Good Men, Good Women

(Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1995)


When I remember the grand old days of the Melbourne International Film Festival under the direction of the late Erwin Rado, I unfailingly recall a particular, rather stately sort of art movie.

This model movie was usually European, and it placed an emblematic personal story within a heavily underlined series of momentous historical events. It was a slow movie, full of long takes, distant angles and figures in a landscape. It would often play around with a lightly modernist paradox, like having a film-within-the-film. These were the years of Jancsó and Fassbinder, of The Travelling Players (1975) and Mephisto (1981).

Quality European cinema of this sort no longer dominates the event. The focus is happily more diverse: American independent films, harsh French teen movies, minimalist Iranian dramas, avant-garde cut-ups, and a happily large dose what one reviewer decries as "the esoteric and the off-beat", all vie for our ragged attention.

But the old, stately kind of art movie has not really died: it just comes to us in a renewed form, from another place. Today it is Taiwanese cinema, rather than Greek or Polish cinema, that offers us reflective history lessons in an extremely contemplative style, as Hou Hsaio-hsien's Good Men, Good Women amply demonstrates.

Is it Eurocentric to insist on the influence of Antonioni, Rivette and Angelopoulos on the remarkable filmmaking style of Hou? I do not believe so. If anything, he pushes their experiments with long takes, floating narrative lines, and de-psychologised characterisation to a new and more expressive extreme. Hou's content, however, is still firmly focused on the irreconcilable traumas of Taiwanese history.

Viewers not entirely familiar with the intricacies of this history have to scramble along as best they can to keep up. But this multi-faceted tale of actors rehearsing a film to be made about the sad fate of dissidents in the 1950s communicates an extraordinarily delicate and complex view of how personal life and politics intermingle.

Gently, without forcing parallels or imposing ironies, Hou imparts a meaningful shape to the ravages and vicissitudes of time.

MORE Hou: Three Times

© Adrian Martin June 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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