This Time Is Personal
Mark Asch on The Boys from Fengkuei

Most filmmakers prefer a god’s-eye-view, being as they are the creators of the diegetic universe; Hou Hsiao-hsien nestles into the elusive essence of the quotidian. Given that slippery emphasis, and frequent lack of any cold hard data or elaborate architecture (beyond the obvious technical aptitude evidenced by his long-take choreography), to grasp onto, people who don’t like Hou complain: “Nothing happens.” To people who feel a deep personal affinity with Hou’s representation of time and space, this has always seemed a pretty reductive way of talking about films as beautiful and moving as Hou’s—though describing his films as merely beautiful and moving is pretty reductive, too.

Talking about Under Capricorn in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Robin Wood makes a distinction between “descriptive” and “evaluative” critical language; to attribute positive or negative evaluative adjectives to a movie is to reduce it to a product that either fails or succeeds at making us think pleasant thoughts and feel pleasant sensations, and to reduce criticism to consumer advocacy. (And a particularly useless form thereof, since even if one bristles at the notion that Everything Is Subjective one must still surely concede that There’s No Accounting for Taste.) So to say that Hou’s fourth film, The Boys from Fengkuei, is visually beautiful or emotionally moving, to say that it feels psychologically “right” or to classify it as “a minor masterpiece,” is to be evaluative rather than descriptive, but how else to sum up a film that aims for immersion in fleeting, ultimately personal impressions, and demands such a personal response? It’s hard to satisfactorily explain why you will love this movie’s lush spacetime, though everything I’ll say in this essay will be in the service of explaining why you will. But, oh, You. And oh, I.

Familiarity of the personal is, perhaps, why Hou’s fourth film, The Boys from Fengkuei, leafs through the same dog-eared locations as other vignettish all-the-young-dudes remembrances like I vitelloni, Diner, and, more recently and self-consciously, Reprise: a pool hall or bar or restaurant for hanging out, a movie theater for acting out, a water’s edge for contemplating past and future, a parents’ kitchen for sadly scarfing homecoming meals. Pop songs in their heads, the boys chase each other in circles, until their own centrifugal force sends them spinning off into the arms of one of the girls outside the circle, and forward into maturity. These stories of leaving home, of growing up with and apart from friends, are told in the past tense whether set there or in the present: even as Fengkuei unfolds in the year of its release, 1984, Vivaldi on the soundtrack invoke the passage of the seasons, seeming to elegize the present.

And as the past is always present, memory is always the subject of a Hou film, even when it’s not: Hou’s filmmaking is a way of articulating and relating a personal experience of time and place. Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien notated the call-and-response between Hou’s youthful days and early films, including the scrappy, comradely boyhood depicted in Fengkuei, but even as Hou’s films have moved chronologically backward, into Taiwan’s past, or geographically outward, into a wired global Now, his films have felt more personal. Hou’s long-take style, three decades (and counting) in the perfecting, elongates moments into pools of light and movement. Scene by scene, Hou constructs character relationships and cultural realities; shot by shot, he privileges the textures of spacetime over narrative incident. Even plot development is often staged around memory pegs like food or songs (or both, as in chanted drinking games or karaoke bars).

The Boys from Fengkuei is anecdotal by most standards, but watermarked in its snapshots is a clear causal chain of events. Written by novelist Chu T’ien-wen, Hou’s regular screenplay collaborator, it’s the story of four friends, seventeen years old or so and recently out of school, and two leave-takings: first together, striking out on a boys’ own adventure; and ultimately apart, striking out their own. It begins in Fengkuei, a village on Penghu Island (part of the Pescadores—Portugese for fishermen—off Taiwan’s West coast). The opening credits run over establishing shots of the coastal town, built of weather-worn concrete looking ramshackle and out-of-time, and a pool hall (the arrangement of green felt and primary-colored balls, and print shirts and tight slacks, would later be echoed in the first, semi-autobiographical, third of Hou’s Three Times). As the credits end, Hou isolates his protagonist, Ching-tzu, from the group at the pool hall: he comes home, sidestepping his father’s rocking chair on the porch, to eat and run, to his mother’s clucks of disapproval. Staying with her for the moment, Hou shows her scolding her vaguely responsive husband for leaving his chair in the sun; a cut to a close-up of his face reveals a caved-in forehead, expression of brain-dead placidity, and a fly crawling on shoulder. Mother’s disapproval and father’s disability, and his avoidance of both, define Ching-tzu immediately.

