by Jason Suzuki
Before, usual imports from Taiwan consisted mainly of art-house fare. Recently however, more and more crossover between the mainstream and art-house/independent worlds is occurring, an ethos that has made the South Korean Renaissance into the factory with a consistently great output it has become. To highlight this emerging ease with which filmmakers can switch between these modes of production and intent, SDAFF dedicated a day’s worth of programming, out of a weekend spotlight on Taiwan, to three popular films from unlikely sources, the beginning film the embodiment of this: a musical romance from Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Cheerful Wind, Hou’s second film which he also writes, is the story of a two people, both pop-idols in real life (and both featured in Hou's film prior to this one: Cute Girl), who meet, fall in love, etc. It is a familiar structure and on top of that the specific details - he's blind, she's a cosmopolitan TV producer/photographer - can be a bit eye-roll inducing. The pedigree of its director and how dissimilar it is to the majority of his work make this film, and the film prior and after it for that matter, curios which might not be getting such attention were it not for the name Hou has made for himself.
Resources regarding his early work have become more accessible thanks to touring retrospectives and interviews conducted in the wake of his landmark The Assassin. In long-form discussion with scholar Tony Rayns it’s more or less agreed upon that the true emergence of the aesthetic Hou would maintain and of which we will associate with him happened with his third film The Boys from Fengkuei. The Film Foundation has assisted with a restoration of that title so there must be some merit to the claims. But where there shouldn’t be merit is just how surprising it is to see Hou’s name attached to a film as breezy as Cheerful Wind. Many directors cut their teeth on work they would go on to not be associated with and apparently Hou in his youth even recorded a single’s worth of pop music. What remains is the fact that the true fun of watching the film is whether one can find hints at the auteur lying underneath the pop formula.
And there are a few stylistic touches foreshadowed here and there. Feng Fei-fei plays the photographer who finds herself between comfortable, the director boyfriend she lives with (Anthony Chan), and a charming blind man (Kenny Bee) who they cajole into being in their detergent advertisement (even a blind man knows what brand is best). The opening section of the film, the advertisement and then the reveal that what we thought was the plot of Cheerful Wind was just the story-within-the-story of the film, is a very young filmmaker thing to do. The explicit post-modern technique of seeing the actions of the crew intertwined with that of what they are filming would soon be placed with more mature nods to filmic qualities and an examination of craft without going full on Brechtian. Slightly longer takes, longer lenses, incorporation of non-actors all make appearances here and it is a treat to notice them but the real treat are the more idiosyncratic pop aspects of the film. Most notable the change in character Kenny Bee undergoes once his character has surgery to regain his eyesight. As a blind man he is soft spoken, almost a wandering mystic. Once he has his sight back he is energetic, joking, and overwhelmingly forward and charming. Confidence gained through abilities ocular and not phallic.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.