- No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien
For nearly thirty years the films of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien have been regarded as among the richest and most challenging to grace cinema screens. With the exception of more recent studies by Yeh Yueh-yu, Darrell Davis, and David Bordwell, critics and scholars too often provide ambiguous cultural explanations for the complexity of Hou's films, claiming they are "very Chinese" or espouse a distinctly Chinese cultural view of the world. In his illuminating book No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien James Udden challenges these assumptions, arguing that Chinese history is too dynamic and Chinese artistic traditions too diverse to allow for such facile conclusions: "To say that Hou's films are very Chinese does not say very much at all" (7).
Udden's project seeks a better understanding of not only the complexity of Hou's films but also his career trajectory. In this regard, Udden's book is the most thorough examination of Hou's career to date. Drawing on extensive research of both English and Taiwanese sources as well as personal interviews conducted with Hou collaborator Chu Tian-wen, cinematographer Chen Huai-en, and Hou himself, Udden argues that the evolution of Hou's work can best be explained by how he took advantage of particular opportunities afforded by the various ideological, industrial, and institutional constraints he was subject to. The lesson to be learned here is that "the local matters for any director, no matter how globally successful they are in the end" (11). Most importantly, Udden's book examines the central role Taiwan has played in the shaping of Hou's career.
The book is organized chronologically around distinctive periods in Hou's oeuvre. Each chapter contains stylistic and narrative analyses of Hou's films but contextualized within the larger scope of Taiwan. The first chapter focuses on Hou's background and his relation to the "Taiwanese Experience"-the firsthand witnessing by Hou's generation of the dramatic political, cultural, and economic changes in Taiwan since the shift in power from Japanese rule to the KMT Party in the 1940s. Significantly, Hou was born in mainland China but raised in Taiwan, where he had to quickly master the Taiwanese dialect in order to survive. This experience-rather than a fixed cultural ideology, as some critics seem to assume-shaped Hou's worldview and was made more acute by the opposition between the reality of the Taiwan he knew and the propaganda of the ruling KMT Party. The experience of growing up in postwar Taiwan became a rich source of thematic material for Hou and other Taiwanese artists.
Udden's overview of the changing face of Taiwan's political and economic climate in the latter half of the twentieth century is vital to understanding Hou's background as well as the Taiwanese film industry. Industrial and institutional constraints directly affected the stylistic and thematic choices Hou pursued upon finally becoming a director in 1980. For example, Hou is generally regarded as a master of the long-take aesthetic, along with other directors like Kenji Mizoguchi, Miklós Jancsó, and Theo Angelopoulos. Why did he use it? Some scholars describe Hou's use of the long take in broad cultural terms, analogizing it to different Chinese art forms. Udden, however, [End Page 62] describes how, due to low budgets and tight control over the amount of film stock used, scenes in Taiwanese films at the time Hou entered the industry were never shot from beginning to end in master shots. Rather, scenes were done shot to shot from a variety of angles. Hou's pursuit of the long take was largely motivated by his desire to elicit better performances from his actors under such conditions. Udden charts Hou's use of the long take and other stylistic tendencies throughout the book, suggesting that while many were initially motivated by problems within the film industry, they become vital tools for expressing his key thematic...