Monday, September 19, 2011
Letter to F - on Good Men, Good Women by Hou Hsiao Hsien
by Rüdiger Tomczak
(provisorily translation from German, shomingeki No. 2, June 1996)
Today, I have to tell You about an extraordinary film which could see by chance. You probably remember my disappointment, that I couldn't see this film last year in Montréal.
During the titles, we hear a song, which is sung by a group of men and women. In the first picture (in black and white), this group is walking through a landscape. “So why don't we sing”. It seems that they want to encourage each other with that song. Eternal slow, they are coming to the direction of the camera, pass it and leave the frame at the right side.
An apartment, in which two telephone beeps are listened. In the left part of the picture, an almost invisible person, that was woken up by the sounds, moves and gets up. It is the actress Liang Ching. Strangely, Video recorder and television are switched on. We recognize on the monitor a sequence from Banshun, one of the most beautiful films of Yasujiro Ozu. She takes off the paper from her tax machine machine. Someone must have stolen her diary and had faxed her some sides of it. An intimate diary side, three years after her boyfriend Ah-Wei was shot down in a bar: L and I screwed without a rubber. L was knocked down by my frenzy. It felt like it was with Ah-Wei. There is someone who has entrance to a strange story with the help of a machine with that past can be made to present. She sings a song which comes suddenly in her mind and disappears behind a wall of glass-mosaic-stones into the bathroom. She leaves the visible room and walks as well into another time, while we are still listening the song, which she sings in the present: Without You, I don't know how I am to live.
There, she is sleeping with her lover in front of a mirror. I am feeling like an invader, who watches from a hidden place an intimate scene, without being seen. For this one moment, I see myself as the unknown diary-thieve who goes into Liang Chings story.
Liang Ching during rehearsals for her role in the film Good Men, Good Women: she will play the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, who followed her lover Chung Hao-Tung to the mainland for joining the resistance against the Japanese occupators at world war II. Then, at the first view confusing, a deco loured sequence. Chiang Bi-Yu informs her father that she will follow her lover to the mainland. This shot is quite and almost as inevitable like the films of Ozu. Beside present and past, there is also the imagination of Liang Ching who works out her role and begins more and more to identify herself with it. It seems that this film consists of the coordination of three possible ones. Later we see in a total view a small group walking through the landscape. We can hear a melancholic music. From the distance, these people seem so fragile like this sequence seems faraway. It is almost unbearable. For seconds, the view distracts; the camera moves through the tops of trees. The group is received by other resistance-members. Faces almost in reverse-light and interiors as lighted like a human eye would realize them without the electric film light. Like the reduced light in The Puppetmaster could have to do with the fragility of memories, the deco loured sequences here could have to do with the one of the human imagination.
Haonan Haonu is permanent changing between this levels, which vary from each other and correspondent with them as well. In her apartment, she is always devoured by the uncanny power of her story. Episodes from her time with Ah-Wei, which are only fragments of her story, like sides of a diary, put out of the context. Once, they are dancing, another time she disturbs him while he wants to piss. There is often a cold blue over these memories. They seem to be in a strange kind like prisoners in Liang Chings memories.
Liang Chings off-voice leads again over to a black and white sequence. Here are the new arrived people interrogated with mistrust by the other resistance-fighters. A translator has to go between Taiwanese and mainlanders, because of their different languages. In this long, hardly lighted sequences, the problems of communication is felt. Like in A City Of Sadness, there is a chaos of communication. Hou insists on that authenticity of the variations of languages and as well on the time which is needed for the communication. Like in A City Of Sadness, language appears in variations. The one will provoke confusions, another one tries to bring something in order like the off-commentaries of Liang Ching.
Liang Ching tells about the real Chiang Bi-yu, whom she visited in the hospital. Her diary-recitations and the music seem like fragile transitions between the different time, and reality-levels and add as well a new aspect. That may have (after all reactions I heard about) bother some critics. But when we just begin to think about the much facets from which a life is built, I can't imagine a clearer film.
In a very long shot, Liang Ching and Ah-Wei are talking about the possibility of having a child. She is preparing her make-up, while we see them again from the perspective of a voyeur. We feel the same dis convenience like in the first flashback.
Bare trees. Women in nurse uniforms wash for the whole camp of the resistance-fighters. A pregnant woman who is in labours, is winding in pain. The music and the lack of colors emphasize the differences from the other parts of the film, from the present and the flashbacks. Lyrical sequences, which seem strangely out of time and in the spiritual near of Ozu. Every person, every gesture, every landscape, every tree is sacred.
Liang Ching sits with her brother in law and another man in a restaurant. They are talking about business and the anonymous phone calls, which bother Liang Ching, while we hear pop music from the loudspeakers. From time to time, somebody stands up for having a phone call in the depth of the picture with a handy. Later about the end of this extremely long sequence, we hear the song: All around I see gilded lives. This song drives her back into the past. Once she was a junky. There, Ah-Wei chains her for bringing her away from drugs. He feeds her, she spit him into his face. He had betray her once with another woman. When she is crying in his arms, she seems helpless like a child. She, who is permanent commenting the film from the off, seems as the storyteller as well as a person whose story is told. That reminds me in the imagine I have from Hou Hsiao Hsien, like I saw him in Edward Yangs film Taipei Story. He, that seems to me, can put his whole life and experiences to let become it poetry. But the transparence of his personality means as evident like that of a child.
