One of the most important filmmakers in Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-Hsien was once lauded as “one of the three directors most crucial to the future of cinema”. This new Masters of Cinema set from Eureka incorporates three of Hou’s early films: Cute Girl, The Green, Green Grass of Home and The Boys from Fengkuei.
Newcomers to the director may be a little nonplussed by the first film in the collection, Hou’s 1980 debut feature, Cute Girl. In isolation, there’s little to indicate the work of a celebrated auteur in this fluffy, knock-about romantic comedy. A vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee, Cute Girl follows Bee’s laid-back city engineer to the countryside, where he is surveying the area for a new road. He meets a young woman (Fong Fei Fei), hiding out with her Aunt to postpone her arranged marriage. Misunderstandings, pratfalls and romance proceed accordingly, to an infectiously poppy soundtrack. Yet for all its fluffiness, Cute Girl sows the seeds of Hou’s style, gesturing towards the realism and thematic richness of his later work.
Skipping his second film Cheerful Wind, the next entry in the collection is 1982’s The Green, Green Grass of Home, which builds on the nostalgic pastoral mode of Cute Girl, but represents an exponential improvement. Here, Hou refines his camera work with assured compositions and rich mise en scène, while further exploring the playful masculinity of Cute Girl. Bee returns as another urban interloper, but here as an environmentally minded teacher. There is a romantic subplot with another teacher, but the film is at its most rewarding when following the antics of the young boys who dub themselves ‘the three musketeers’.
Rather than contriving narrative incident for the characters to react to, Hou portrays everyday life in its totality – both its poetry and its baseness. Certainly, Hou does not shy away from the bodily experience of living, mining its comic and authentic potential. One afternoon, the schoolboys are required to fetch stool samples for a health inspection, with predictably messy and hilarious results. Yet even capturing this incident we see a filmmaker sharpening his technical prowess as well as his ability to capture humanity with affectionate absurdity.
That sense of affectionate absurdity reaches its height with the final film in the collection. The Boys from Fengkuei sees Hou reaching the maturity of his powers, portraying the tragedy and comedy of life with equal force. The concerns that Hou previously toyed with – rural life versus urban, class divides, directionless masculinity – all come to fruition here. Urban alienation is expressed through Hou’s distant camera shooting the action from afar, and several flashback sequences bring a psychological depth lacking in the previous entries. Meanwhile, a nod to Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers signals Italian neorealism as a more explicit point of influence for the director. For veterans of Hou’s later work this collection offers a glimpse at an auteur in utero; for novices, these early films are an irresistible introduction to one of cinema’s great filmmakers.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell