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New Left Review 39, May-June 2006


With City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, Hou Hsiao-Hsien established the landmarks of Taiwan’s New Cinema—distinguished by aesthetic distance and break with political taboo. Chen traces the origins of Hou’s achievement to a mixture of an apprenticeship in commercial film, a unique synthesis of islander and high-modern culture, and impartial sympathy for those caught up in history’s storm.

LEO CHANJEN CHEN

CINEMA, DREAM, EXISTENCE

The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Now widely regarded as Asia’s greatest living director, author of an extensive oeuvre—some nineteen films to date—Hou Hsiao-Hsien remains nonetheless one of the least understood figures in world cinema. Frequent awards at film festivals—Nantes, Berlin, Venice, Cannes—did not immediately catapult him to international attention; while at home in Taiwan his reception has been strangely lethargic and unbalanced. The films that have made him famous are a high art more exacting, and elliptical, in its forms than those of his equally gifted contemporary Edward Yang. Yet unlike the latter, or perhaps any other director of comparable reputation, Hou is the product of a decade of activity at the lowest rungs of commercial cinema, and the two halves of his career are not unrelated. Never having spent any extended period outside the island, he is a more purely Taiwanese master than Yang—not to speak of Hollywood’s jack-of-all-trades Ang Lee—and his achievement can be grasped only in its setting, the complex development of Taiwanese society since the Second World War.

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