Hou Hsiao-hsien is a filmmaker whose name has been dropped a thousand times in conversations I've had in the past year. Last week, I had a chance to see A Time to Live and a Time to Die. It was terrible. BUT, it was early in his career, and I was warned that many did not care for it. I can't imagine who would, but apparently there are some on the planet. And, to boot, not that many people had seen it. It is not available on video in the US. Those who alerted me to this filmmaker's existence were thoughtful and intelligent people, so I had no intention on giving up on Hsiao-hsien. This week, I got a chance to see Dust in the Wind. And I liked it. Now, it's nothing to write home about, but, this being, I think, the film he made right after ATtLaTtD, his maturation can be seen quite clearly.
The script of Dust in the Wind is much better. When this film began, and I saw the aging but humorous grandfather, the injured and quiet father, and the harsh mother, I figured, oh hell, this Hsiao-hsien guy is such a poor writer that he can't even come up with a different family for his next film. The family of ATtLaTtD consisted of an old grandmother who supplied all the comic relief, a mother who was constantly disciplining her children, and a father who was dying of TB. The only difference in DitW was that the grandfather was actually amusing; the grandmother in the earlier film was simply a nuisance. And, lo and behold, Hsiao-hsien (and his editor) had learned how to edit! ATtLaTtD worked on the assumption that all a movie has to contain to be great is a multitude of long takes. A film can be good if it has a fondness for longer takes (take a look at anything Andrei Tarkovsky's made),but I would say that only a pro should depend on them so heavily. We art-house patrons may like the occasional ten minute take, but those who know their stuff can tell when the director and editor were keeping the takes long simply because they have no imagination. Hollywood style editing has proven itself over and over again and, unless you are a Tarkovsky or an Ozu, forget it, bud. The first scene of DitW is made up of a couple of long takes of 1) a train pushing forward on the tracks (about a three or four minute take) and 2) of the two main characters standing in the train (about a two minute take). The second scene, where grandpa attempts to feed the children, is edited with quick cuts, almost jump cuts, which suggests the old man's mounting frustrations with his disobedient grandchildren (the way in which he gets one grandson to eat his dinner is classic). This is how editing works, and Hsiao-hsien has learned that. Now his ten minute takes are not a burden. They carry more weight.
The film also contains its share of truly fantastic scenes, including those opening two that I referenced. Another one involves the two main characters, Wan (the boy) and Huen (the girl),who are dependent on each other and call it love, at a bar with a bunch of friends. The emotions that play out in this scene are fantastic. Wan's friends convince Huen to take her first drink of beer, which she does in one huge gulp, followed closely by a second on her own accord. Then Hsiao-hsien cuts to a shot over Huen's shoulder. A space to her right is left open around the otherwise full table, and, from across the table, Han fills that gap. The shot lasts for some five minutes. Han is angry at Huen, and the emotions are broadcast marvelously, mostly by the way Han smokes, in this composition. The best scene in the movie involves Han's attempts to steal a moped. This was the only scene that truly affected me. At least one scene really bothered me. The visual style of this film is rather bland. And I don't mind that; the genre is neorealism (whether Hsiao-hsien knows that or not; his debts to Vittorio de Sica and Satyajit Ray seem clear enough to me),and the visuals are supposed to look cheap (because, well, these movies are made for very little money). For a film like this, when I say that a shot is well composed, like the bar scene I mentioned above, it is because it is composed in such a way to give the scene its maximum emotional weight. That shot was marvelous not because it was flashy, but because it seemed natural and it was miraculously economical. Now there comes a shot nearer the film's end, after Han is drafted into the army, in which two soldiers are shot at a high angle in silhouette as they stand on top of a hill, bluish storm clouds against a pinkish sky. In a film where naturalism is the goal of every composition, this particular shot stands out like a sore thumb. C'mon, Hou, if you want to emulate Ingmar Bergman, wait until your next film and then style your film in that manner! It's a truly embarrassing shot. I've said nothing about the film's story. Suffice it to say, it is touching, but not too much so. Han is a well developed character, but I felt that I ought to have known Huen more. Her decision near the end of the film comes too quickly and at too great a distance from the action. The audience then has no choice but to make a bitter judgement on her character. We side solely with Han, when we it should be more ambiguous; previously, they had been given rather equal footing in their developments. The final scene is quite beautiful, however, and leaves the audience feeling like they've witnessed something at least somewhat worthwhile. 7/10.