The complete retrospective features new 35-mm prints and introductions from film scholars.
TIFF Cinematheque begins its 2015 programming on an auteurist note with Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a complete run of films by the acclaimed Taiwanese master. Running until early March, the retrospective is an opportunity for Toronto cinephiles to acquaint themselves with the career of one of the most consistently moving major filmmakers in world cinema, via new 35-mm prints and introductions by scholars such as Richard Suchenski.
For novices hoping to get a taste of Hou’s style and thematic interests, the best place to start might be 1987’s Dust in the Wind. The film is an unfussy, humane, and melancholic observation of two teens in a mining village who set out for Taipei in hopes of earning enough money to send home and to marry. With its delicate oscillation between the crushing, laser-precise look at alienating city work and the lyrical pockets of time before and after, it’s quintessential Hou.
Those with a bit more grit might wish to take in City of Sadness, a deeply affecting look at Taiwan’s gradual takeover by right-wing nationalists following the close of WWII. Featuring one of Tony Leung’s best performances, he plays a deaf photographer trying to find his way in an increasingly unfamiliar world. The film is strong, sobering stuff, and densely layers family drama. For our money it’s one of the best historical dramas in contemporary cinema — the filmic equivalent of a staggering achievement like George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It screens for free, with tickets available at the box office on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hou’s other examinations of postwar Taiwan are no less impressive. The retrospective’s eponymous film Good Men, Good Women intricately links the story of a Taiwanese patriot imprisoned during the regime that is the focus of City of Sadness with the present-day travails of an actress playing that patriot in a movie. Thanks in part to the master stroke of casting Annie Shizuka Inoh as both women, Hou’s cross-hatching across these periods serves as a brilliant commentary on the way past and present can’t help but intersect in 20th-century Taiwan.
The same can be said of Hou’s playful and absorbing Three Times. The film, often called one of the best films of the 2000s—and deservedly so—offers a century’s worth of Taiwanese history over the course of three discrete love stories set in 1966, 1911, and 2005, respectively. Each couple is played by Chang Chen and Shu Qi, and their metaphysical affair goes on an odyssey that takes them to pool halls, brothels, and motorcycles. Along with Millennium Mambo, it demonstrates what makes Hou so distinct: his skill at combining a humanist outlook with the sober reflection of Taiwanese history, and evoking nostalgia for what’s been lost in the process.