But boys will be boys: Ching-tzu and his friends ride motorcycles around, two to a bike; they sneak into a movie theater through the back gate, and roughhouse with easy jocularity. During the opening credits, as they saunter out of the pool hall, one detours to the outhouse; the others spit and splash water at him through the windows, dousing instead the stranger in the next stall. It’s a farce that repeats itself thereafter as drama, as an unrelated sidewalk scuffle sets off a daisy chain of violent reprisals visited mostly on surrogates, and driving the boys first up the coast, where one, Kuo-tzu, has access to an uncle’s unoccupied house—there, they splash around in the surf and stare out at the ocean, and flirt with a local girl—and then back home, where family pressures and the specter of Kuo-tzu’s compulsory military service motivate a longer-range flight from the nest. Ching-tzu leaves at first light, taking a last, long look at his father on the way out, and the boys ship out, goofily waving bye-bye down to the dock where their friend Potato, who’d previously paired off with the girl from up the coast, remains.

The second goodbye is longer. Arriving in Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s second-largest city), the boys from Fengkuei are a trio of country mice, bow-headed as lunkish Ah-jung, the most boisterous of the three, is berated by his older sister, so urbanized that she answers the door in a towel. (Later, he’ll be shocked to walk into her apartment and meet a stranger, almost twice his age, who introduces himself as his sister’s husband—played, unless photographs have misled me, by Hou himself, resplendently jheri-curled.) Sis, though, sets them up in an apartment across a leafy courtyard from Chin-ho, a factory worker and night student, and Hsiao-hsing, his girlfriend and an object of immediate fascination for the hungry eyes across the way.

For scenes in which Chin-ho, Hsiao-hsing, and the boys walk through downtown, drink and eat out or at home, around the ubiquitous straw chair on Chin-ho’s deck, Hou sketches the pleasure the five take in each other’s company, and the impending sense of loss. Ching-tzu watches from across the way at the sniping, teary dissolution of Chin-ho and Hsiao-hsing’s relationship—Chin-ho, too, heads out to sea, leaving his girlfriend to stay on in their home. As Ching-tzu begins to spend more (platonic) time with Hsiao-hsing than with his friends, he gets protective and touchy, demonstrating the friction of these friends starting to define themselves from one another.

To connect all these causes and effects, particularly Ching-tzu’s from-afar fascination with Hsiao-hsing and the resentments between her and Chin-ho, the viewer must be attuned to content that’s often buried within Fengkuei’s scenes, which tend to linger on, often wordlessly. Formal delineation of character relationships, even of characters’ physical relationship to the world, is secondary to the feel of behavior and place: during the interlude at Kuo-tzu’s uncle’s shack, Hou opens a scene with a wide shot of the quartet dancing and mugging on the retaining wall as waves crash behind them. He holds the shot for more than fifteen seconds before cutting to a camera position further back, framing them in the doorway of a fishing shed (they were in front of a shed?), from over the shoulder of Chin-hua, the intended audience for their antics (they were trying to impress a girl?). The languorous Hou Western viewers know from his more recent, readily available works might have stretched this scene into revelry with one of those continuous, drifting takes—but those viewers can see how he got from here to there, when even the most efficient continuity edits value impressions over context.

In scenes like this, Hou is working out how an individual consciousness might order and be attentive to the totality of the surrounding world. In later Hou films the camera does the prioritizing; here, he has something like a surrogate in Ching-tzu. Close-ups, amid socializing otherwise shot medium-out to contain the whole group, establish Ching-tzu alone as an interior as well as exterior presence. His mind is, literally, somewhere else: sitting in a movie theater and periodically thereafter, he remembers his father healthy, in flashbacks bright and washed out like a sun-faded photograph. These memories, and the shame manifested in the forced callousness with which Ching-tzu feeds his father his dinner, make it clear that Ching-tzu’s unresolved feelings about his father set him fidgeting all the way to the mainland, away from such a stabbing reminder of the immobility of small-town existence. Not that they talk about it, but Hsiao-hsing can relate: traveling with Ching-tzu on a return visit to Fengkuei, she stops by Chin-ho’s old homestead, to find his sister-in-law on her knees scraping flies off fish, husband and father-in-law off at sea—and several scenes later, Hsiao-hsing leaves the apartment she and Chin-ho shared, heading for her sister’s in Tapei. The point of these excavations of Ching-tzu and Hsiao-hsing’s motivations is that in Hou’s films the audience is enlisted in transcribing the subterranean blues that drive action—and in charting the resonant overlaps between characters’ unspoken selves. It’s the audience’s job because these people, like Chin-ho and his family, are at sea, even from their nearest and dearest. Characters learn of a death in the family from letters delivered while they were out; siblings neglect to mention their spouses.

