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Keelung Reflections: Hou Hsiao Hsien, the Master of Nostalgic Cinema

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A stationary camera, few movements of the actors and a posed rhythm, these are the peculiarities of Hou Hsiao Hsien, one of the most important directors of Taiwanese cinema who often chose Keelung as the ideal place to place his lens.

Hou was born in 1947 in Guandong, mainland China, and moved to Taiwan shortly afterwards. The untimely death of his father and later of his mother forced him into a difficult childhood and adolescence, during which he found his only escape route in street gangs and violence. The turning point came during his three years of military service, when he almost magically approached the seventh art and fell madly in love with it. On his return to the capital, he attended the School of Dramatic Art and, after completing numerous jobs of all kinds, thanks to the CPCS, he got the coveted chance to sit behind the camera.

keelung nostalgia

(Millennium Mambo, 千禧曼波, 2001)

Different process as a young director

During the 1970s, a desire to approach a new style was beginning to take hold among Taiwanese directors, and thanks to the many young people who had returned from film training in the West, the island discovered the Nouvelle Vague. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s process, however, is different. Not having had the same opportunities as his peers, he took advantage of his collaboration with the production company to test himself and learn the art in the field. His early works are presented in a rough style, but have in their soul the seed of future trials. The scenes are characterized by elegance and restraint, in which the silence of the characters blends perfectly with the power that only Taiwanese nature can offer. The camera, fixed on the actors expertly placed on the set, gives us true pictures, through which we cannot but identify, tiptoeing into these stories as if not wanting to disturb the inexorable flow of the lives told on the screen.

Over the years, with an almost unstoppable flow of work, Hou has the opportunity to rehearse and experiment, improve his technique, make the direction of the actors more effective and surround himself with an established crew and friends with whom to work. Added to this is an increasing desire to tell more complex stories, often related to his own life.

With recurrence, the lives recounted are those of young people who choose to migrate from rural settings to large metropolises (as in the case of The Boys of Feng Kuei, 風櫃來的人) or vice versa, of young people escaping the obligations imposed by capitalist society towards a bucolic reality, close to the needs of childhood (in Cute Girl, 就是溜溜的她, or The green, green grass of home, 在那河畔青草青). We see alternating light-hearted tales with more complex stories of uncertainty about the future, glimpses of teenage freedom and the rebellion of youth against stifling family choices.

Hou Hsiao Hsien Won the Golden Lion

These years of experience allowed the director to mature, to make a name for himself and to break the barrier between western and eastern cinema, thus collecting various awards, but it was in 1989 that he made history. With the release of City of Sadness (悲情城市), Hou Hsiao Hsien won the Golden Lion at the 46th Venice International Film Festival.

A scene from Hou Hsiao Hsien's City of Sadness

(City of Sadness, 悲情城市, 1989)

Nostalgia: Between Memories and the Present

Through this film, Hou condenses the events that characterized the years between 1945 and 1949, when, with the surrender of Japan and the end of its yoke on the island, Taiwan returned to China. During these years, the nationalists, after the war that pitted them against Mao’s communists, retreated to the island of Taiwan and carried out a real colonization of the land inhabited by the locals. They repressed more than 10,000 political opponents in February 1947 and implemented martial law in 1948 banning political demonstrations, organizations and also prohibiting the use of the Taiwanese language.

Without flaws, the director paints the scenes using the mastery he has accumulated over the years. The fixed camera, by now an inescapable sign of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s narrative poetics, seals the moments of the Lin family, in particular of the four brothers Wen-ching, Wen-sun, Wen-hung and Wen-leung. Here again, the director examines stories of suffering, portraying a family that is destroyed over the years, playing with nostalgia between melancholic memories and the often disappointing and painful present.

The balance between the violence of the narrated story and the scenic distance induced by the sequence plans, fixed shots and depth of field, creates a magic in which the spectator observes, almost from a distance and with a sense of calm, a reality that may have faded, but is still present in Taiwanese memory.

The events of the film are also set in Jiufen, an ancient town developed on a hill 40 minutes away from Keelung. Even today, the alleys of this urban centre are characterised by narrow shopping streets, long stairways and paths through green forests, often revealing breathtaking views of the country’s north-eastern coastline.

From here, his career definitely exploded; Flowers of Shanghai, The Puppetmaster, Millennium Mambo (where we can see the protagonist move across the famous Zhongshan Bridge in Keelung), are just some of his best-known films, often recognized with nominations and awards at the world’s biggest film festivals. 2015 saw the release of his latest work, The Assassin, with which he won the Best Director award at the 68th Cannes Film Festival.

Hou Hsiao Hsien officially declared in September 2023 that he would give up filmmaking due to worsening Alzheimer’s disease. After decades of masterpieces marked by remembrance, the idyll of childhood and hope for a bright future, we console ourselves that his memory is forever etched on his much-loved films.

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