How to Deal
Michael Koresky on Good Men, Good Women

Excavating history on film is a tricky business. The aesthetic and ethical approaches to mounting so-called historical films vary so widely that the past hundred years of cinema has been locked in a stalemate with itself over what is appropriate as it relates to memory and the vicissitudes of human endeavor. Most filmmakers, whether slavishly tied to Hollywood-bred pomp or tortured by thorny issues of representation, eventually hit a wall when trying to maintain their chosen subject’s historical integrity. This isn’t a matter as black and white as Roberto Rossellini versus Ron Howard—films such as The Rise to Power of Louis XIV and A Beautiful Mind both elide “truths,” the former via artistic distance, the latter because of narrative opportunism—but rather a question of what we define as historically verifiable. There are so many shades of grey filling in the areas between blatant revisionism (think Oliver Stone at his most daring and lucid), flattening, timid dramatization (remember Nicholas and Alexandra, Cromwell, and all of those studious studio pictures of the sixties and seventies with their airless academicism?), and abstracted forthright artificiality (Bresson and Rohmer at their least comfortable and most declamatory) that it seems like a fool’s errand to even try to define what it is that makes the moving image both the ideal and the least reliable medium for representing history.

The aesthetic and narrational strategies taken by our best (i.e., reluctant) big-screen historiographers (those, like Rossellini and Pasolini, or, today, Todd Haynes and Terrence Malick, who fold events and forces they acknowledge as bigger than themselves into unapologetically intellectual discourse) reveal more about the filmmakers than our collective pasts; this has always certainly been the case for Hou Hsiao-hsien, who over the years slowly but surely developed a method for representing the history of his native island of Taiwan that grew out of both the technical limitations of his national film industry and his calm humanism. Hou has always come across as somewhat wary; he’s neither plumbing the depths nor remaining discreetly on the surface. It’s a common fallacy that distanced and clinical equals intellectually valorous, but Hou’s discursive and multilayered ways of dealing with the knotty problems of historical representation, which some often find maddening and impenetrably cold, constitute some of the most beguiling and adventurous cinema of the past few decades. Hou doesn’t style or conceive his films as responses to those other directors who would rather define world history in terms of easily categorizable epochs. Hou doesn’t need to beat the drum; he’s not out to make a case for or recoup the “dignity” of Taiwan, whose fraught, tug-of-war relationship with Japan and China is well-known to the world. Rather, the works that make up his unofficial trilogy about Taiwan’s past—City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women—evince a personal reckoning with that history.

Hou seems to ask with these films, how does, or should, one portray Taiwan? With inquiries into human consciousness in the face of history’s quaking hugeness and terrifying forward motion, as in City of Sadness? By abstracting the idea of “event” so much that memory and testimony become history’s only tenable connection to the present, as in The Puppetmaster? In 1995’s Good Men, Good Women, Hou seems to want to make historical consequence even more tenuous; here, he’s engaging in what seems initially to be at-arm’s-length meta-commentary, depicting the true story of Chiang Bi-Yu and Hao-Tung—socialists and medical students who, with other Taiwanese, attempted to join China’s anti-Japanese resistance during World War II—as a film within a film, its main female role played by an actress named Liang Ching, who provides the basis for a secondary, not quite parallel, contemporary plot line. In other words, everything is safely “staged”; there’s no Real here, just a black-and-white past and a color present, a trick that seemingly dares us to cast one as “truth” and one as “fiction.” History becomes a quest, compromised by the many facets and shadowy blind spots of recreation and dramatization. It makes for a fascinating contradiction: just as Hou makes no plea for verisimilitude in his flashbacks, his patented single-take shooting style, though perfectly calibrated for the human movement within the frame, has consistently proven one of cinema’s most adept methods of capturing genuine and verifiable life as it’s seemingly lived.

