If Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese director, hailed from the west, he would be more widely known as one of the world’s foremost film-makers. Even so, his films have extraordinary currency on the festival circuit and have received top prizes at Venice, Cannes and Berlin, the three major European festivals. They have also been shown in art houses in at least 40 countries. His is a major voice, even if it is often drowned out by the clamour of more commercial talents.
In a way this is Hou’s own fault. After making two or three superbly attractive early films, he became interested not only in the political and social intricacies of Taiwanese history, but in new and complicated narrative forms. This made his work more difficult to penetrate, even for his own countrymen. Despite that, Flowers of Shanghai, the last film of his that was presented at Cannes, was described by the Guardian’s Richard Williams as worth all the rest of the programme put together.
The Time to Live and the Time to Die (a terrible English title, possibly based on the Douglas Sirk film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die) was Hou’s second film to reach the west after the charming A Summer at Grandpa’s and, like that film, was semi-autobiographical. In 1947, a man and his family leave the Chinese mainland and settle in a village in Taiwan. When the revolution comes, they decide to remain. The film spans several years of their life, recalled through the childhood of Ah-Ha-Gu, probably at least partly Hou himself.
The style of this family saga is spare and simple but eloquence itself. Dotty old Grandma walks down a winding road, thinking she will soon reach her old home in China; the boy grows older and instead of playing marbles and listening to stories of the old days becomes a young man trying to prove himself on the streets. There are several sequences of amazing emotional power, such as the moment when the young man’s father dies and he walks into the room, completely devastated by his first meeting with mortality.
The honesty and truth of this and other similar passages manage to summon up this little microcosm of the world perfectly. And that world succeeds in reflecting the larger universe outside, in the same way that Satyajit Ray’s Apu stories did. Everything is right: the miraculous use of sound, the limpid cinematography, the natural acting create an atmosphere you can’t forget.
People have often compared the earlier Hou to Ray and also to Ozu. But he has always claimed that he never saw the work of those directors, at least not at the time. Perhaps it is simply that great film-makers tend to think alike. The fact is, however, that he is very much his own man, ploughing a lonely furrow, even in Taiwan. But after City of Sadness won the Golden Lion at Venice, the Taiwanese government began to regard him as their blue-riband director, despite seldom understanding his pictures, and sometimes objecting to their clear-eyed political content.
Hou went on to make more audaciously structured films like the magisterial The Puppetmaster, the true story of a famous old folk artist. And Flowers of Shanghai was certainly one of the most visually satisfying you could wish to see. But his style is now more minimalist and more introspective. The Time to Live and the Time to Die is one of his simplest films, and one of his most universal.