My Introduction to Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure to experience films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I say experience, because I didn't feel like I was just watching his films. I felt like I was transported into his world, his thoughts and engulfed by some of the most beautifully composed films. Also the films were all screened on 35mm which was just glorious to see.

It was the first time I watch films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it was part of a retrospective "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien" at the BFI in London, which ran between 2nd September - 6th October 2015. Sadly, I only caught the last week of the restrospective, and I am now on a mission to see the rest of his films, preferably on the big screen.

Earlier this year, Hou Hsiao-Hsien won Best Director for his film The Assassin at Cannes. The film screened at the BFI London Film Festival, but sadly my schedule didn't allow me to see it. But I found out it will be coming to the Dubai International Film Festival in December which I am really, really, REALLY looking forward to.

Here are the films in the order I watched them in London.

Millennium Mambo / Qianxi Manbo
Taiwan-France 2001. Dir Hou Hsiao- Hsien. With Shu Qi, Jack Kao, Duan Junhao. 105min. Film. Mandarin, Japanese with EST

Shu Qi (star of this year’s The Assassin) makes her first, radiant appearance in a film by Hou playing Vicky, night-blooming denizen of Taipei’s rave scene. She’s under the thumb of an ultra-possessive boyfriend and keeps promising herself that she’ll break free – but her plan relies on help from a gangster with problems of his own. This is Hou at his most rhapsodic.

The opening scene is hypnotic. Absolutely hypnotic.

Flight of the Red Balloon / Le Voyage du ballon rouge
France-Taiwan 2007. Dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Juliette Binoche, Song Fang, Hippolyte Girardot. 115min. Film. French, Mandarin with EST. PG

Shot in Paris with a largely French cast, Hou’s mysterious tribute to the Albert Lamorisse classic The Red Balloon stars Juliette Binoche as a puppeteer working on a Chinese play – and hiring a Chinese child-minder to keep an eye on her young son. Human relationships never run smooth in Hou’s films, but the balloon plays a benign role in bringing people together.

Café Lumière / Kohi Jikou / Kafei Shiguang
Japan 2003. Dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Hitoto Yo, Asano Tadanobu, Hagiwara Masato. 103min. Film. EST. U

Invited to make a centenary homage to Ozu, Hou came up with this hallucinatory picture of young singletons in Tokyo. Yoko devotes her time to researching a pre-war composer; her platonic friend Hajime sells second- hand books and roves Tokyo’s vast rail network. Plotless but crammed with resonant incident, the film muses on the ‘Starbucks generation,’ time and light.

Flowers of Shanghai / Hai Shang Hua
Taiwan-Japan 1998. Dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Tony Leung, Carina Lau, Rebecca Pan. 113min. Film. Shanghainese, Cantonese with EST


Hou’s druggiest film (much opium is smoked) explores the manners and mores of a closed world: the ‘flower houses’ or brothels of late-19thcentury Shanghai. Civil servant Wang (Leung) is an interloper here, causing trouble by shifting from one woman to another. Hou’s dream-like study of these opulent enclaves is interrupted by one (crucial) point-of-view shot.

This film is mesmerising to watch. An intricate film that had my eyes glued to the screen the entire time. The characters, the costumes, the set, the dialogue, what was happening on and even off the screem made it one of the 'richest' films I've seen. A masterpiece. Here's a scene from the film. 

Three Times / Zuihao de Shiguang
Taiwan-France 2005. Dir Hou Hsiao-Hsien. With Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Mei Fang. 116min. Film. Mandarin, Taiwanese with EST. 12A

The times are 1966, 1911 and 2005, and what happens in each is that two possible or actual lovers – played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen – go through the ups and downs of a romance. 1966 is the most romantic episode, rooted in Hou’s memories of pool-halls and The Platters; 1911 is a pastiche silent movie, and 2005 is a darker coda to Millennium Mambo.

This is Museum of Moving Image's trailer for the "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien" retrospective which took place in New York last year.

If you're interested to know more about Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films, read this piece on BFI on where to start when it comes to watchng his films.

The retrospective will continue in the following cities:

Hou Hsiao-Hsien on IMDB and Wikipedia.