Because history is identified as distant, murky, and re-created in Good Men, Good Women, there’s no need for “immediacy” (that term oft trotted out for films that dare to thrust the spectator into a volatile past with you-are-there bravado; think Reds or Saving Private Ryan or United 93, or a Zhang Yimou epic of twentieth-century China such as To Live). Instead, Hou pushes us back. And it’s that steady distance that alienates some, while stimulating others, but which always refutes the notion that a “documentary” aesthetic is best for helping us understand the cause-and-effect of such things as war, politics, and trauma. Film critic Fergus Daly’s first stated principle in his essay summarizing Hou’s poetics, that “historical memory is impersonal,” certainly applies here, but I wonder if Hou himself would agree with the choice of the word “impersonal.” Because while Hou does seemingly refuse to align the past with a distinct point of view (we never learn who’s making the film about Chiang Bi-Yu and Hao-Tung), we’re constantly invited, via the film’s very concept, to funnel our experiences of that past through the temporal estrangement of Liang Ching (whose position as an actress brings her further from her “character,” Chiang Bi-Yu, then closer to it). Hou’s structure is challenging (he constantly cuts back and forth between the two tales), and the only guide he gives us, Liang, is an unreliable, or at least not fully committed one. Even when Hou provides us, strictly in voice-over, with glimpses of how Liang Ching feels about her part, it’s always abstracted into vagaries. “I feel as if I’m turning into Chiang Bi-Yu,” she intones, while we see black-and-white wartime images scan across the screen. Though they’re played by the same actress (Annie Shizuka Inoh), Liang Ching’s connection to Chiang Bi-Yu remains troublingly vague. What bonds them together—not necessarily in Liang Ching’s mind but in ours, Hou’s, and history’s—is indeed the main question of Good Men, Good Women, and one that Hou refuses to answer.

In fact the entire film is made up of unanswered questions. Good Men, Good Women follows two divergent paths, one set in 1995 (which contains its own wealth of flashbacks to several years earlier) and the other throughout the Forties, and though the two stories are connected in a quite literal manner (through the personage of Liang Ching), metaphorically, spiritually, and even thematically they seem wildly divergent. Despite the film’s fairly graspable structure, Liang’s thread has little to do with her exploits portraying Chiang Bi-Yu—aside from some early test shots of the cast in period peasant garb and a very brief rehearsal sequence, the making of the film within the film doesn’t play much at all into the film’s dialogue and multiplicity of voices. Instead we merely see the film once it’s been completed, its scenes alternating with the contemporary story, and Liang Ching’s presence in the film (or what we assume to be her presence, as it’s Inoh we see in both cases) is our only clue that this is the staged past and not some attempted evocation of the “real” (in any case, the director of this film directs an awful lot like Hou Hsaio-hsien).

Liang Ching may admit to being haunted by the memory of Chiang Bi-Yu, but the actress is surrounded by ghosts from her own, more recent, past. She’s constantly being faxed pages from her own stolen diary, passages of which detail her fiery relationship with small-time gangster Ah-Wei (Jack Kao), which ended some years back when he was murdered by local criminals. The device of the faxes (one of the more forced allegorical gambits Hou’s ever offered), though reminiscent in some ways of the mysterious, accusatory videotapes arriving on Daniel Auteuil’s doorstep in Caché, doesn’t launch anything like Haneke’s wild goose chase investigation; the question here isn’t of motive. The silent thief who’s been harassing Liang remains anonymous right to the end, but Hou doesn’t seem to have much interest in teasing out his identity. Instead, the situation evokes for Liang a more palpable expression of the past’s effects on the present, and the horrible persistence of memory. In dealing with her own, tragic, recent past (is she responsible for his death in some way?), as well as Chiang Bi-Yu’s more academically understood, distant past, Liang is a something of a repository for sins of the personal and political past revisiting the present.

Of course, the tragic events we see transpiring between Chiang Bi-Yu and Hao-Tung and those of Liang Ching and Ah-wei are narratively worlds apart: the former a minimalist chronicle of the socialist couple’s journey from Taiwan to mainland China in 1940 to take part in the resistance to Japan’s domination, only to years later be demonized as Communist sympathizers during Chang Kai-shek’s White Terror, launched in 1947; the latter one of Hou’s portraits of contemporary malaise and stagnation, focusing on the behavior of petty criminals or drug users (see also Goodbye South Goodbye and Millennium Mambo). When involved with Ah-wei, Liang had been an unmoored addict and it’s questionable just how much she’s really cleaned herself up (how much time has transpired between then and the film’s “now” is unclear, for though the diaries, which we hear in voice-over, state that Ah-wei’s murder had been three years prior, the dates of the diary entries themselves are not given). Whether Liang has (or takes) any responsibility in Ah-wei’s death forms the crux of her vaguely defined narrative, and Hou somehow means to connect this with the larger stuff of taking political stock. For Liang to fully inhabit Chiang Bi-Yu and to understand Taiwan’s tumultuous legacy, need she come to terms with her own past? This isn’t a question Hou poses for his character, but for himself, it seems. There’s no such thing as reconciliation here, but there is doubtlessly a reckoning. In trying to find a way to adequately represent Taiwanese national identity, Hou discovers he might as well be asking the same of Taiwanese individual identity. That Liang Ching seems too fragile to withstand such scrutiny only makes her all the more appropriate as an avatar.

