On this edition of the podcast, J. Robert Parks and I talk about one of my favorite movies from last year, Three Times by the great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. I like the film a lot more than Parks, and here I present a rambling defense. Stand clear.
We also spend a fair bit of time talking also about one of his earlier films, Good Men, Good Women, which was on the 2004 edition of my all-time faves list, and I wager that it'll still be up there on the next version of that list.
0:00 Intro and Corrections
3:30 "Put that into context..."
7:37 Good Men, Good Women
14:01 Generation vs Generation?
16:27 Millennium Mambo
18:36 Breaking the Rules
26:20 Deceptive Simplicity?
30:35 Revisiting vs Rehashing
34:59 Personal Experimentation
41:20 Outro and Next Time
Next Time: We'll talk about new films from the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson.
• Dag Sødtholt writing in Senses of Cinema on Three Times
• News about Hou's next project, a kung-fu film called Assassin starring the actors of Three Times. Yes, seriously.
Really good discussion guys! That's the ciné-club format of film criticism I like. And the film is a favorite of mine of course.
I believe HHH answered some of the questions about form in his Cannes conference. The chronology, the disconnected opening segment, the repetition of the same couple, the comparison of generations...
It's not important if he "repeats" himself (was it a bad move that Ozu remake Floating Weeds in color?), the main interest in this mini-trilogy is the contrast between segments, emphasized by the fact the same actors play an archetypal couple under various circumpstances. In this formalist experiment he meets Lynch with INLAND EMPIRE (duplication of the actress, multiples lives with metaphorical links, reflection on cinema and nostalgia of a foregone era)
Did you know the character in the third segment was inspired by a real taiwanese girl? A friend of mine from Taipei told me her name is OuYangJin, she's an underground icon, with the same self-destructive tendency. Here is her own blog, see if you recognize the sign on her neck.
I'm often curious about a filmmakers intentions -- I mean, that's why we do interviews, I suppose -- but some films, like Hou's, I want to explore myself before I learn about what he meant to do. So I've been holding off reading interviews with HHH, although I'm sure I will at some point. Plus, of course, once a filmmaker releases a film into the wild, he may no longer be aware of the associations it makes in the viewers' heads.
Not only did Ozu remake A Story of Floating Weeds, he made lots of movies that feel similar, reconfiguring basic familial conflicts. The plot of his last movie, An Autumn Afternoon, is very similar to Late Spring, and yet the two films feel entirely different.
That's very interesting info about OuYangJin! I had no idea. That's also a good example of how someone in Taiwan would/could have a very different reaction to the film than I did, for lots of reasons, but here's a specific one: they might have known what it was referring to.
Harry, I'm glad you're enjoying these dialogues and I appreciate your comments. It's great fun bouncing ideas off of someone who has thought about the movies as much as J. Robert, even though I forgot to connect all of the dots in my argument.
Well if I remember well, HHH said most of these formal decisions had no particular importance. (But that's the filmmaker's information-retentive talk...)
My friend from Taipei actually didn't like the 3rd segment, because it was a bad caricature of the contemporean life in Taipei. She only liked the 2nd segment.
The holding-hand close up (it's not even a kiss!), is cliché indeed, but that's the style of that segment, like Rob says. These shots are not always cheap in themselves, here it's more than a narrative emphasis. By closing in, the sensations of the shy characters in love are focused and restricted to the contact of their hands, skin, warmth. They don't mind what they see with their eyes, the context they are in, the wait... It's a capsule of time removed from the world. That's love.
Even if the soundtrack is kitsch, and nostalgic (the segment corresponding to HHH's own coming-of-age timeframe), it is far from our typical Hollywood romance... It's largely unspoken and contemplative. It's a succession of disconnected scenes, without the classic narrative cues or cross-cutting to build up on the connection between the "lovers", and the ending is quite anti-climactic and reserved.
I'm comparing this to Floating Weeds because I think his recycling material was excellent. But I understand J. Robert's frustration, because I felt frustrated with Café Lumière too, like Rob. So maybe it's a subjective expectation thing.
Rob, no need to connect the dots... The discontinuous structure of the film suggest we shouldn't draw definite conclusions. It's a film open to interpretations, so this stream-of-consciousness unfinished investigation is suitable. The confrontation of opposing takes is also more productive. ;)
Great discussion, guys. I really need to see more of his films; all five I've seen are post-Good Men, Good Woman. I guess I'm waiting for a theatrical retrospective, but I remind myself that my favorite of his films is the one I've only seen on VHS: Flowers of Shanghai. It worked its magic beautifully even on the small screen.
