Friday, February 03, 2006

Rotterblog (4): Hou Interview

Hou Hsiao-hsien usually comes to Rotterdam to promote the Dutch release of his films (the courageous distribution arm of the Nederlands Filmmuseum has been in the Hou business since A City of Sadness [1989]). Therefore,the few interview slots in Hou's busy schedule are, as a rule, reserved for Dutch journalists. This year the PR gods made an exception and allowed me to interview the Taiwanese master, who just presented his very recent (and wonderful) Three Times to local audiences.

During the 2002 festival, I witnessed Hou's awesome karaoke skills (there has been no encore as of yet this year). In 2006, I got to sit down with him for forty-five minutes*. Here are some of the things hehad to say…

"The fact that my camera moves around more in my recent films has to do with the time we live in. Everything that happens now is very fast. When I look back at the past, at old family photographs, time becomes still. In some of my earlier films I wanted to show this stillness. Now, as you have seen, I use more close-ups and medium shots. Otherwise you just wouldn't be able to see what's going on. There are too many details in the world of today."

"In Flowers of Shanghai [1998] I also used the technique of the wandering camera, though the reasons were very different. When I read the book [upon which the film is based], I felt the author--who lived in the late 19th century --seemed to be right there in the middle of the characters. The camera was my way of showing this."

"I'm sixty years-old now, so it's not so easy for me any more to modernize my way of looking."

"I've been working with Chu Tien-wen [screenwriter] for more than twenty years. In Taiwan she is held in very high regard for her novels and short stories. In twenty years our method of collaboration has more or less stayed the same. I'll come up with an idea for a film and we'll talk two or three times, and then we'll go a long time without talking. Gradually a script will evolve. Because she's an artist in her own right, she sees films as an art and as something that can be very different. I've written many scripts on my own and I'll realize there are many things I haven't put much thought into. Chu helps me to go deeper. But we don't just talk about film and making films… we talk about paintings, novels, Taiwanese social issues…"

"Mark Lee Ping-bing [cinematographer] is my closest associate. I'm very particular about lighting. Whenshooting on location, Mark will work with the naturallight that is there while I'm usually busy with otherthings, like making the actors comfortable. In Three Times we used very few lamps, some red filters… Mark goes to location first, I show up, we talk, and it doesn't take a lot of time. The actors in my films are told to move about freely, so sometimes the results of the lighting are very unexpected. After one take, Mark will know what I want to do--that usually works out quite well. We're very similar, when we're working with concrete things, especially shooting on location,and we play with the possibilities endlessly."

"Realism is the main thing in most of my films. It's important that we record all the dialogues on location. Tu Du-che [sound designer] uses a recording device with eight channels of sound. All the sounds onthe location are recorded, and most of them end up being used. In action films or thrillers, sounds are distorted and enlarged. In my films there's no need for this."

"The way that I deal with time in Three Times is similar in some of my earlier films, such as The Puppetmaster [1993]. By revealing different situations you discover the characters' social backgrounds, their ambitions. In The Puppetmaster, the age of the characters was very important: by using a three year-old boy and a twelve year-old girl I could show the way the parents dealt with the very different needs that young kids have. It reveals their personality, their class… In Three Times, in each of the three parts, the characters come from very different backgrounds and have very different needs.The details become important, though the effect it has on the audience is not a direct one at first."

* Not nearly enough time, even with the expert translation skills of [interpreter's name to appear here as soon as I find it out].

--Gabe Klinger


scoot said...

that is simply amazing...

i can't believe you actually had the opportunity to interview hou hsiao hsien.

did he have any interesting quirks?

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for dropping by, Scoot. (Nice blog, too.) Hopefully Gabe will be able to answer your question about HHH's quirks.

I hope others have enjoyed Gabe's Rotterdam reports, and this Hou entry, because it hasn't seemed to attract much attention, but I feel that it should. Gabe has been a tireless proponent of Hou's work for years, even devoting an entire issue of 24fps to The Puppetmaster.

Gabe Klinger said...

No quirks. Hou's a smoker, though he didn't smoke during our interview, probably out of politeness. (Being an occasional smoker, I wouldn't have cared...)

Also, even though he was addressing the translator for most of the interview, he did look over to me every now and again with a smile or some expressive gesture, which I thought was considerate.

When I asked if we could take a photo together, he said something to the effect of, "Of course!" He also made a face like he was disappointed when the interview time ended. I was pretty disappointed too, since he seemed to be just warming up.

Zach, I suspect many people haven't seen THREE TIMES, which is why the interview hasn't generated much attention (aside from the Greencine mention).

(Oh, and P.S.: Final Rotterdam entry will be submitted sometime tonight. In between the closing night party and missing my flight on Sunday, I haven't been able to get much done.)

Ryan said...

Gabe, did you give a copy of the aforementioned 24fps to Hou?

Excellent interview, btw. I thought the first and third segments of Three Times were among the best work of Hou's career, the 60s segment displaying a warmth heretofore undetected me and the contemporary segment a newfound visual style (incorporating medium shots) that really captures the 21st century Asian metropolitan vibe.

I really don't know about using intertitles in the middle segment, though, considering that visually, the film is very much in the style of Flowers of Shanghai rather than a Guy Maddin-type ersatz-silent. Did you happen to ask him about the use of intertitles?

Gabe Klinger said...

Ryan, I gave him the 24fps issue back in 2002. He never commented on it.

I liked the 1960's section the least, though I probably have to see it again.

And no, I didn't get a chance to ask him about his use of intertitles -- I didn't get a chance to ask him a lot of things! With translation, 45 minutes really turns into 20 minutes...