Open Window
Andrew Tracy on Dust in the Wind

Humility is rarely the realm of the critic, but in this instance it’s painfully necessary—painful for the present writer, that is. After I first aired some rather too-decisive judgments about my relationship with Hou Hsiao-hsien in Reverse Shot three years ago, I’ve traveled a backwards road with his features and found there what so many found in the Nineties films that largely left me cold. Yet even if I personally find the formative phase of Hou’s mature career prior to his official arrival in the front ranks with City of Sadness (1989) largely preferable to that which followed, it would be foolish to ignore how his films from the Eighties helped shape the formal and thematic concerns of his more recent efforts. If some (i.e. me) find that the modestly scaled, semi-autobiographical quartet of films Hou made between 1983 and 1986—The Boys from Fengkuei, A Summer at Grandpa’s, A Time to Live and a Time to Die and Dust in the Wind—possess more freshness and vigor than the more rarefied works from The Puppetmaster onwards, one can also see in that modesty the progressively expansive nature of Hou’s ambition.

The largely provincial settings of these four films do not translate into a provincial mindset; it is the world, quite literally, that is Hou’s stage. Like Antonioni and Ozu, Hou is one of the great architectural filmmakers, uniquely attuned to how natural and manufactured landscapes—which, despite their radical temporal disparity, are equally antecedent, equally autonomous in relation to those who pass through them—provide the frames through which we view our human subjects. The distance, physical and emotional, which Hou intuitively seeks in these earlier films is a means of placing his characters and the small niches of experience they embody within the immensity that surrounds them, which neither dwarfs nor becomes subservient to their microscopic dramas. Where the pathos of Hou’s later films will increasingly become a matter of visual design, his characters virtually subsumed into the almost imperceptibly changing textures of each successive outing, this earlier quartet—and most prominently their apotheosis, Dust in the Wind—preserves the slight but sharp distinction between the two, allowing the utterly commonplace and utterly heartbreaking plights of their people to resonate against the vast sounding board of the world around them.

Though plainly resembling the films which preceded it almost to the point of formula, Dust introduces a number of new elements into Hou’s stylistic and thematic repertoire. Firstly, the autobiographical locus has subtly shifted. While the rural setting, menial employment, slim prospects, and muted adolescent pain echo the experience of the Hou-surrogate layabouts at the centre of Fengkuei and Time to Live, Dust’s protagonist Wan (Wang Chien-wen) is a quiet intellectual-in-the-making patterned after the film’s co-writer Wu Nien-jen (the screenwriter/director/actor fondly remembered as N.J. in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi). Similarly, while the film’s narrative—Wan and his girlfriend Huen’s (Xin Shufen) move to the city, their tedious employment, their separation when Wan goes off to military service and implicit expectation to marry upon his return—partakes of much the same atmosphere and country/city contrasts as the preceding films, it also hints towards something more oblique; not so much a stylized recreation of experience as an experience of style, a subtle decentering of emphasis from the characters onto the filmmaker himself. Dust in the Wind presents Hou discovering anew the world he has staked out as his own, an intention announced by the film’s gorgeous opening sequence: a distant white speck grows into the mouth of a train tunnel, giving way to a spectacular vista of forested hills and the no-less-beautiful windings of railroad track through them. Hou then cuts from this seemingly POV shot to a medium shot of Wan and his girlfriend Huen on the train reading their school texts, thus denying them the perspective granted the viewer—and announcing that they will not be functioning as viewer surrogates, as loci of identification—but, by this very disjuncture between the spectacular and the quotidian, quietly assigning them an equal weight within his schema.

From this opening sequence onward, Dust shows Hou taking motifs he had developed earlier and wringing subtle but telling variations on them. In the preceding films, the long takes which preserve a unity on the temporal level are countered with fragmentations and interruptions on the spatial level. Hou continually breaks the screen with sharp horizontals or diagonals, creating a series of layered planes where different actions are performed on different planes or one central action (as in the early street brawl in Fengkuei) is played out on a plane far distant from the camera. Paradoxically, however, the precision of Hou’s compositions—his determined ordering of the world—rather attests to the infinite number of perspectives from which it can be viewed; it grants the film’s characters the same sovereignty of vision nominally possessed by the all-seeing camera eye.

