I am not sure exactly when I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsein’s 2001 film Millennium Mambo, but I very clearly remember being transfixed by the opening sequence: an extended single take in which Hou’s camera glides behind Shu Qi, the film’s lead, as she walks along a bridgeway, buoyant and seemingly weightless. Shu turns around and glances into the camera for a few seconds, Lim Giong’s spectral, low-key beats heightening the atmosphere. I was enamoured of the seemingly unfettered youthful abandon evoked in these opening moments. There was something about Shu’s vacant stare: a sense of insouciance and loneliness that Hou managed to coax and convey, which perhaps felt recognizable to my precocious younger self.
Hailed for his ‘Taiwan Trilogy’ (1989–95), which I only came to see later, Hou makes films pervaded by an extreme sadness. While the opening of Millennium Mambo still lingers, I now find myself more partial to other works: especially the hothouse, late-Qing dynasty ambiance of Flowers of Shanghai (1998). However, it is the middle section of Three Times (2005) that distills precisely why I find this filmmaker so remarkable. ‘A Time for Freedom’, set in 1911 in a brothel, stars Shu as a courtesan, wanting her patron’s attention and affection, but also her own freedom. A short production schedule prevented Hou from shooting in the dialect of the time; hence, he opted for the section to be silent. Far from adopting the customary codes of silent film, Hou creates an elliptical interplay of considered and slight movements with characters moving in and out of corridors, full of looks suffused with yearning, desire and quiet anguish. And, just like that, Hou time travels with ease. Whether it is the turn of the millennium or occupied Taiwan, his films are imbued with such rare emotional acuity and nuance that it is hard not to be first stunned and, then, deeply moved.
First published in Issue 200