Hou Hsiao-Hsien | The Time to Live and the Time to Die | Millennium Mambo | Café Lumière | Three Times

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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The Time to Live and the Time to Die

Politics and History

The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) is an autobiographical film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, detailing his growing up in Southern Taiwan in the 1940's and 1950's. It tells the story of his whole family in those years as well. Hou carefully includes political changes in the background, including radio reports of the fighting over the Communist takeover on the mainland, that prevented his family from going back to China. Hou also carefully shows technological charges. The family moves to Taiwan in the first place, in part because there is tap water already available there. Soon, men come to install electricity. Later, we see the arrival of motorcycles, train travel, and the ever growing numbers of motor cars.

Hou became involved in gangs as a teenager, as were many boys in his neighborhood. He blames this in the film on the disintegration of Confucian ideals, due to his family's isolation from the mainland. One could question this analysis - after all, gangs are also a major problem in the USA, where the loss of Confucian ideals has never affected most of the population. Still, there is a powerful contrast between the lives of the parents in this film, and their devotion to traditional duty, and the aimless lives of their sons.

Hou also shows the down sides of Confucian society. He is especially scathing about the horrible sacrifices it imposed in women, and the second class status they suffered under from birth to death. He also shows some of the terrible poverty and disease traditional Chinese society had, a poverty that seems to have been greatly ameliorated in Taiwan from the 1950's on. So he is not saying that everything old is good, and everything new is bad. Still, the gang life the kids fall into is a real waste. It is pretty shocking and repulsive.

Hou's work shows skepticism about Communism. The mainland fishers in Dust in the Wind seem desperately hungry, perhaps a comment on food conditions on the mainland. A letter in The Time to Live and the Time to Die depicts the start of the worst period in Chinese Communist history, the Great Leap Forward. It is still forbidden to show this terrible era in mainland Chinese films; Zhang Yimou was banned from making films for two years for his courageous if fairly oblique depiction of it in To Live (1994). Hou shows moral integrity in mentioning it here, and having his characters mourn over it in the film.

The heart of the film: Daily Life and Social Change

Hou's film is similar to other works inspired by neo-realism, in that the first half seems to be filled with joy, in recounting the pleasures of traditional family life, and the second half is filled with sorrow, as suffering and social disintegration tear everything apart. This is a good description of the films in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, as well. I much prefer the first half of both Ray and Hou's films to their second halves. Perhaps I am too superficial and only want to see good things on the screen, but I have always preferred descriptions of positive values and ideals. The first half of Hou's work is a beautiful portrait of traditional Chinese life, with kids playing together, family meals and rituals, photographs and little adventures. It is a real eye opening experience for most Americans, who like me know little about life in Taiwan.

None of the above description even begins to convey the tone of Hou's film. The sociological changes are all shown in the background. The foreground of Time shows scenes from daily life.

Hou's scenes tend to show "typical" events of daily life. These events are arranged chronologically in time, so that we see changes in both the family and society. But they are not typically events in a plot, where one event leads to the next event. Instead, each scene seems designed to reveal part of a traditional life style. This makes Hou's film resemble John Ford. Ford was also deeply concerned with evoking traditional or isolated life styles on screen, trying to convey the effect their daily rituals had on their participants.

Hou's characters are much more concerned about their daily life than about the big events going on in the background. In Dust in the Wind (1986), some fishermen from mainland China are blown by a storm to Taiwan, where they are picked up by an Army patrol. This could be the making of an international incident. Instead, the scene centers on the platoon of soldiers, ordinary guys all, giving the starving fisher family food to eat. This is very touching, and suggests what is really important among human beings under all their political problems.

Visual Style: Composition

Hou's scenes are staged with remarkable beauty. Hou is a master of visual composition.

He is especially good at showing street scenes. These are often organized into horizontal bands. The upper level shows a beautiful spreading tree, the next horizontal zone, the buildings, the lowest part of the screen, the street.

Hou also likes interiors. They tend to be photographed so the walls are face on, parallel to the plane of the screen. This is similar to the films of Ozu. And as in Ozu, this tends to produce rectilinear compositions, often made up of the elaborate rectangular screen and grid work that is prominent in many East Asian homes. However, the compositions that ultimately result are very different in form and pattern from Ozu's. Hou's tend to look "heavier" somehow, being made of a large, prominent blocks that tend to have much visual weight and momentum in the composition. Hou's characters exist in a much less secure world than Ozu's, but also one in which they seem considerably freer.

