- The Sinophone Cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Culture, Style, Voice, and Motion by Christopher Lupke
Christopher Lupke's wonderful new book on Hou Hsiao-hsien offers a telescoped overview of the director's work, a sequence of rigorous close readings of selected films, a valuable cache of previously untranslated interviews, and, ultimately, a deeply personal take on this most enigmatic of filmmakers.
Lupke begins by charting what he calls Hou's "odyssey," his transition from a journeyman in Taiwan's commercial film industry to an auteur with only a tiny clutch of global rivals. This chapter plots several distinct phases in Hou's development, tracing his first momentous steps into art cinema, his political turn with the so-called "Taiwan trilogy" of films, his increasingly digressive work around and after the millennium, and his recent delving into China's literary past. In part intended as a scene-setter for the chapters that follow, this lengthy opening chapter actually ends up serving as the most useful introduction to Hou and his work that I have read, and should take its place as such on all undergraduate Chinese-language film courses. Its semi-chronological structure allows Lupke to take in all of Hou's films, but in ways that follow a consistent arc of argument, rather merely presenting a series of discrete descriptions. It turns out that "odyssey" is the apposite term, as the reader comes afresh to a sense of Hou's extraordinary travels in and through cinema.
Chapter 2—perhaps the best of the book—explores the creative partnership between Hou and his regular scriptwriter Zhu Tianwen, though to call Zhu a "scriptwriter" is to reduce the complexities of their long creative alliance. On one level, this chapter sets out to install Zhu at the heart of these films, where she belongs, and it does so by tracing biographical details and moments of artistic epiphany, such as when Zhu introduced Hou to the distanced narrative style of Shen Congwen. But even if this chapter does not especially labor the point, it also makes a powerful theoretical intervention into the collaborative nature of cinematic art. Even though Lupke's book looks and reads like an auteur study, the analysis this chapter presents of the way in which Zhu's [End Page 77] creativity is knotted into the warp and weft of almost all Hou's films undercuts the notion of auteur more powerfully than many studies that take the dismantling of that term as their express mission. More than this, Lupke's arguments are also a provocation in intermediality, since they lead steadily to the idea that if the films described as "belonging" to Hou Hsiao-hsien are also part-owned by Zhu Tianwen, then those works are never merely cinematic either, but are also quasi-literary in their character. Although the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien are seldom described in this way, their abiding traits share unmistakable ground with Zhu's own works and their idiosyncratic postmodernism. Reading the chapter made me wonder if Hou is also an invisible, intermittent collaborator of sorts in Zhu's own literary works, and whether their works, seen together, constitute a form of literary cinema or cinematic literature. Lupke's commitment, throughout the book, to tracing Hou's relationship not just with Zhu Tianwen and Shen Congwen, but also Zhang Ailing and Hu Lancheng pushes this point further.
Lupke turns to the relationship between Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ozu Yasujirô in chapter 3. Comparison is not Lupke's real objective in this chapter, in part because so much scholarship which looks at the two directors through a contrastive prism ends up defaulting back to questions of style, a mode of approach that Lupke considers tired and Orientalizing. What he develops instead is a critical practice which might reasonably be called a dialogue in incommensurability, which takes filiality as its axis of engagement. As with his later discussion of Flowers of Shanghai, Lupke is interested here in recuperating thematic...