I'd love a retrospective, too. I've seen the pre-Goodbye, South, Goodbye films on only the little screen. Also, although many of his movie are available on DVD, there's a rough patch in the middle: A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster are available only without English subtitles (the former) or as very poor transfers (former and latter) that make them pretty hard to watch.
Also, this sort of contemplative cinema (to borrow Harry's phrase) -- like Tarkovsky's -- really benefits from the immersive experience of the theater, IMO.
Harry, I'm curious about your Floating Weeds analogy -- I didn't pick up your point about those two films in particular (except, of course, that Ozu remade his own film) because I haven't seen them. I've seen nearly all of Ozu's extant films, save three, but not the pair of weeds. Strangely enough, I have them on DVD, sitting on my shelf, but I'm holding them back, because after I watch them, I'll have no more new Ozu films to discover.
I feel the same about one of Hou's films: a hole in the discussion I had with Parks is that many people have compared Three Times to his earlier film A Time to Live and A Time to Die, another movie that I have on my shelf but haven't seen.
I like to savor these movies. No need to rush through them. I just hope DVDs don't become obsolete before I have a chance to unwrap the disks.
At least with Hou I know that we'll have a brand new film every year or two, if he keeps his current pace. (And the next next one, as I mentioned above, will be a kung fu film starring the actors from Three Times. Uh?)
No time to comment further, but I love your reference to Inland Empire. I never would have made that connection, but you're absolutely right.
I know the feeling Rob, that's what makes me miss some opportunities of rare screenings. There was a HHH retrospective recently in Paris... and I had to miss one, A Summer at Grandpa's. I'm not anticipating much his new kung fu movie though. And I didn't like his latest either. But it's still one of my favorite contemporean master.
At this retrospective, most of his earlier prints (A City of Sadness too) were translated in English and Mandarin, on second-hand dusty prints. But The Puppetmaster was released in France nationwide, so it was a pristine print and subtitled in French (It exists on DVD in France I think).
I didn't mean to draw any thematical parallel with Floating Weed. But I think the remake is one of his very best films. People usually praise the B&W one, but I think it's a minor Ozu. So my point was that a remake can be worthwhile. In the case of I was born but... and Ohayo, they are almost as good both.
A Summer at Grandpa's is a real gem. The plot is a little melodramatic in spots, but his use of space and narrative ellipses were already masterful, and he seems to work very well with kids. So did Ozu, especially in the two films you mention (I was born but ... sometimes edges out Late Spring as my favorite Ozu.)
Hou's similarity to Ozu is often overstated -- visually, they're nothing alike, the opening shot of Cafe Lumiere notwithstanding -- but these are areas (refashioning material, working well with children, etc) where they have a lot in common.
I really hope that retrospective finds its way to the States. I'm skeptical about the kung fu film, too.
Sorry to be so late to the discussion, especially when such interesting comments are being made. But I only had a chance to listen to the podcast tonight.
Rob, great use of the film's soundtrack both in the introduction and as a break. I thought that was really beautiful. And, yes, I appreciate you mentioning the little-known fact that I was the drummer for Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, it's so little known that the powers that be have never sent me a royalty check. I feel like I should be walking the picket lines with the Writer's Guild. Down with the Man.
As far as HHH goes, I'm not sure I have much to add to the discussion, though listening to the podcast reminded me of how much I'd like to re-visit Hou's films. Brian, I'm glad you enjoyed Flowers of Shanghai on the small screen, though I suspect you'll like it even more if you get a chance to see it in the theater.
With the comparison to Ozu, I haven't seen either of the Weeds movies. But seeing so many of his films at the retro a few years ago was an absolute joy, in part because so many of them were similar. But none of them felt like they were re-treading old ground. Rather it felt like seeing old friends in a new setting, where I was invited to see how things have changed and how they've stayed the same.
I'm not quite sure why Three Times doesn't have the same effect, though part of it might be my frustration with Hou's formal choices. I agree with Harry that Hou might not be completely honest when he claims the formal choices are of no importance, but they do feel random to me. And while I find Harry's defense of the holding hands close-up appealing, the fact that I was afraid Hou might cut to it even before he did makes me think that the level of cliche and sentiment in the "first time" was already too high. The close-up is merely adding frosting to cotton candy.
And, Harry, I love the Inland Empire analogy. Though my problem with that film is that I just don't like Lynch, and so I don't really care about those meta issues.
I'm glad at least a few people are enjoying the podcasts. I sure have enjoyed doing them with Rob, though he's been doing much more of the heavy lifting than I have.
