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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003) 675-716

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Words and Images:
A Conversation with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T'ien-wen

Michael Berry

Hou Hsiao-hsien (Hou Xiaoxian) is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker who has directed fifteen feature films, including A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Tongnian wangshi] (1985), City of Sadness [Beiqing chengshi] (1989), and Flowers of Shanghai [Haishang hua] (1998). Hou Hsiao-hsien was born in Mei County, Guangdong Province, in 1947 to a Hakka family that immigrated to southern Taiwan in 1949 when Hou was still an infant. He graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1972. In addition to his directorial features, since 1973 Hou has worked on more than twenty-five additional films in a variety of capacities including assistant director, screenwriter, actor, and producer. Hou was a key member of the influential New Taiwan Cinema movement (1982–1986), which included fellow filmmakers Edward Yang (Yang Dechang), Wan Jen (Wan Ren), Wu Nien-chen (Wu Nianzhen), and Ko Yi-cheng (Ke Yizheng). [End Page 675]

Chu T'ien-wen (Zhu Tianwen) has, since 1983, been Hou Hsiao-hsien's most faithful creative partner. Born in 1956, Chu is a graduate of the English department of Tamkang (Danjiang) University and has collaborated with Hou on all his feature films since Boys from Fengkuei [Fenggui lai de ren] (1983). She received the best screenplay award at the Golden Horse, Venice, and Tokyo film festivals. In addition to her work in film, Chu T'ien-wen is also an accomplished writer who has published more than fifteen books of her own, including the highly acclaimed collections Fin-de-Siècle Splendour [Shijimo de huali] (1990) and A Flower Remembers Her Previous Lives [Hua yi qianshen] (1996), as well as the award-winning novel Notes of a Desolate Man [Huangren shouji] (1994).

In 2001 Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chu T'ien-wen sat down for an extended interview. During the course of their conversation, Hou and Chu discussed everything from their early influences and collaborative process to their body of work, including their latest feature, Millennium Mambo [Qianxi manbo] (2001), and the future of Chinese cinema. Producer and film critic Peggy Chiao (Jiao Xiongping) and novelist Liu Ta-jen (Liu Daren) were also present for portions of the interview.

Michael Berry: When did you first begin to become interested in film and were there any particular films that left an especially deep impression on you growing up?

Hou Hsiao-hsien: I actually first became interested in movies quite early. But I probably shouldn't call my early attraction to the big screen "interest in film." When I was a kid, there were really not a lot of opportunities to go to the movies; moreover, our family didn't have much money, so there was no way my parents could afford to buy us tickets. When I was little, I was always causing trouble, and my interest in films really began with my mischievous nature. So it must have been when I got to middle school that I really started going to the movies.

There were all different ways we used to sneak into the theaters. I grew up near the temple market in Fengshan and there was a movie house in the neighborhood called the Dashan Theater, and that is when my earliest memories of the movies begin. When I was in elementary school, we used to line up outside the theater to try to get a glimpse of the last few minutes [End Page 676] of the performance. They would open up the doors and let people in for free to see the last five minutes—this was a kind of marketing strategy, in Taiwanese they call it quo shee buei [jian xi wei], or "catching the tail end of a performance." Most of the performances I saw were of puppet theater [budai/zhangzhong xi]—the type of theater that Li Tianlu devoted his career to.1 These were some of my earliest...


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