Come Dancing on the Breeze: On Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Cheerful Wind.”

It’s reassuring to know that even in the early days of his career, Hou Hsiao-hsien was reflecting on authorship. It’s a recurring, and varied, feature of his astonishing body of work: from Lin Wen-ching (Tony Leung) tinkering with photographs in A City of Sadness, which is Hou’s meditation upon the impulse for authenticity, to the more abstract method of Flight of the Red Balloon, where the elusive visitations of the balloon endow the film’s characters with narrative perspective. Something more direct and yet more understated is at work in Hou’s second feature, Cheerful Wind, newly restored and playing during this year’s inaugural Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh. 

The film begins with chilly wide-screen images of a beach next to a small town, as a group of kids attempt to play a prank on a passing neighbour: they stick a firecracker into some freshly laid ox shit, hoping it will splatter on the unassuming man. It fizzles out, until the kids approach again, and only then explodes in their faces. The illusion is broken: this is being filmed. The kids are part of a laundry detergent advert, with a crew comprising stills photographer Hsing-hui (Feng Fei-fei), and director Luo-tzu (Anthony Chan), whose interest in Hsing-hui is persistent but not reciprocated. Instead, Hsing-hui’s eye goes wandering around the town, in the Penghu islands, and the film adopts the gaze of her camera’s viewfinder—at one moment spotting a man playing his harmonica while riding in the back of an ox-cart. It could simply be a way of demonstrating her photographer’s intuition for an intriguing image, but also may suggest an attraction. What’s important is that it’s her view. She is the author of her desire, and by extension, the film’s narrative. 

While trying to surreptitiously capture a shot by the beachfront, Hsing-hui spots this handsome man again, except this time his eyes are locked on the camera as it’s filming, dispelling the impression of candidness. His name is Chin-tai (Kenny Bee), and he’s blind. The crew thereby enlist him into the film. And, who would have guessed it, after returning to Taipei Hsing-hui spots Chin-tai on the street, on his way to the park where he tells fortunes. Being played respectively by Bee, a Hong Kong singer (and former member of The Wynners), and Feng, a Taiwanese star, both of whom can be heard throughout the film’s soundtrack, [1] and having starred together in Hou’s debut, Cute Girl, the chances of the pair falling in love were high from the moment he occupied her camera’s attention. But there’s more at work in the film yet. 

Most pleasing about Cheerful Wind is its interplay between the two leads; Bee’s performance is likeable enough but less lively than the one he provides in The Green, Green Grass of Home, where he is resolutely charming but has next to no rapport with his co-star, Chen Meifeng. Here, Feng’s performance and its sense of play, with her practical jokes and air of self-contentedness, leads proceedings, especially when Hsing-hui’s jokes cross from good-natured to insensitive: her trick on Chin-tai, whose sight has returned after a corneal transplant, being case-in-point. Also of note is the film’s discourse on the gulf between country and city, with a few spins on the formula. Hsing-hui’s father comes to Taipei to meet Luo-tzu, frequently misunderstanding him and making clarifying Hokkienese asides to his daughter. If the language gap is wide, the gap in attitudes is not: when he learns of Luo-tzu being from Hong Kong, he has a quibble or two, but does not insist upon them, leaving the decision as it is, hers. 

I won’t go as far as Emile Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis, who claim that the film’s ‘artfulness is easily overlooked,’ and that ‘if it seems like commercial fluff, Cheerful Wind has much unexpected richness.’ [2] Richness overstates it. Consider the leap in terms of complexity of staging and composition in Hou’s next film, The Green, Green Grass of Home, which is notable—and then astronomical in terms of the film after that, The Boys from Fengkuei. [3] But there’s some significance in how Cheerful Wind indicates aspects of the director’s filmography to come. For instance the way in which Hou slips between the film proper and the advert being filmed anticipates an extraordinary moment in The Boys from Fengkuei, as past and present seem to coexist in a character’s perception; perhaps even providing an example of a technique that Good Men, Good Women, in its slipping between registers and fictional discourses, would sophisticate even further.   

Very possibly the greatest living filmmaker, Hou is now best known as an elliptical narrative stylist, a specialist in long-lens mise-en-scène, a visual (and, as Café Lumière reminds, sonic) artist of the most exacting variety. And yet there’s always a highly-charged emotional centre in even the most imposing of his films. [4] From Flowers of Shanghai onwards (with the exception of The Assassin, which is its own universe entirely), however, he’s become in part a cinematic love poet, charting hard-edged, difficult relationships bristling against their contexts in Millennium Mambo and Three Times especially. Contrast the challenge of love in these more recent films with the more free flowing, easy resolutions of Hou’s Kenny Bee trilogy. The subject is there, the artistry not there yet. That would only be a matter of time. 

[1] This is playing as part of the festival’s “Melodrama Divas” strand, which could look out of place for a chirpy romantic-comedy-drama, but makes all the more sense when “melodrama” means “dramas with songs.”

[2] Emile Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis: Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island (Columbia University Press: 2005), 142.  

[3] Both films were photographed by Chen Kun-hou, an important collaborator with Hou before beginning his long-standing artistic partnerships with Chu T’ien-wen and Wu Nien-jen, is himself a crucial director in the history of the New Taiwanese Cinema: Growing Up, his film written with Hou and Chu, marked 1983 as an essential year in the formation of the movement (building on the previous year’s incepting film, In Our Time), alongside The Boys from Fengkuei, and the anthology film The Sandwich Man, which is also playing at this year’s festival. 

[4] This is also true of Wu Nien-jen’s masterpiece, A Borrowed Life, well deserving of a restoration, which has a close relationship with Hou’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die; both exemplify a way of making simultaneously monumental and personal films.

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