Halftime Leisure

Also Like Life Highlights Lauded Taiwanese Filmmaker

November 5, 2014

This past Sunday marked the beginning of the DC run of Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a retrospective on the work of the internationally admired Taiwanese filmmaker. Often cited as a crucial member of the Taiwanese New Wave, Hou has become well-known for his unusual approach to storytelling and the uniquely Taiwanese subject matter he tackles in many of his films, such as A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster. The retrospective, hosted in DC by the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the National Gallery of Art, and the AFI Silver Theater, is showcasing all seventeen of the director’s films with the goal of bringing attention to his relatively little-known works, several of which are not easily available to the average filmgoer. Though his works are frequently weighty affairs–for Hou, happy endings are the exception–they are also poetic and richly constructed, often mixing sweeping historicity with intimate personal drama to great effect. Truly, his films are truly some of the most valuable cinematic gems of our time, worthy of the attention of a major retrospective.

The retrospective begins with Dust in the Wind, a story of young love in a time of economic and political change. Released in 1986, Dust was the final installment in Hou’s Coming of Age trilogy, preceded by Summer at Grandpa’s and A Time to Live, A Time to Die, and is based largely on the youthful experience of screenwriter Wu Nien-jen. It follows a young man, Wan, and woman, Huen, who decide that instead of pursuing further schooling (Huen at least finished high school), they will move from the countryside to Taipei to work. Huen finds work as a seamstress and Wan lands a courier job, and for a while their optimistic romance motivates them to keep going, keeping them together even through a devastating motorcycle theft and a long period of sickness. However,Wan reaches his most desperate moment during a retreat to his hometown as he is drafted into the army, testing his relationship with Huen to the extreme.  Dust is concerned with that thing which strains all youthful love affairs, time, which despite Wan and Huen’s best efforts, rolls onward as surely as the train emerging from a tunnel in the film’s memorable opening shot. The burden of history is localized to Wan and Huen’s doomed romance, showing how the political machinations of governments and militaries ultimately affect even the most unremarkable of people – a theme that will mark Hou’s later works as well.

Serving as the second half of a double-feature with (and palate- cleansing counterpoint to) Dust in the Wind is one of Hou’s earlier commercial works, The Green, Green Grass of Home. Here presented in a 16mm film projection (truly a novel experience in 2014), Green, Green Grass was the last of Hou’s romantic comedies starring Hong Kong pop star Kenny Bee, which formed an early basis for his career. The film is set in a rural town in Taiwan, where Ta-Nien (Bee) comes to act as a substitute teacher at the local grade school. As he adjusts to small town life, he begins to pursue a romance with fellow schoolteacher Su-Yuen and helps to establish a nature preserve at the town’s stream. Of equal significance to Ta-Nien’s experience, however, are the stories of his students – dealing with teasing, causing mischief, struggling with schoolwork, trying to cope with divorce. There’s not so much an overarching story here as there are several (usually quite charming) vignettes about childhood and young adult life, ultimately affirming the importance of protecting the environment and the damaging effects of bullying. If Green, Green Grass is a less substantial work than Dust in the Wind, it is at least a pleasant one, offering light entertainment and allowing the director to find a voice that would become so vital in the coming years and decades.

The schedule for the rest of Also Like Life is as follows:

Sunday, November 9 (Freer and Sackler Galleries):

The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), 1:00pm

A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), 3:30pm

Saturday, November 15 (AFI Silver Theater):

A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), 12:15pm

Sunday, November 16 (F&S):

Daughter of the Nile (1987), 2:00pm

Friday, November 21 (F&S):

Three Times (2005), 7:00pm

Saturday, November 22 (AFI):

Café Lumière (2003), 11:45am

Sunday, November 23 (AFI):

The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), 11:45am

Thursday, December 4 (Goethe-Institut):

A City of Sadness (1989), 6:30pm

Saturday, December 6 (Goethe):

Cute Girl (1980), 1:00pm

Cheerful Wind (1981), 2:30pm

Sunday, December 7 (F&S):

The Puppetmaster (1993), 2:00pm

Friday, December 12 (F&S):

Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996), 7:00pm

Saturday, December 13 (Goethe):

Good Men, Good Women (1995), 2:00pm

Sunday, December 14 (F&S):

Flowers of Shanghai (1998), 2:00pm

Sunday, December 21 (F&S):

Millennium Mambo (2001), 2:00pm

Photo: Lifestyle

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