I have just added the following entry to my 100 Greatest Asian Films List, which you will find in two parts elsewhere on this site.
Three time-lines span more than a half-century of Taiwanese history in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Hao nan hao nu. Liang Ching is an actress playing Chiang Bi-yu in a film-within-the-film titled Hao nan hao nu. Chiang Bi-yu and her husband, Chung Hao-tung, and three others were among Taiwan’s “good men, good women,” who contributed to the mainland Resistance movement against Japanese invaders-occupiers. Ching, through the experience of playing the politically committed Bi-yu (Annie Shizuka Inoh, searing, plays both parts), gropes for a surer sense of herself and her nation’s identity. The actual Bi-yu, hospitalized, also participates in the film, but offscreen, only through Ching, who sadly informs us of Bi-yu’s death prior to the film’s premiere.
Music or voiceover may slide from a bit of one time-line to a bit of another.
The film opens in the past. In long-shot the five idealistic young patriots move across a field to join the anti-Japanese cause. The image is monochromatic, like all the images in the film-within-the-film, whose camera remains invisible. The film ends with the same image, but in color, like the other present-day and relatively recent material. The past has been brought to the present that it helped shape. Static camera recording walking (and singing) souls who at the last pass out of the frame: stillness; transience; recollection; loss.
Ching is haunted by her past as a drug-addicted bar hostess, a gangster’s mistress, his death—a mirroring of Taiwan’s tragic history.
Postwar, in the 1950s, Bi-yu and other reformers opposed to the continuation of feudalism were arrested; many, including her husband, were executed as Communists. If you have forgotten how evil Chiang Kai-shek was, or the role that the U.S. played in his reign of terror, this film will remind you.
Rigorous, complex, poignant, haunting.
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