Oh, one more thing. Rob's claim that he's making a rambling defense seems to go beyond false modesty and dangerously close to outright lying. Listening again, I was even more impressed, Rob, with how you discuss Three Times in the larger context of Hou's work. Great stuff. Even if you're wrong about No Country for Old Men. :)
Hey, J. Robert. I was hoping you'd chime in here.
"With the comparison to Ozu, I haven't seen either of the Weeds movies. But seeing so many of his films at the retro a few years ago was an absolute joy, in part because so many of them were similar. But none of them felt like they were re-treading old ground. Rather it felt like seeing old friends in a new setting, where I was invited to see how things have changed and how they've stayed the same."
That Ozu retrospective's appearance at the PFA and the Castro here in San Francisco was one of my greatest movie experiences. It inspired many a saki and noodle dinner with Lorraine.
And your "old friends" comment reminded me of seeing one of his very early films with an audience that included lots of older Japanese folks. During the opening credits, most of which weren't subtitled -- because nobody cares who the assistant director was -- there was suddenly a murmur through the crowd that sounded like chee-shoo-chee-shoo-shoo-ree-shoo-ree-yoo. The whispered syllables were overlapping, but I soon realized that they'd all seen the name of Chishu Ryu in the cast list, the great, great actor from Ozu's later films but who actually appeared in the early films too, in bit parts.
That murmer set me watching for him to appear, like watching for Hitchcock. By then, having become familiar with Ozu, Chishu Ryu felt like an old friend to me too, even though I can't read Kanji. :-)
"dangerously close to outright lying"
Well, a bit of context, for those who are curious: we'd intended to record a chat about Three Times, because J. Robert said he had some problems with it and yet he knew that I liked it very much. So without any real plan, we plopped down on the couch in my living room, J. Robert said, "how about if I start by asking you a question," I said "OK", and we hit record.
But being the nervous sort of person that I am, even in my living room with friends, I had tried to anticipate what J. Robert's objections might be. I'd heard criticisms of some of Hou's recent work that was really insulting -- of the type that implied Hou should "go back" to making historical films because he hates or doesn't understand present day Taiwan. (On the contrary, I think he does not hate and yet is curious about present day Taiwan. Whether he depicts it accurately, I have no idea. Ironically, his early films, such as A Summer at Grandpa's mentioned above and The Boys of Fengkui, are contemporary, or late-20th-century at the earliest, and they're also semi-autobiographical; this notion that he makes historical films is based on a relatively small number of admittedly great movies.)
I knew J. Robert's criticism would not be so facile, of course, but I thought it might be related to a sort of political view of Hou's recent films, that he's become something of a reactionary, so maybe we'd discuss that and we could counter the dumb historio-criticism at the same time, using levers and pulleys and jujitsu.
However, I guessed wrong and the conversation drifted differently -- which is great -- and so I never finished connecting the dots. In fact as we were talking I forgot what the dots were. Perhaps they were polka. Perhaps they were Morse.
So to my ears it feels rambly without a nice QED at the end. But I like it anyway, and thanks for the kind words. :-)
But enough commentary on the commentary from me. No fair skipping ahead to the Coen brothers, J. Robert!
Actually it wasn't an official HHH retrospective, it was a one-shot event organized by the Taiwan cultural center in Paris, around his screenwriter, T'ien-wen Chu, who also wrote for Edward Yang. So it might not travel around.
I mean it's interesting for genre movies to be revisited by classic masters. But from HHH's perspective, there is little chance this kung fu movie will be a high point in his career?
Instead of trying to deny that Ozu repeated himself, I would rather convince people that "re-treading" old material is not necessarily weak or lame or inferior. Repetition can be great too. But of course it's more risky, because everyone will compare to what has been achieved before. Ozu, of course, masters very well the mechanics of this little nuclear family, and operates subtle variations. Anyway, the plot doesn't matter, it's the custom mise en scene that makes all the difference.
J Robert, I think you're too much of a self-conscious critic, the average viewer doesn't even anticipate in terms of shots. If you can predict the next cut just means you know the various possibilities of cinema well enough. You're using your knowledge against the film. But I wouldn't want filmmakers to worry about surprising their viewers in each scene... this kind of escalation of show off and originality doesn't go anywhere. With the cheesy soundtrack and the shy Shu Qi (who is sexy enough to be a femme fatale), HHH is not even trying to hide his "cheat" (but affectionate) romance. The same shot in the other segments would be out of place, stylisiticaly.
I agree that Davis is being too modest. ;)
The way he induces his opinion in the form of falsely naive questions is very clever and diplomatic.
The political controversy about HHH contemporean films would make a great podcast for the future, if you guys want to go at it again.