Creating a series of frames within frames allows those characters moving along the various planes the ability to see their world in their own fashion, to become viewers themselves. In Fengkuei, a frontal shot of the teenage protagonists dancing foolishly on the beach suddenly cuts to a more distant shot framing them in the door of a shack from within which their intended audience—a pretty teenage girl who had earlier spurned their attentions—does chores and tries to hide an indulgent smile. Later, having traveled to the port city of Kaohsiung and been suckered into an abandoned highrise to view dirty movies, the boys are confronted with the “widescreen” film they’d been promised: a huge open window looking out over the city, their new world framed for them in a new (bitter) light.

While Dust will preserve the autonomy of these screens within screens—as when a television report on a mining disaster attracts Wan’s (and the camera’s) undivided attention as he recalls his father’s accident, or when the long canvas stretched out to show a film in the village square becomes, for that brief moment (and absent any Felliniesque sentimentality), the defining center of village life—Hou also works to break down the carefully engineered planar compositions he effected so strikingly in Fengkuei’s apartment block or the elegantly fractured interiors of Grandpa’s house in A Summer at Grandpa’s. Rather than occluding actions and masking portions of the frame—both of which he would do again—in Dust Hou experiments with making it more permeable. Near the beginning of the film, a shot from within Wan’s household shows his recuperating father sitting in the foreground interior while, through the door behind him, a pharmaceutical salesman comes into perfectly framed view. In this instance, however, Hou links these planes of action by having Wan’s mother greet the salesman and lead him from the exterior background into the interior background, passing through the room in which the father sits. Similarly, while Hou will continue to slice up the screen into carefully orchestrated grids where actions are played out in narrow, precise slivers of space (Wan’s tussle with the man trying to lead Huen off at the train station, framed between two steel girders) or have his characters interact through visual (and subtly metaphorical) obstructions—the bars through which Wan talks to Huen at the laundry where she works rhyme with the latticework that separates the more sensitive and studious Ah-ching from his rowdy friends in Fengkuei—he also renders the apartment that Wan and his friends inhabit above a movie theater an open and communal space, large and airy rooms which reflect their casual yet warm fellow-feeling.

Openness, indeed, is Dust’s most prominent trait, as Hou quietly signals a move into larger territory beyond the strongly autobiographical material and carefully cultivated visual style he had previously developed. Landscape dominates Dust as it does in none of the films preceding; surveying the topography around Wan and Huen’s rural hometown, Hou will often pull back to an extraordinary distance to show hill, sea, and sky towering above the tiny evidence of human habitation. Yet those inhabitants are never forgotten, never absent. Acquarello at Strictly Film School highlights “the film's theme of physical existence as a transitory human passage.” That passage always leaves its mark upon the world. The narrow paths of existence which Wan, Huen, their friends and families are forced into does not limit the breadth and depth of their feeling, but rather invests the most minute gestures and objects—a crutch, a squashed metal lunchbox, a watch—with tremendous emotional import. And when Hou’s camera pulls even further back, the unforced pathos of their quotidian lives is only amplified by the enormity that surrounds them. The vastness of the onscreen world and the reticence of the narrative elevate the film’s emotion to a more crystalline level—we are moved not immediately, but cumulatively, with the full weight of what each individual pain articulates. When Wan belatedly discovers that Huen has married while he’s serving military duty, a single shot of him sobbing in his bunk conveys the depth of his loss: it is not merely Huen, but the entire world that has been taken from him.

And Hou is too much the artist to suggest that that world will ever be regained. At the conclusion, Wan’s return to his home, where his grandfather diligently plants potatoes and ginseng while grimly remarking that the yearly typhoons will probably wipe out the crop, suggests nothing so simple as regeneration or even bittersweet endurance. In a mirror of the film’s opening, a two-shot of Wan and his grandfather framed against a green forest wall is followed by a cut to a spectacular mountain vista. Neither a disjuncture between the two, nor an aggrandizement or reduction of either, Hou here rather strikes a tentative, vastly disproportionate balance between the world and its inhabitants—an irreconcilable, inextricable relationship maintained only by an increasingly delicate, increasingly refined artistry.