Eureka Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-Ray collection of early Hou Hsaio-Hsien films, 1983’s The Boys From Fengkuei. After watching all three films in the set, it’s hard not to interpret it as Hou commenting on his own career to date. He did not emerge fully-formed as the director of modern arthouse classics like Flight of the Red Balloon and Millennium Mambo. He had a long apprenticeship directing small-scale comedies and dramas, over the course of which he discovered his distinctive voice.
So this isn’t a set for people who’ve heard of Hou and want to see what the fuss is all about. Like most early years collections, a large part of the pleasure comes from seeing the artist gradually become more like himself and less like his inspirations. In part, the development comes from absorbing those influences. The Boys From Fengkuei includes scenes where characters watch films that have made an impression on Hou – Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Jackie Chan in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. It also feels most in tune with his later work, opening with a shadowy, wistfully scored game of pool that could have come straight out of his later masterpiece Three Times.
The development in Hou’s directorial ability across these three films can be measured out in three ways – formal, tonal and collaborative. Of the latter, it’s significant that The Boys From Fengkuei is the first of his films to be written by Chu Tien-Wen, a vital collaborator who still scripts his films today. It also features Grace Chen Shu-Fang and Doze Niu Cheng-Tse in the cast, both of whom would go on to work multiple times with Hou. By contrast, the earlier two films, Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home, were conceived as vehicles for the Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee.
Bee isn’t bad in these films. His relationship with Fong Fei-Fei in Cute Girl doesn’t exactly crackle with chemistry, but they’re both likeable and watchable individually. He also exhibits a pleasing lack of vanity. Both of his roles here are far from glamorous – a construction worker in Cute Girl, a schoolteacher in The Green Green Grass of Home – and in the latter, he appears with plasters all over his face after being beaten up. Cute Girl is entirely fluffy stuff, but The Green Green Grass of Home definitely has a darker edge, and its depiction of one of the children’s physically abusive father is chilling without being sensationalistic.
Cute Girl, also known as Loveable You, is probably the weakest film in the collection. It’s not devoid of pointers to the future, but it also contains a lot of elements Hou would rightly reject. Its narrative is so driven by songs it almost feels like a musical, an idea which Hou would return to in his later career. It also features a slapstick scene where a man chases a disobedient goose, an idea he wouldn’t return to in his later career. Overall it makes a fairly strong case that comedy isn’t the director’s natural territory, but it also features some formal eccentricities that other film-makers wouldn’t consider including in such a simple romantic story. One scene ends with a zoom in to a lampshade, and the opening scenes observing the characters’ behaviour and tics point the way ahead to the subtler romantic dramas he would go on to create.
Again, each film in the collection shows a major formal development to match the increasingly melancholy tone and slow gathering of key collaborators. This can only be ascribed to Hou’s increasing confidence: Cute Girl and The Boys From Fengkuei are both shot by Chen Kun-Hou, yet the latter is clearly closer to Hou’s mature style. As Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López in their video essays included in the extras, the visual difference between those two films is largely down to Hou telling his cinematographer to step further away from the action, creating a prototype of the Ozu-inspired style Hou still practices today.
All three films look sunny, colourful and attractive, particularly in these Blu-Ray transfers (the one for The Boys From Fengkuei is supervised by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation). They’re all affable viewing experiences; even Cute Girl, once the sometimes clumsy humour fades from the memory, leaves a pleasant aftertaste. It’s just that The Boys From Fengkuei feels like the start of something big. During the aforementioned scene where characters watch Rocco and His Brothers, Hou includes a flashback to an accident one of them had in his earlier life. He keeps the soundtrack of Visconti’s film going over the flashback, though, then cuts back to the cinema. It’s a truly haunting moment – distinctive, cine-literate, melancholy. The road to The Assassin starts here.