And Liang’s identity may be the greatest mystery of Good Men, Good Women: In one seamless single take (is there any other kind in Hou Hsiao-hsien?), Liang is introduced groggily getting out of bed to respond to the calls of her harasser, on phone and fax. As the camera roves around her dimly lit apartment (it could be early morning or mid afternoon, judging by the harsh light coming in through the drawn window shades), not following her exactly but catching her in crucial parts of the frame, we’re already treated to a slew of contradictory personality markers: Isabella Rossellini’s face peers out from a huge, framed Blue Velvet poster propped against the wall, certainly not foregrounded, but conspicuously there; the camera pans past Rossellini’s single, haunted eye and over to the television, which is playing a deceptively sunny scene from Ozu’s Late Spring, Setsuko Hara joyously riding her bicycle down a country street. Dichotomous images of actresses to be sure: which one represents Liang’s persona, if either? Hou would never be so gauche as to explicitly ask this, but as the film continues, and Liang’s identity is constantly split open and reframed (she’s a haunted actress in the present, in and out of period costume; a troubled, bar hostess and junkie in the recent past; a stoic medical student and political prisoner in the film within the film), we’re constantly searching for glimpses of individuality. Is she Rossellini’s bad-omen femme fatale or Hara’s good-natured, devoted daughter?

Of course she doesn’t have to be either, just as history doesn’t have to be easily categorizable. Good Men, Good Women’s structure is willfully inscrutable for much of its running time, as Hou refuses to make those connections that are so much easier to discuss (and write about) until after the fact. Hou jumps from one era to the next, without first grounding us in any sharply defined “reality”; the act of watching gives one the sense of being unmoored—from reality, from time, from people. We become investigators of history, seeking to join unrelated events, scriveners of lost ages. Hou’s job here isn’t to shed light, or conversely to purposely obscure, but rather to create an artistic continuum. So just as Liang’s identity is murky—whether in her incarnation as a troubled bar hostess and addict or as a working actress, she’s a wayward soul—Chiang Bi-Yu’s transition from idealistic freedom fighter to disillusioned, bereft enemy of the state makes her similarly hard to pin down. After being detained as a Japanese spy and interrogated by Chinese officials in 1940, she must sign away her baby for adoption because her aunt won’t take care of it while she’s joined the resistance; later Hao-Tung is executed for Communist sympathies by China’s national security.

Though this would seemingly position her as a silent martyr, Hou shades her and Hao-Tung’s activism in complex tones: when in 1948 they vocally oppose China’s “nakedly feudal system,” by envisioning a pamphlet called The Enlightenment, Hou, for the first time in any of the film’s “past” scenes, shoots in color. Yet this is not some simple attempt to make their actions more vivid or heroic—Hou consistently steers clear of traditional representations of heroism in all of his films. Rather the manner in which he shoots (a camera creeping ever closer to a long table, around which they sit, surrounded by darkness and lit by a single light, their cigarette smoke billowing around their intellectual discussion of China’s ever-tightening nationalist grip) draws distinct parallels with an earlier scene. In that bravura sequence, a group of gangsters (and waste management plant-owning “businessmen”), with whom Ah-wei has been dangerously consorting, are also perched around a smoke-enshrouded dinner table, discussing not the fruits of their idealism, of course, but money. Hou’s camera witnesses most of this through a window separating the private table from the nightclub on the other side of the restaurant, roving back and forth between the spaces, traveling in and out, obscuring the view by peeking through flowers etched in the glass, and later panning back to Liang, as she grabs a mic and starts singing and dancing drunkenly onstage. The scene is a masterpiece of distraction; there’s too much going on, and it’s happening too deliberately, a methodical whirlwind before a narrative bomb finally drops. It’s controlled chaos as only Hou can arrange, and with its visual echoes to the earlier scene, it amounts to historical travesty—an ideological black hole.

Hou’s view is cynical, but rigorous and never hopeless. As with Three Times, some have misconstrued Good Men, Good Women as a simplistic excoriation of contemporary life (of malaise, disconnection, apoliticism) especially since its depiction of such is buffeted up against a more politically engaged moment in history. Yet Hou doesn’t retroactively honor activism; he’s interested in those people caught in the spokes of history rather than those who make grandiose gestures. At the beginning of the film, when the hopeful Taiwanese brigade arrive in mainland China at resistance headquarters, Hou films them in one long take, distant and refusing close-ups, as though ghosts materializing out of a white sunlight, the door to the outside gaping behind them. As the title implies, these are small people, mere citizens, fumbling for meaning and action; like his homeland island, they’re caught throughout the twentieth century between opposed occupying forces. For Hou, it’s an elemental representation of how he sees Taiwan and, thus, history.