A rare opportunity to sample the Taiwanese auteur’s films on the big screen.

The glass-half-empty aspect of the Hsiao-hsien Hou retrospective at the 9th Chennai International Film Festival (14-22 December 2011) is the absence of the dreamy “Flight of the Red Balloon”. But lovers of languorously paced cinema will claim that the glass is half full simply because of this rare opportunity to sample the Taiwanese auteur’s films on the big screen. Hou’s cinema can be maddeningly polarising. “Red Balloon”, for instance, prompted the New York Times to summarise the director’s ethic as replacing “the rigid linearity of the three-act model with complex, impressionistic forms; isolated gestures; fugitive moments; saturated moods; and visual harmony.” The critic for MTV, however, wasn’t as smitten. He declared brusquely, “The movie is like a documentary about a very dull day.”

But what is a film festival if not the monastic urge to renounce, if only for a few days, the shallower pleasures of the cinema? The five films chosen (and presented in the World Cinema section) – “A Summer at Grandpa’s”; “Good Men, Good Women”; “Goodbye South Goodbye”; “Daughter of the Nile”; “Café Lumiere” – sprawl over two decades, from 1984 to 2003, and they give a glimpse into the evolving concerns of a famously static filmmaker. In “A Summer at Grandpa’s”, the earliest film, two children, brother and sister, are exiled to a grandfather’s home as their mother battles an illness. “Daughter of the Nile” isn’t, as you’d expect, a chronicle of Cleopatra, though it does appropriate the Bangles’ pop hit Walk like an Egyptian. Like its predecessor, this is the story of siblings distanced from parents. But they’re teenagers now, assailed by other wants.

These early films are rarities that surface only at festivals, and if you haven’t encountered Hou, they are as accessible a portal to his private world as you’re likely to get. The other films are more widely seen. “Good Men, Good Women” is, like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a rippling merger of past and present, shown through the eyes of a modern-day actress preparing for a historical epic, whose heroine she will play. In “Goodbye South, Goodbye”, Hou lays bare his homeland of the 1990s, a nation of youths desperate for easy, quick money. The last film, “Café Lumière”, Hou’s first non-Taiwanese tale, was premiered at the centenary of Ozu’s birth, and it mimics the Japanese master’s long takes and static set-ups and profound love for shots of trains. The Times called it “a fascinating curiosity, a chance to witness one major filmmaker paying tribute to another in the form of a rigorously minor film.” Not a word was heard from MTV.

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