UPDATE: Hou Hsiao-hsien just won Best Director in Cannes for The Assassin
IT’S NO SURPRISE THAT Hou Hsiao-hsien’s martial arts film, The Assassin, has been noted for its gorgeous aesthetics. You only have to look at a film like Flowers of Shanghai to know what Hou can do with a period setting. It’s also expected that The Assassin isn’t going to be your usual martial arts action epic. Hou’s singular aesthetics were honed over a long period, informed by his varied experience in the Taiwanese film industry.
Because his first and most well-known exposure to the world outside of Taiwan, the western world in particular, was The Puppet Master (1994), the second film in Hou’s Taiwan Trilogy, or “The Three Tragedies” (that includes City of Sadness and Good Men Good Women), people tend to think Hou only ever made arthouse films.
Coupled with the fact that The Puppet Master is such an engaging masterpiece, filtering the troubled history of Taiwan through the personal history of the titular real-life puppeteer, Li Tien-lu, a film that says as much about Hou as a filmmaker as about his background as a Taiwanese, it’s really no surprise that Hou’s own personal history is often truncated by perception.
In reality, Hou started out in the commercial film industry, and his directorial debut was a commercial, song-filled movie featuring Hong Kong pop star Kenny Bee and Taiwanese popster Feng Feifei (Cute Girl, 1980).
After this initial success, Hou was billed as one of the top commercial film directors of the time. Even then, working in the prevailing genre of the time, Hou was already experimenting stylistically. When the New Cinema movement began, naturally Hou came into his own.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing from thereon. Met with strong criticism about his style of long-takes and contemplative pacing, especially from the ongoing and heated commercial-versus-arthouse debate at the time, Hou made Dust in the Wind (1986), intended for the commercial market, but his now-established style was too strong a presence in the film.
When he made his Taiwan Trilogy, he ignited even more arguments, especially now that he was dealing with important aspects of Taiwan’s history and politics that were unresolved at the time. This situation was largely part-and-parcel of the New Cinema movement. The same happened to Tsai Ming-liang, whose films were even accused of being “obscene.”
But, of course, today we know Hou as the single most important filmmaker to emerge from Taiwan. In 2011, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called The Puppet Master “remarkable and exquisitely beautiful,” and recognised it as a film “relevant to the future of cinema and the 21st century.” Seeing how Hou has progressed to where he is now, that statement is not far off.
Rosenbaum’s review of The Puppet Master.