Influence on later films

Hou's work has been acclaimed in France, where he was celebrated in a TV documentary. A film made in Paris that might show the influence of The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) is Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya (1993). This Vietnamese work recreates traditional Vietnamese life just as Hou's film shows that of Southern Taiwan. Both films are chronicles depicting many years in the lives of a few families, both have a child who grows to maturity as their central character, both show people who are somewhat alienated from the environment and who have to adapt to a new way of life. Both largely take place in the family home and its street environs. Both have a slow moving, reflective tone, which lingers over details of traditional life with considerable visual beauty.

The Family Chronicle seems to be a major genre in recent Chinese films. One thinks of Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) and Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon (1997). Even Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility (1997) can be seen as a long term look at the lives of a family.

Millennium Mambo

The Opening Camera Movement

Millennium Mambo (2001) opens with a beautiful tracking shot. The heroine is followed as she moves forward through a pedestrian overpass. The repeated arches at the sides of the pass form rhythmically pulsed patterns. These side arches are echoed by the repeated overhead arches of the tunnel as a whole. The two curved geometric forms keep echoing off each other. The overhead arches seem to be around twice the diameter of the side arches, adding to the echoing effect. For variety, the pass starts curving to the right after a while, with Hou's camera gently picking up mainly on the left hand side arches. Finally we come to the staircase down at the end of the tunnel. The overhead arches change to a beautiful spider-web effect. The final arches seem like a transformed version of the overhead arches we have seen all along, with the final pattern an complex, beautiful climax to everything we have seen. The heroine descends this staircase, and we watch her, the camera finally at rest, as she descends all the way to the ground. The final descent recalls the end of Late Chrysanthemums (Mikio Naruse, 1953). Then the beautiful title of the film appears, "Millennium Mambo", in bright colors in both English and Chinese. All through the original shot, the heroine's shiny dress forms a color harmony with the purple arches of the overpass tunnel.

Repeated arches occur in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, and in many works of his disciple Orson Welles. Above all, the opening recalls the opening of Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961). That film starts with tracking shots, showing the complex repeating curved forms of the ceiling of its chateau.

Narrative Structure

The narrative structure of Millennium Mambo also has experimental formal qualities that ultimately suggest the influence of Resnais - although Hou's ideas are original, and not derived from the approach of any Resnais film.

The heroine's narration, contrapuntal to the images, recalls a bit the narration in L'Année dernière à Marienbad.

Even more Resnais-like is the structural experimentation with time. The heroine is narrating from the future, incidents we see occurring in our, the viewer's present. But she is not describing the events in the tunnel we are watching. Instead, her narration is giving an account of events we will see later in the picture. This approach is used throughout the film. First the narrator will recount some event, which is different both from what the film's visuals are now showing us, and from anything we have already seen in the visuals. Eventually, the action she is describing in words will pop up in a later scene of the picture, usually in much greater detail. Resnais' films are full of experiments in time, and complex a-chronological narrative strategies. Hou has come up with a new approach, within this overall Resnais inspired paradigm of film narration approaches.


This film is full of spectacular color design. Gorgeous rich neon colors, often coming from still lifes of glasses or vases or beaded curtains, run through this film, plus much colored light.

It is also full of small size but very nice camera movements. A unique looking movie.


Plus, as a change of pace, Hou takes his camera to Hokkaidô, land of snow... Like many people from the tropics, Hou is plainly delighted to see snow! (Those of us who live in the Frozen North tend to be less enthused.) Like Kurosawa's The Idiot (1951), also shot in Hokkaidô, this film emphasizes winter weather and street scenes. Hokkaidô is an absolutely fascinating place, with its own unique appearance and visual style. Both Kurosawa and Hou bring back fabulous images of it.

Café Lumière

Café Lumière (2003) is Hou's tribute to Ozu. It is a film made in Japan, in Japanese, with Japanese characters and actors.

Multi-Focus Images

Café Lumière is full of what might be called "multi-focus images". Hou will frequently show a scene in long or medium-long shot. The scene will be full of visual detail. The shot will be held for a long time. During this extended interval, the spectator is apparently supposed to explore every corner, nook, cranny and visual detail of the shot, looking at each separate item in the shot in detail. The viewer's eye and gaze will wander, now looking at one region of the shot, now at another.

An example: a cityscape contains a simultaneous view of four different railway lines. While this shot is going on, the viewer will look intensely at one railway, then at a different one, and so on. Each railway is different, with different kinds of trains, differently curved tracks, a different height, a different kind of integration into the city architecture around them. The eye will also wander to a small tunnel onscreen, a bridge, the fact that some tracks contain both an up and down line going in opposite directions, as well as a huge number of city buildings also shown in the shot.

The viewer will also take in the image as a whole. The viewer will note that the various parts of the image will coalesce into an overall composition. This composition is a meaningful part of Hou's style. Yet: one suspects that the "composition" aspects of the shot are perhaps less important than exploring all the different components that make up the shot.