I just saw the Paste year-end film list. Is it safe to assume it was generated by a mathematical compilation of contributors' lists? Or was there some kind of discussion about placing films in a particular order? Don't answer if you don't feel like it; I'm not 100% sure I want to know how the sausage was made.
Why do you ask? ;-)
I'll be posting my own list here, of course, but, yeah, as you've guessed, the Paste list is a compilation of quite disparate opinions, not entirely mathematical, but certainly disjoint and non-overlapping. I did not do the assembling, but I was a contributor. Also, unlike the magazine's music list, which is largely hashed out in person (it's a music magazine, after all), the film list is sort of a long-distance affair.
There are the usual caveats: this monthly rag has a long lead time, so many of the films that will still be coming out in late November and December hadn't been screened at press time, or not by many people. The list is limited to films that were released theatrically in the US (festival screenings don't count). The sorry state of film distribution works against small movies, because so few contributors have seen the same movies. Etc.
I myself have been distracted for the last half of the year and I don't feel I was quite as strong a presence as in the past (e.g. Half Nelson and Cache, the #1s from the last two years, had heavy lobbying from me). You can safely assume that this year, at least, Syndromes and a Century, Forever, Offside, The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierez, et al have my fingerprints. I think I may have talked the Coen bros. movie down a few notches. Not enough, though. (Discussion forthcoming ;-) .)
It's funny; with film, when I'm perusing year-end lists, I almost never care about composites. Lists by committee. It's the individual lists that are more interesting. But I think the Paste list is a mostly respectable representation of popular opinion, with some small amount of left-field edge. To wit:
- Juno is cute, and in a year with an unusual number of good heartwarming comedies (and, strangely, comedies about unwanted pregnancy), it's nice to see them present. This movie wouldn't be anywhere near #1 on my list -- because I will probably never give it another thought -- but it fits the year. Ditto Knocked Up and Waitress.
- I know you weren't a big fan of Once, but I really liked it, and I think it's almost as Pasty a movie as there's ever been. Not that Paste leans toward musical movies, at all, but the film just has that indie, musical, honest, foreign (but English-language) sheen that fits the mag. They could do worse, and it might have made sense at #1.
- I hear that people are getting tired of hearing about Iraq. Well, um, ok. As a country, we're as involved as ever. No End in Sight is a nice summary for those who haven't been following the daily news.
On the other hand, the list has a few stinkers, and, more importantly, it's heavy on familiar titles and "popcorn flicks" to lift a phrase from a conversation I had with Josh Jackson, editor in chief. Which means it doesn't do -- for me, anyway -- something that almost seems to be the purpose of year-end lists: give me ideas for movies I should see.
Although maybe someone else will seek out Apitchatpong or Honigmann. That would be cool.
More year-end commentary to come...
BTW, I've been meaning to post another correction: my small Killer of Sheep DVD review in this issue is accidentally attributed to Steve Dollar.
I'm not asking for any particular reason, just kinda wondering. I did notice your fingerprints here and there, and could but wonder if they were, though less distinctive, to be found on selections like Margot at the Wedding (which I saw last weekend) or the Kite Runner (which I haven't, yet).
I was by no means dismayed to see Once so high. I agree that it's a very, as you say, Pasty pick. I did like it alright after all, and I certainly don't begrudge others for liking it more than I did. Anyhoo, what list that merely reflected back my own taste would be worth reading? I'm more interested in seeing how opinions differ.
Maybe I'll actually find the time to see No Country For Old Men by the time you publish your podcast on it!
You just gave me an excuse to type out some of my thoughts about the Paste list. Thanks for the trigger. :-)
I actually liked Margot at the Wedding quite a bit while I was watching it, although I don't think it has given me much to think about since then. I haven't seen The Kite Runner just yet, either.
Having just seen Edward Yang's The Terrorizer, I think it's fairly likely that Hou found the song "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" through Yang. The two used to hang out a lot together when they were just starting their film careers, and Hou starred in Yang's early feature Taipei Story. Yang lived in the US for years, but Hou rarely leaves Taiwan and doesn't speak English, so even though he's a fan of karaoke, I imagine he heard the song from Yang and may even be alluding to Yang's film in Three Times.
Yang's film is a lot more obviously deceptive about its storytelling techniques than Three Times -- it features sequences that may or may not be fragments of one character's novel in progress -- but this dovetails with my take on Three Times nicely.
Or ... Hou could also be making a personal comment on those early days of simple companionship. More recently he and Yang rarely spoke. I'm not sure I've heard such a personal interpretation of Three Times.
A nice collection of articles on Hou and his films, at Reverse Shot.