A Red Balloon for 2006
Friday August 4, 2006
Admirers of the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien may be surprised to hear that the great Taiwanese director is currently making a film in Paris, starring Juliette Binoche. Not until Café Lumière in 2003 did the 59-year-old venture outside his native country, and even then he travelled no further than Tokyo to create his homage to the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. The elegant, humanistic films that established his reputation with arthouse audiences and festival jurists around the world - including City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women - were concerned with explo- rations of the condition of an island marooned, in psychogeographical terms, between China and Japan. "I used to think I couldn't film abroad because film is so much about the details of life," he says during a day off the set last week. "When the Japanese asked me to go and make a film to celebrate Ozu's centenary, I said, 'Well, I'll give it a try' - I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to get it right. But my Japanese friends came to me after they'd seen it and they said, 'You've got more of the essence of the Japanese than Japanese film-makers do.' So I became braver after that."
Hou often seems more interested in his female characters than in the male roles, and the new film looks at the life of a French woman through the eyes of her Taiwanese au pair. "The working title comes from the famous French film of 1956, Red Balloon," he says. "I'd like to call it Red Balloon 2006, but we've got some talking to do with the producers about intellectual property issues." Until that film appears, British audiences have a chance to catch up with Hou's latest completed work, the winner of two awards at last year's Cannes festival: best actress for Shu Qi (who stars opposite Chen Chang in all three of the separate stories that make up the film) and best film-maker for Hou. Three Times depicts the relation- ships between men and women during three distinct periods in the recent history of an island ruled by Japan for the first half of the 20th century and for the remainder by Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang, which finally gave way in the election of 2000 to the Democratic Progressive Party.
It begins with a story set in 1966, in the sort of pool hall that the director himself frequented as a young man. In the second story, set in 1911, the actors play an anti-Japanese political activist and a courtesan; the dialogue appears in the form of intertitles and the only sound is that of music. Finally, the pair portray a photographer and a post-punk singer in a story in 2005. The steady gaze of Hou's camera reveals an underlying sadness that seems to belong not merely to contemporary Taipei but to the world. The point of using the same actors, Hou says, was to help emphasise the differences between the eras. For him, the final section was the hardest to achieve. "How to weigh up young people - that was the difficulty. When I was young and making films about young people, it was very simple. Of course, as an older person you can portray younger people, but to convey a clear impression of the state they're in, that presents a challenge. Now young people seem to be going through a period of great upheaval. Computers, the internet, globalisation ... Taiwan is an island that absorbs outside influences very quickly. And with them come social values."