Review: Good Men, Good Women (Hou, 1995)
“The movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-hsien,” I wrote after seeing this film at Cannes 2005.
Then, quoting IMDb:
Of the ten films that Hsiao-Hsien Hou directed between 1980 and 1989, seven received best film or best director awards from prestigious international films festivals in Venice, Berlin, Hawaii, and the Festival of the Three Continents in Nantes. In a 1988 worldwide critics’ poll, Hou was championed as “one of the three directors most crucial to the future of cinema.”
I’m not sure how I can verify this (though I have my guesses), but it is certainly gratifying to hear one of your cinematic heroes being praised in no uncertain terms. Well, that’s exaggerating it a bit: the certainty of this praise needs to be seen in the context of the reality of the actual reception of the film on IMDb, a point Ebert himself hinted at: all three films in the Taiwan trilogy averaged well above 7/10, but with ratings from less than 2000 watchers. Good Men Good Women received a measly 611 ratings, less than even the recent expectedly low-viewing Gimme Shelter.
But I guess all of that is beside the point.
This film is the last of his Taiwan Trilogy – the first two being City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster – and arguably the most complex of the three. It is complex in its structure, but not excessively or gratuitously so. It is structurally complex because the essence of the story demands it. In fact, I suspect the meaning of the film must be determined from its structure, even though I may not have enough gusto to explore that here.
The story revolves around a young actress Liang Ching (played by Annie Yi, the Britney Spears, or I guess, Lorde, of the 90s in Taiwan), who is about to be in a film about a patriotic Taiwanese woman Chiang Bi-Yu during the WWII period. The name of that film, of course, is Good Men Good Women. Liang has been receiving stalkerish faxes lately: her diary has been stolen, and she has been receiving faxed pages of them back. These pages are what index what we see of Liang Ching’s own life: in a way, perhaps, they trigger Liang Ching’s memories, and what we see are the remembered experiences.
At this point I need to step back and clarify: what we see in this film has roughly three layers. The first layer is the fax-receiving Liang Ching. The second, the Liang Ching in the past of the current fax-receiving one. The third, the character that Liang Ching is about to play, Chiang Bi-Yu. The film helpfully color-code these three layers: the layers belonging to Liang Ching are in color, and the layer for Chiang Bi-Yu is in roughly black-and-white. I am not sure if the black-and-white part is the actual film, or the film imagined in the mind of Liang Ching, but I think that is somewhat irrelevant.
This film is beautiful in that New Wave way: lush color, slow and considered camera angles, internal monologues. The marks of Hou’s acknowledged master, Ozu, can also be detected in those expansive shots that let what the characters are doing and experiencing build their tensions within their own worlds. What adds to these potencies? What builds these tensions that boil in my mind as well as in my bloated stomach (I had the flu the day before)? What were the factors that made me roll around in the sweetly delirious pain in the living room, to the nervous perplexity of my father (again, the flu)?
I don’t have any concrete answers, I’m afraid. I do want to offer a point. It is about the tension within the story. Liang Ching’s life, as you’d find out, is probably more dramatic than anyone may want. So there’s that tension. But there is also the tension created by the fact that she is reflecting on this drama through those faxes, and then the tension of her imagined life as the character she will be playing, Chiang Bi-Yu. All these scenes are juxtaposed, ordered, and correlated. There is no demonstration, at least according to this reviewer, of any causal relationship, only emotional correlation. The point, if there is any, may be about that well-worn notion of the inherent ambiguity in reconstructing the past, but with one difference: in juxtaposing them together, something is made, if not meaning, then perhaps a kind of peace.
Anyone who’s lived in Taiwan, or have relatives that lived there, probably know the turbulent history this film is trying to re-interpret. What is the point of thinking about the past, especially things as complicated, and most likely un-resolvable, as political, and therefore contested, history? Again, I have no answers. I know this kind of discussions hurt many of my friends who stand at opposing ends of the spectrum, and some have not spoken to each other over it. But in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film, or maybe in art in general, we can make another start: true beauty will itself serve as a point.