Together with films by fellow Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers like Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang, Hsiao-hsien’s work poses the ultimate challenge to Hollywood’s action-packed blockbusters.
Many argue that their signature withdrawal from special effects and twisted narratives takes cinema back to the root of the artform. Hsiao-Hsien’s films can be characterised by long, wide shots, scenic views, great attention to detail, and often very little dialogue. His films, like all great pieces of art, have to be seen more than once in order to be fully understood.
The world of cinema is still very male-dominated, but outside the Hollywood ‘boy’s club’, filmmakers like Hsiao-Hsien are trying to tell more female stories. The combination of slow cinematic techniques and strong female characters brings a new dimension to women’s stories, as Hsiao-Hsien’s films transport the audience right to the heart of the female experience. Though not necessarily referred to as a feminist filmmaker, the majority of Hsiao-Hsien’s late films are seem from a female perspective.
A good place to start understanding Hsiao-Hsien’s relationship with female narratives is Flowers of Shanghai (1998). One of the most successful works of the filmmaker, it tells a story about women working in high-end brothels in 1880s Shanghai. With the usual attention to detail, the camera slowly pans across the walls of the brothel, one long take at a time. Flowers of Shanghai is about the everyday life of the prostitutes and their patrons: the habits, duties and gossip.
It’s a tale of hope, sadness and love, within the opium-soaked, dark walls of the brothels. The reality of the women is portrayed in a non-discrete and authentic way: very few of them ever manage to leave the place, and the only way to do it is through a man.
Seven years later, Hsiao-hsien directed another beautiful love story, Three Times. It is a romantic, yet tragic tale of two lovers, set in three different times: 1966, 1911, and 2005. The main actress is the auteur’s muse Shu Qi, playful and independent in the first part, submissive and quiet in the second, and then mysterious and free-spirited in the last segment of the film. It is very effective in portraying the everyday life of a Chinese woman and the tendencies of a relationship at a given period.
Cafe Lumiere (2003) and Millenium Mambo (2001) are also great examples of Hsiao-Hsien’s female stories. The former is a slow-paced tale about a pregnant woman looking for a cafe, in which her research subject was a frequent guest. It is a tribute to the late Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu, seen through a woman’s eyes. Millennium Mambo, on the other hand, is an abstract drama set in contemporary Shanghai, which deals with the relationships and issues of a dreamy and confused young woman. Starring director’s favourite Qi, it is poetic, mysterious, and a different kind of cinematic experience, grown and mature; if you learn to appreciate and understand it, it touches you on a whole different level.
Hsiao-Hsien’s most recent film The Assassin, which won him Best Director at Cannes Film Festival last year, can be seen across the UK from the 22d of January. It is a story of an invincible female assassin Nie Yinniang (Qi again), betrayed by her family, and faced with a decision that will change her life forever. This film shows a different kind of female story and presents a new dimension to Hsiao-Hsien’s art. Instead of his typically relatable and everyday characters, The Assassin is about the Tang dynasty in 9th century China, and, for the first time, the filmmaker took upon the challenge to depict the wuxia tradition, away from his usual social-realist style.
But compared to other high-paced, gravity-defying dramatic martial arts films, The Assassin is a CGI-free, slow-paced picture that tells a story through stunning landscape, captivating sound and meticulous details.
Hsiao-hsien is a master of telling emotionally engaging female stories in his minimalist, picturesque and realist style. If you allow them to, his films challenge and touch you on the deepest level. They are, by no means, an easy watch, but their intimate, yet distant narratives mesmerise and make the audience appreciate the art of cinema at its very best.