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.

Hou was born in April 1947 in mainland China, into a Hakka community in Guangdong. His father was an educator who got a job in Taiwan in 1947, before the million-strong exodus that followed the defeat of the kmt armies in the Civil War. The family settled in the small town of Fengshan in the south, where they soon blended into the majority community, Minnan-speakers of Fujianese origin. But his ancestral culture remained a strong element in Hou’s upbringing. The Hakka were an itinerant group who over centuries migrated from the northern Yellow River to the Pearl River delta in the south of China. Their name means ‘guest family’, a term conveying the plight and pride of perennial migrants, who became known for their tenacity and ferocious sense of independence—an invincible will to survive every calamity, and embrace what life can bring—that would have a very strong bearing on Hou’s outlook. Growing up, he was always aware of his family’s identification as ‘guests’ in Taiwan, amid makeshift bamboo furniture befitting their supposedly temporary status and bewildered attempts by his grandmother to walk back to her native village on the mainland. But as an adolescent he would successfully root himself in the hybrid local culture of southern Taiwan in the 1950s.

Not a very diligent student, Hou discovered cinema at an early age as an irresistible escape route from small-town life. After spending hours in movie houses on his limited days off during military service—the obligatory sequel to high school under the kmt dictatorship—he decided to pursue a career in the cinema and spent three years (1969–72) at the National College of Arts, the only film school on the island. After a short stint as a calculator salesman, he got a job in the industry and started climbing its ladder, doing all kinds of odd jobs in the studio, learning every craft, and gradually working his way up to become an economically viable director. This period of his life (1972–82) is usually neglected by critics, and Hou himself has spoken of it as the vicarious existence of a factory worker in the commercial film machine. But it was by no means an irrelevant experience in the development of some of the most distinctive features of his later artistry.

Under kmt rule, only three kinds of movies could be made: propaganda films extolling traditional moral virtues; military epics blaring the dream of ‘Recovering the Mainland’, made by the regime’s own film company; or escapist popular genres, produced by private companies—principally martial arts or romantic tragic-comedies, featuring matinée idols falling in and out of artificial love and streamlined sets. In this period the cottage film industry of Taiwan, however low the quality of its output, became a substantial exporter, at its height producing as many as 300 films a year, with distribution throughout Southeast Asia. The so-called ‘Three Lounges’ form—called after the living-room, dining-room and bedroom required for all standard romances—helped build up a thriving movie business, whose heyday came in the early 70s. But its foundations were always fragile, since kmt censorship and political uncertainty—the regime still claimed it was about to return to the mainland—deterred long-term investment in the private sector, leaving the field to short-term profiteers under whose opportunistic guidelines Taiwan’s film industry eventually ground itself to a pulp. When audiences responded by deserting the box office, more resourceful producers re-invested their money in the Hong Kong industry, while the remaining local companies intensified their penny-pinching ways. After domestic production values had plummeted and imports of American and Hong Kong movies—later Korean television serials—taken most of the market, state subsidies were introduced in 1989 to try to remedy the situation, much too late. By the 90s, the entire film economy had virtually collapsed. In some years annual output dropped to single figures. Today, the only films made in Taiwan rely on hit-and-run money from subsidies or, for a privileged few, investment from abroad.

Hou’s first three films (1980–82), all released for the New Year holidays, were made while the recipes of star aura and popular song promotion still set the parameters of studio output. But in the badlands of this commercial cinema lie the origins of some of the peculiar blossoms of Hou’s mature style. The less than satisfactory efforts of pop idols and ill-trained actors led Hou to pay attention to quotidian details and peripheral elements of the action—his camera looking away from centre-stage, when the main characters failed to deliver a natural performance, for emotional interest elsewhere. For much the same reasons, improvisation at the location gradually became normal, sometimes obviating scripts and rehearsals altogether. In time Hou would just give actors a situation or a mood before shooting and let them work out a natural response to it, as if the camera were invisible. Ignoring Diderot’s paradox, Hou’s actors often had to get drunk in reality if the story-line called for it. The long takes and distant shots that were to become a signature of his films also have their origin in problems Hou met in this commercial period. To avoid disturbing inexperienced actors who tended to become self-conscious in front of camera, Hou would station it far away from them, and let it roll for as long as it took for them to ‘get into the character’—in reaction against the constantly interrupted takes, making for fragmented and flattened performances, typical of studio productions of the time.

Meanwhile, wider cultural changes were coming to a head in Taiwan. The 70s had seen the emergence of an influential literary school of ‘Native Soil’ writers, advocating use of the local Minnan dialect instead of the mainland Mandarin imposed by the kmt regime, and depicting small people living in hardship on the fringes of a society dominated by the official culture. Native Soil writing affected the sensibility of an entire generation, and in awakening among the Taiwanese a respect for their own culture, and disenchanting them with the kmt’s ideology of ‘returning to the mainland’, had a lasting political impact. The movement had its pitfalls—its subject matter and character choices eventually became limiting—but it played its part in the origins of democracy in Taiwan. Hou took its message with a pinch of salt: one of the commercial romps for which he was assistant director, Battle Between the Sexes (1978), makes fun of extreme nativist writers who—unable to find matching ideograms for the exact sound of Taiwanese colloquialisms—invented onomatopoeias for them to often ludicrous effect. But his change of cultural direction in 1983 cannot be understood without it.

By this time, official institutions were themselves having to adjust to new external realities. American recognition of the prc in 1979 threatened international isolation for the kmt. Among other measures to ward off this danger, the regime liberalized its film policy. In 1980 a capable new chief, Ming Ji, was appointed to head the state-run Central Motion Picture Corporation, and set out to recruit fresh talent. His hires included a young writer from a Native Soil background, Wu Nien-jen, who promptly commissioned work from Yang and Hou. It was essentially their contributions to a couple of omnibus films produced by the cmpc, the episode Yang made for In Our Times (1982) and Hou made for The Sandwichman (1983), that launched Taiwanese New Cinema. Each owed something to the local literary naturalism. But after a long period of hibernation under the kmt’s white terror, the cultural environment of Taiwan was now like a burgeoning garden, wakening and warming up to all kinds of ideas and influences, many from abroad. It was out of the cross-fertilization of these that Taiwanese New Cinema suddenly budded. Film school graduates trained in the us were returning home, ready to make waves. New journals of performing arts and films, including Ju Chang (Theater) and Ying Xiang (Influence), translated a host of theoretical articles. The arrival of vhs and Betamax opened up the viewing of Japanese and European art house and independent films. A sense of camaraderie and excitement at the prospect of creating a new kind of cinema bubbled among the future Truffauts and Godards. In this company of greenhorn enthusiasts, Hou was an anomaly. He had scarcely heard of French directors, his idea of foreign movies having been mostly classical Hollywood narratives, interspersed with a few Japanese imports. On the other hand, unlike most of his new friends who had never made a film before, he was a veteran of three money-making features, with a decade of experience in the industry behind him. At first he was ambivalent about whether the route of art cinema would suit him at all.