A lot of what we typically get from Hou—e.g., the “crowd scene [that] swallows its own visual cues” (so you don’t know how to parse it out), actors who “declaim with their backs to the camera”—are exactly the kinds of things they warn you against in film school. Of course, in Hou’s case they’re indisputable proofs of “genius,” whereas for you or me or, let’s say, feckless Mexican primitives of the 30s, they’re just as indisputably the opposite. So why the double standard? And is it really a double standard at all?
Let’s start with a comparison, between Hou’s films and Manoel de Oliveira‘s, that inexhaustible nonagenarian Portuguese. Superficially they’re similar, especially in their commitment to long, static takes, but in terms of film philosophy, the ways in which their works imply a specific view of the world, they’re more like light-years apart. Hou’s the phenomenological “realist,” an artist of interpretable surfaces without symbolic content: his only “revelations” are what the camera immediately sets out in front of you. But Oliveira’s the eternal symbolist, spinning out images from the depths of Plato’s cave: what his camera reveals is a cover for nonmaterial “essence,” that exists beyond appearances, beyond the literal/accessible surfaces of things.
For Hou though, these surfaces are everything, or maybe the only thing—there’s no “beyond” to connote, only a tangibility that the camera inevitably throws back in your face. The basic riddle in all this is what these “antisymbols” are up to—in other words, what exactly are we looking at (“is this a dagger that I see before me?”—that kind of material-inflected puzzle), and how do you actually read the images the camera dishes up?
Which is what makes Hou’s camera just another underprivileged observer, with no more access to “truth” than any of the film’s human principals. Only what the lens gives you, just as, for post-Newtonian empiricists like ourselves, there’s only what’s in front of our eyes. Which isn’t the way movie cameras tend to operate, being more or less intrusive, seeing from every possible angle with a kind of infinite fluidity: we can go here, even if we’re not right now. So, e.g., in Hitchcock’s Notorious the camera glides effortlessly past the wine-cellar door without hesitation in an all-seeking quest. But in Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998, pictured above), a closed door stops the camera cold, as it might any human witness: only a sliver of light from under the locked panel, with voices bickering in the mysterious room beyond. The camera records, it doesn’t penetrate or arrange—which is why we get lost in the crowded frames, watch the backs of receding speakers, etc. Or, again as in Flowers, get stuck at the wrong end of a banquet room when all the significant action is taking place in the street.
So the camera has limits, as palpable and physical as our own, and in Hou’s work these limits are self-created—though since Millennium Mambo (2001) he’s added an extra wrinkle: still only revealed surfaces, but now without implied focus or direction, as a kind of ur-sensual, aleatory riff (unlike Flowers, where we know what we should be looking at, even if we can’t quite make it out). Eschew the abstract, the manipulation of meaning, seems the mantra of the hour. Or make of it what you will, a free-form surface that incrementally unfolds, that insists on its own material thereness. Not something they’re likely to teach you in film class.
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