The same multi-focus applies to Hou's interiors. When Hou goes to a bookstore or noodle shop, one looks in turn at a wide variety of different kinds of objects or decorations within the business. They are fascinatingly detailed. Both Hou, and this viewer, are outsiders in Japan, and the film opens up a whole world of unfamiliar kinds of architecture, color schemes, signs, decorations, small objects, mechanical devices, train platforms, building facades, food, bottles and labels, plates and glasses, books, windows, and every other sort of object and building that plays a part in everyday Japanese life. Hou's film is in many ways a giant travelogue, one concentrating on the "vernacular architecture and design" of everyday life.

Another director could have used montage to create a look at all these details. For example, that director could have shown us first one railway in one image, then cut to a second shot of a different railway, then a third shot showing a tunnel, etc. Hou's approach instead puts the burden on the viewer to explore the image themselves. This has at least a couple of implications. For one thing, it introduces chance. One viewer will look at the railways in a different order from another. Two viewers' experience of the film will therefore be somewhat different, using different order and concentration to focus on the multitude of details within Hou's shots. For another, unless viewers take the time and make the effort to look at all these details, they are not going to get much interest out of Hou's shots. An incurious viewer who chooses not to look in detail at Hou's vision of Japan will find this film dull. This film would actually be improved with a set of "operating instructions", suggesting to viewers how they should try to milk its images in detail.

Hou's approach differs from a good deal of pre-1915 cinema, which sometimes included huge master shots filled with overwhelming amounts of complex detail. Tom, Tom the Piper's Son (Billy Bitzer) has become famous, ever since Ken Jacobs' visual analysis of it, but one can find similar examples in the restaurant sequence in The Mothering Heart (D.W. Griffith, 1913), or the club scenes early in The Spiders (Fritz Lang, 1919). There are also spectacular examples of visual overload in some of Vincente Minnelli's works, such as the black-and-white ball in An American in Paris (1951). I don't think Hou is trying to create visual overload, or induce vertiginous effects in viewers. His shots seem calm, and clearly arranged. They are all sitting there, with the visual details nicely and neatly laid out in different regions of the screen, just waiting for viewer exploration.

There is a calm, logical aspect to Hou's approach. For example, he includes not just one, but two, examples of a modern Japanese bookstore in the film. The viewer can actually "compare and contrast" the two bookstores, seeing features they have in common, as well as their individual differences and character. At the end, one feels one has seen a documentary on Japanese bookstores, and understands much more how they are set up, and what they contain.

Changes In Japan Since Ozu

One of the most interesting kinds of "compare and contrast" in the film is not internal to the picture. Rather, the film keeps suggesting comparisons between Japanese life as shown in the films of Ozu, and Japan in 2003.

Hou shows us the inside of two Japanese homes, the parents' and the daughter's. Their floor plan looks much like those of homes in Ozu, especially the parents' house. But there are also striking differences. The parent's home has large glass doors in the living room, giving a picture window-like effect, allowing a large view of the outside. One recalls nothing like this in Ozu.

The house is also full of objects that bear no resemblance to those in Ozu. The prominent personal computer is so obvious that it is almost a joke: "Look how everyone is now using computers!" But more subtly, the whole house is full of large and small objects that have no correspondence at all in Ozu's 1950's films. Even the glasses and dinner ware look different. I am not a scholar of Japanese design, and unfortunately cannot explain the differences in detail. But they are forceful looking even to a movie-lover such as myself.

The train stations also look completely different, right down to their technology such as gates and signals, as well as the architecture of their sheds and tunnels. Hou's insistent stare at Japan's railways opens a fascinating visual world here.


While the travelogue and train elements of Hou's film are joyful, they are counter-balanced with a much more serious subject. This is the heroine's impending motherhood. She is unwed, and has no intention of marrying the baby's father.

I think Hou has serious concerns about this. The mother repeatedly worries about the daughter's ability to support herself and the baby financially. And there is little sense that the daughter is at all prepared for child care. She can barely cook, for one thing.

In addition, there is a sense of social disintegration. The Time to Live and the Time to Die contrasted the organized, Confucian-based lives of the parents, with the degenerate gang-life of the teenage boys. One has a similar sense here. The parents have an organized lifestyle, however confining or banal it often seems. The daughter seems to be improvising, with no clear plans for the future. However, Hou also seems much more sympathetic to this heroine. There is a big difference between a decent young woman trying to be a mother, however unwed, and a bunch of self-indulgent street thugs.

The subject of motherhood is explored throughout the picture, and in many different ways. The whole sub-plot about the heroine's dream about the baby is a direct expression of her complex feelings and anxieties about her impending baby. It is also the subject of almost all the heroine's encounters with her family. Even when it is not spoken, it is the dominant subject matter of the scenes. The fact that the family and the heroine often maintain an awkward silence about the subject does not mean it is not central to these episodes. Even the numerous shots of the heroine eating remind us that she is now eating for two. And the way she keeps needing extra sleep also reminds us of the mystery of motherhood. Once again, the heroine's own mother is the one that keeps noticing these things.