Hou’s camera, like his characters, keeps its distance, but it’s a different kind of distance. Chin-ho and Hsiao-hsing’s deck is generally seen from across the courtyard, whether Ching-tzu is watching or not; when filming people Hou generally keeps to a master shot, sparingly using shot-reverse shot to establish point-of-view, and close-ups of faces to establish a network of glances. The Kaohsiung street scenes, especially, are framed in long shots, often across a heavily trafficked street from the boys, with commerce and society all around them, and buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians often crossing between them and the camera. Hou dubs in the boys’ dialogue only when necessary for the plot, generally preferring to keep their speech submerged in busy ambient sound, an aural counterpart to a visual style that insists upon these character interactions as a small corner of a wide world. (Hou especially maintains distance during violence, framing the action in long shot and keeping his camera stationary as combatants dash in and out of the frame—it’s during moments of heightened dramatic activity that he’s most adamant about the world’s immutability.)

In parallel moments, as Fengkuei nears its conclusion, Hou uses the persistence of space to mourn a character’s departure. (Having a familiar, now vacated space as a stand-in for absence is an explicitly Ozu device—that Hou claimed not to have seen, at the time of Fengkuei, any Ozu films only underscores the inherent harmony of their philosophies.) When Ching-tzu returns home for his father’s funeral, Hou cuts from the ceremony to a shot of Ching-tzu’s father’s now empty rocking chair, a subsequent cut to a reverse shot of Ching-tzu establishing the prior shot as his point of view, and placing it in chronological relationship to the prior scene; later, when Hsio-hsing leaves Kaohsiung to live with her sister, Hou is even freer with an emotional (rather than spatial) point-of-view shot, cutting from Ching-tzu watching her bus leave, to their empty street, to the empty deck of her apartment, the empty straw chair centered in the frame—and then to Ching-tzu, now in a different shirt, walking down the street to the market stand where Ah-jung and Kuo-tzu sell cassettes. The relationship defined by these two empty chairs, paramount in Hou’s cinema of the unrepeatable present, is the tenuous existence of transient people in eternal places. Accumulated memory—looking at his father’s chair, Ching-tzu recalls being a boy and watching his father rise from it to leave for work, a 180-degree pan bridging present and past—is often the only trace remaining; what Hou writes on celluloid might otherwise be written on water.

All this—the foregrounding of the moment, the intuited interrelation, the awareness of ephemerality—is to say that Hou’s is a subjective cinema. Not just that his cinema refracts the world through a distinct sensibility, but that that sensibility is concerned with a personal identity and its relationship to the world. Hou can be a hard artist to write about, because he evokes such a personal sense of things, and in so doing works on his audience at such a gut level. But because we seek to be descriptive and objective, rather than evaluative and subjective, it saps the value from our insights to say “I think” when talking about a Hou film. (Even though “I think” is generally implied, or should be, in everything a critic says.) This is why it’s always been easier to make lofty claims about Hou Hsiao-hsien when the personal is political: the dust-in-the-wind family historical epic City of Sadness and the reflexive living-memory constructions The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women provide us with cultural and formal baggage to unpack, with the aid of an objectively defined descriptive vocabulary of words like “historiography.” And why it’s easier, for someone unaccustomed to responding personally to a personal cinema, to simply say that nothing happens.

In The Boys from Fengkuei, a vendor on a motor scooter sells Ching-tzu, Ah-jung, and Kuo-tzu tickets to a pornographic movie (“in color, big screen”), supposedly playing in a theater on the eleventh floor of what looks like an abandoned building. They buy the tickets, take the stairs, and walk out onto the eleventh floor of what is indeed an abandoned building, with one open wall—its dimensions making a widescreen aspect ratio quite close to that of the film—looking out onto Kaohsiung. The boys complain that they “spent [their money] to look at the view”—which Hou does, panning back and forth across the city laid out before them. To me the view looks gorgeous and fertile with possibility, and so to the “nothing happens” crew I’ve only ever been able to respond: “Everything happens!”

And yet surely, of Boys from Fengkuei’s nostalgic, coming-of-age, navel-gazing mode, little is lost in the translation from Taiwanese to English, or Italian, or Norwegian. And the sense of personal spacetime couldn’t be more logical than in a movie whose literally translated title is “All the Youthful Days.” So I’d like to propose The Boys from Fengkuei as a point of entry and statement of purpose, a way of acclimating the unconvinced. In the last scene, immediately after Hsiao-hsing rides away, leaving Ching-tzu lonely and her chair empty, Ching-tzu wanders over to Ah-jung and Kuo-tzu’s cassette stand, sits and smokes, and learns that the latter is to be conscripted into the army in two days’ time—he will go back to Fengkuei the next morning. As his friends try to unload the merchandize, Ching-tzu jumps up onto his stool and begins barking to the crowd: army induction sale, low, low prices. Everything must go. Indeed, everything must—which is why Hou Hsiao-hsien makes movies the way he does.