In Taiwanese cinema, there are few filmmakers who tap into the topic of Taiwanese identification. Hou Hsiaohsien and Tsai Mingliang both had dwelt into the introspective realm of ID in a different way.
Both filmmakers point out the desperation and perhaps the degradation of Taiwanese culture. Tsai explores the lost souls of the city life while Hou explores the earthy aspects of the country life. In Tsai's early films, Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and Vive L'Amour (1996), he expressed the decadence of the city folks, soulless corps wandering the streets of Taipei. He depicts the emptiness and hopelessness of relationships in the big city. Hou Hsiaohsien started with his film career with films based on the country lives of Taiwan. From his Boys from Fengkuei (1983) to A Time to Live and A Time to Cry (1985), he had based his films on the nostalgia of the past. He portrays the scenes and characters as a semi-documentary, slow and real. Hou bases his films on memory and experience while Tsai bases his films on observance and evaluation. Both filmmakers' styles are slow and painstaking. While Hou's slowness is stage like, static with few camera angles, Tsai is a painting that frames the individual shots. Both styles leave the audience anticipating for movements in each scene while the films are gruelingly slow. One needs time and space for contemplation, and both filmmakers allow us to have plenty of both.
The film that bought Hou Hsiaohsien to international attention, City of Sadness (1989) and also the first Taiwanese film that won an international award, was a film about the Taiwanese struggle under the occupation of the Nationalist Chinese. In the Puppetmaster (1993), Hou's style became more distinctive which proceeded throughout his later works. His style became more stage-like. He will have a static camera shot for 5 min. long that portraits the scene with no close-ups. In Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), which will be shown at the Walter Read theater in January 2002, he dwelt into the Taiwanese underworld, the gangster life where the lost youths and adults are forever trapped in a bottomless pit and the only way out is death. Perhaps, this film is closest to Tsai Mingliang's topics, but, Tsai would not use broad characters such as gangsters or a filming crew to fight against the world as in Hou's Good Men, Good Women (1995). He uses small characters such as one person versus the world. The story evolves around the character in an almost mythical way. Bizarre happenings in an usual setting such as a family death in What Time is it there? (2001) and The Hole (1998), a beautiful and surreal film about the end of the world. Tsai explores taboos such as The River (1997), it is about a stoic relationship between father and son who are bought closer together by an unusual event. His film is morbidly truthful. One certainly leaves the theater with a feeling of regurgitation and fulfillment, because his films will haunt you in weeks to come. Hou's film haunts in a different way. The lavish images, realistic dialogues, will appear involuntarily in one's mind.
Both Tsai Mingliang and Hou Hsiaohsien are two masters from Taiwan. Their films reveal the superficiality of Taiwanese life and the psyche of the people. One can say that they are the Bergman and Tarkovsky of Taiwan, but because the films are embedded with Taiwanese culture, they become unique in their very own way.
R.S. Lee December 31, 2001