Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #1: Chinese-Language Movies Score Again

by David Sterritt

May 13, 1996

People have rightly been celebrating the vigor and variety of Chinese-language cinema in recent years, from the Hong Kong action school to the energetic cultural and historical epics of the Fifth Generation group. Yesterday the Official Competition gave Cannes a back-to-back look at two strong new pictures from substantially different segments of the cinematic spectrum.

Hou Hsiao-hsien, far and away Taiwan's most original and ambitious filmmaker, doesn't please every taste with his leisurely excursions into the mysteries of life, love, and personality as inflected by the complicated political genealogies of both Taiwan and its parent nation looming a few miles away. But by his challenging standards "Goodbye South, Goodbye" is both accessible and entertaining, if not exactly transparent for spectators not steeped in the details of modern Chinese history.

The typically loose, meandering plot centers on a low-life young man and the motley folks who inhabit his daily life. There's a great deal of eating, drinking, schmoozing, and arguing, with occasional bouts of high emotion and even physical violence. Eventually the characters work their way up to a dramatic situation involving a financial scam (earning illegal cash by passing off a shipment of farm animals under false pretenses) and a kidnapping. True to Hou's generally austere tradition, though, the story becomes most elliptical and elusive precisely when it gathers what most filmmakers would consider its largest amount of emotional charge. The ending manages to be evocative and enigmatic at the same time.

While austerity is a distinguishing mark of Hou's narrative style, especially in dauntingly difficult works like the sweeping "City of Sadness" and last year's haunting "Good Men, Good Women," the word doesn't apply to his visual approach. "Goodbye South, Goodbye" carries on his longtime fascination with rigorous framing--no contemporary director has a greater gift for composing images at once delicately balanced and psychologically dynamic--and gives this interest a new jolt of energy by putting the camera into exquisitely choreographed motion more often than in any of his previous pictures. This visual kineticism can be roughly divided into two kinds of shots: literal travelling shots in which the camera gazes (forward or backward) from a vehicle moving through sublimely photographed environments, and interior shots during which camera and characters interact with quietly intense precision. Both types of shot are exquisitely executed, and are enhanced still farther by the contrast between them and by the excellent writing and acting that provides their dramatic content.

Apparently some Hou admirers are disappointed with "Goodbye South, Goodbye" because it's more direct and less complex than many of his other films. My response is that some of Hou's earlier works, such as "A Time To Live and a Time To Die" and "Daughter of the Nile," are no less immediate in their narrative appeal and also indulge a degree of nostalgia and even sentimentality of which the new picture is quite free. All told, "Goodbye South, Goodbye" appears to me to rank with his finest achievements.

Chen Kaige's bold "Temptress Moon" represents the Fifth Generation tradition as faithfully as "Goodbye South, Goodbye" represents Hou's unique body of work. This will lower it in the estimation of skeptics professing weariness with the string of historical epics that has emerged from China since the late '80s, and I don't claim "Temptress Moon" has the bite or originality that made pictures like "Ju Dou" and Chen's own "Farewell My Concubine" so popular. I disagree with people who call it mere melodrama, though, since the relatively jagged and fragmented storyline combines with ironic editing and emotionally rich performances to make the rather perfunctory plot more fun to watch than earlier Chen movies like "King of the Children" or even the much-praised "Life on a String."

Much of the credit for the enjoyability of "Temptress Moon" goes to its truly luminous stars--Gong Li, going strong after her potentially career-denting breakup with Zhang Yimou, and Leslie Cheung, always an engaging performer--and to Christopher Doyle, whose radiant cinematography makes the screen glow from start to finish. True enough, Chinese auteurs have been bombarding the world with their country's troubled 20th-century history for some time now and the blitz is starting to wear thin. But it's a pretty amazing history, and its convolutions seem more compelling in "Temptress Mon," with its weirded-out story of an opium-dazed aristocrat and the twisted machinations that travel in her wake--than in a number of other Chinese epics I've seen. It has a lot to recommend it, and I suspect it'll be a viable commodity on Western art-theater screens.

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