Echoes of Ozu: A Moment of Change in Japanese Society

Hou's film is thus very similar to some of Ozu's family dramas, in that it explores a key transitional stage of family existence, against a richly observed background of daily life.

The Ozu films that are the closest here are Early Summer (1951) and Equinox Flower (1956). Both of these center on the struggle of a daughter to pick out and marry a man who was not selected by her family as an arranged marriage partner. Ozu's films centered on a major change in Japanese life in the era, one that involved more power to women, and less to their families. Hou's film is also picking up on a current key change in Japanese life, single motherhood. One that tips the scale even further to a form of woman's independence, albeit one that might have a huge cost, to women, their children and society as a whole.

Echoes of Ozu: Visual Style

Hou has mimicked aspects of Ozu's visual style.

Hou has the low angle.

Also, Hou imitates Ozu's violation of the 180 degree rule. Different visits to the bookstore take angles that are exact 180 degree reverses of each other: some focus into the bookstore, the others show the bookstore looking out into the street behind it. At the parent's home, Hou alternates between shots looking into the kitchen, and 180 degree-reversed shots looking at the glass doors and the outside world. There is something playful and even comic about all of this. Hou is having fun, paying tribute to the visual style of a master.

The good-naturedly comic element is even more pronounced in the shot of the bottle on the floor, another Ozu trademark. Hou has got the world's largest saki bottle here, one much bigger than any bottle ever seen in any Ozu film. The comic glee is underscored by the phallic positioning of the bottle near the father.

Three Times

Three Times (2005) is a trilogy of three stories, each around 40 minutes long, set in 1966, 1911 and 2005. The same pair of actors appears in each story, but in different roles.

A Time for Love

My favorite is the first, A Time for Love. It is indeed a beautiful love story.

A Time for Love is a symphony in green. It centers on a green pool table; the characters wear green clothes, including the green slacks worn by the heroine, which are the same blazing shade as the pool table, and various green shirts worn by the hero; green walls; green billiard balls; and lots of green vegetation outdoors. There is also a "subplot" of red and white, including red and white billiard balls, white road signs on country roads, some sort of red basin in the corner of the pool hall, and a red and white dress worn by a pool hall hostess.

The train station at the end changes the color scheme. It includes much blue, for the first time in the film, as well as green. And Hou's camera circles on the multi-colored train schedule, a geometric representation of time, turned into a rectilinear grid: one of Hou's archetypal images.

The hero of A Time for Love rides a bicycle. There are shots preceding him down country roads that recall the long takes on roads in Good-bye South, Good-bye.

The hero's costumes not-so-subtly editorialize on the three times. The 1966 clothes look terrific. They are clean cut, masculine, and full of bright, cheerful color and patterns. He seems geometrical, in touch with the forces that create order and pattern in the universe. Hou even provides a close up of his lower trousers and sneakers at one point, which also contain geometric patterns. The rectilinear quality of his shirts, with their checks and straight lines, seems an embodiment of Hou's own rectilinear compositional skills. The hero's green shirts also link him with nature, and its fecundity.

The double doors of the pool hall are used for many different shots. The heroine is in charge of opening and closing them. They associate the heroine with an architectural feature, like the opening shot of the heroine and overpass in Millennium Mambo. The doors have repeated segments, like the overpass. They also move back and forth, like the billiard balls on the table. Twice, we see the hero through gaps in the door, once when he rides by on his bike; later when he shows up when the doors are nearly fully closed.

A Time for Youth

The last episode, A Time for Youth, is really cheerless. It has some good visual coups: a blue neon clock that casts a light over a hallway full of pictures. And later, a doorway full of transparent bead curtains. Both of these recall imagery in Millennium Mambo, another Hou work set in the recent present in Taiwan. Millennium Mambo is full of brightly colored objects in its interiors, that are sometimes either transparent or sources of light.

However, the colors in A Time for Youth are cooler and less emotionally friendly than in Millennium Mambo. They seem icy and remote, as if they were the flickerings of a dying society.

The hero's clothes in the two later episodes have unpleasant connotations. His over-elaborate traditional clothes in 1911 suggest evil traditions of patriarchy and class distinction. And his grim looking modern clothes in 2005 seem dark, joyless and death oriented. He seems like a representative of a slob society, one that has no cheer or positive attitudes. His awful looking fuzzy beard, and the shaved head and braid in 1911, are also artificial and unpleasant compared to his more masculine short haircut in 1966.