Landscapes watched from a driving train or car. The voice of Liang Ching recites a sad part of her diary. Here, she tells from an awakening after a drunken night, like she awaked nude and threw out. She is a lost soul, wandering about between the times, her story, her present and the imagined time of her interpretation of Chiang Bi-yu.
Hou Hsiao hsien, he is like Ozu a Prometheus of the cinema, who suffers with and for his creatures. There is the feeling that every tear in this film could one of him and with every death in this film, a part of him dies with him.
There is Liang Ching with some men in a music-bar. A gigantic machine with light effects let appear her in different colors. She sits drunken in a corner, sometimes disappearing in this chaos of light, colors and shadow. She stands up, staggers, falls, staggers to the stage, where Music is played. She takes the microphone and sings: All around I see gilded Lives, but mine is tarnished. All around I hear words of Jade, but mine are luckless. Why I was born under a bad star? While she is absorbed by her performance, she is suddenly dancing with the death Ah-Wei. An Intoxication of alcohol, music and light which unifies for a moment past and present. A shot - Ah-Wei falls. The camera moves back in this ocean of reflecting lights. The time is suspended. Only space is existing. Later, she sits again in her apartment. She carries herself hardly into the bathroom, disappears behind a wall of glass mosaic-stones and throw out. We don't see her any more, but we can feel the pain of an identity, who is tortured by her own history. The driven away find its way through the body. Memories like sudden attacks of pain.
This film does not help to forget the world, it reflects it painfully. You know, for my side, the fax machine, the mobiles and the light machines in the bars of this film have something demonic. The machines, we created (including the cinematograph), through what we believe to overcome time and space are turning against us. A fax machine bores in the sense of the word in the story of Liang Ching. I almost believe that it has more influence in the course of her memories, than she herself. Is it possible to love the cinema and mistrust it at the same time, because of the ambivalent possibilities of its apparatus? I remember the almost utopia moments in The Puppetmaster, when the old puppetmaster looks direct into the camera and tells. There he has a presence which is stronger than the cinematograph. In Good Men, Good Women, the persons have to defend their presence against the disappearance in the anonymity of history and against the uncanny time machine cinema.
Chiang Bi-yu and Chung Hao-tung return to Taiwan after the war. They will be imprisoned by the national government, because of their marxistic opinion. At night, soldiers take two women in their houses for arresting. In the half darkness, an irritated child stays in the weak light of a lamp. Later, we see the corridor of the prison. Two men almost carry the brutal beaten Chung Hao-tung. Behind a grill of a compartment door, there are women looking at the corridor. A soldier comes, spell a name of one of these women. She takes a silent farewell from the others. Brutal and noisy the prison door is shut again. The interior is just visible through the grille. Later, there are more women, sent to the judge. One, who stays in the compartment, presses her face against the grille. In one of this compartments somebody begins to sing. One after one, more women and men sing along. The empty corridor in its eternal depth. Somewhere in these catacombs, there will be tortured and killed. That does not need to be shown. We can feel it.
Here, I had to think again of You, about Your history, the one of Your family and the land in which You were born and where You spent the first years of Your live. Today, nobody talks about that any more. It is now history. But it is still alive in Your memories.
Liang Ching is fighting with her sister, because of a seemingly affair between Liang Chian and her brother in law. They are beating each other on a tennis field. Later in a discotheque, they are dancing together with another friend. Close cling ed like children in an inferno of light and color-effects. Later, in Liang Chings apartment, the telephone rings again. She talks and nobody answers. Her monologue becomes to an imagined dialogue with the death Ah-Wei. She begs him to come back. The time is again suspended for a moment. She sings with tears in her voice: All around I see gilded lives, but mine is tarnished. All around I hear words of Jade, but mine are luckless. Why I was born under a bad star?
While we still hear her song, the film transits again into a black and white sequence. A man hangs a list of executed persons on a wall. Then, a boy informs a family, that the name of Chung Hao-tung was on this list. From the official information to the intimate sphere of a family in which history comes in with violence: the deathbed where Liang Ching is kneeing beside. We hear the voice over recited farewell-letter of Chung Hao-tung. The picture becomes colored. The face of Chiang Bi-yu during the death celebration: like in a silent film, we hear the musical Leitmotiv (now sung by a male voice) which sounds like a death complaint. That is not any more just the story of Chiang Bi-yu and Chung Hao-tung. It is at first a performance. The face of Chiang Bi-yu/Liang Ching is absorbed by in this performance of an performance. The expression of sadness in her seemingly aged face. I think, I saw something incredible. For this moment, the stories of Chiang Bi-yu and Liang Ching are fusing in the face of Annie Shizukah Inoh to an almost uncanny expression of sadness. That is as intensive and touching like the aria Have mercy oh Lord in Johann Sebastian Bachs St. Matthews Passion.
At the end, again the singing women and men walking through the landscape. This time, the picture is coloured. From the off tells Liang Ching/Annie Shizukah Inoh that the real Chiang Bi-yu has died before the end of the film teams work. Now we hear again the song, until they have lest the frame on the right side. Fade out. White signs on black background. Dedicated to Mr. Chung Hao-tung and Mrs. Chiang Bi-yu and all the political victims of the 1950s. Like at the end of A City Of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, a closing ceremony like a monument. It seems together with the music like a requiem. Everything is mortal, every life of touching fragility.
I dream about seeing this, one of the most touching film, I have ever seen, one day with You together. Let us then talk about films, about the “good men, good women” in our stories or what they could have to do with each other. I have told the whole time about this film but at the same time I thought only of You.