Jan 15, 2021
category: Art

At first sight, cinema production seems to be a quite easy kind of art because the average viewers cannot imagine how many processes should be applied to create the perfect picture. Considerable responsibility lies on the shoulders of directors who have to develop the plot line of the film and fill it with profound emotional, historical, and cultural context. To reach success, filmmakers need owning various skills, including writer, artistic, psychological, and philosophical, as well as the ability to use them for transmitting their core art message. The fact that only rare pictures receive recognition and cause resonance in both art community and society is a bright confirmation to the complicatedness of the task. The situation when the only one picture among the numerous created by a single director gains success is rather widespread. Although it cannot be said about Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsein Hou whose films received awards many times. His picture Dust in the Wind (1986) is the crowning masterpiece of Hou’s career because of its perfect individual art style. Thus, the paper seeks to prove this claim by the means of explaining the techniques Hsiao-hsein Hou used in the mentioned film to portray historical and cultural context of Taiwanese life.  

Apparently, each director has his or her individual style that is based on their personal perception of the world, instruments of the art, and precise manner of applying them within the film’s context. However, the movies produced at the same period and within the common area often shared tendencies that determined the basic techniques and approaches used by the directors. That is why, before speaking about personal methods of Hsiao-hsein Hou it is worth to disclose the trends existing in the art environment of those times.

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The eighties were known as the period of transmission of the political and commercial films to the new cinema that accented attention on the Taiwanese cultural identity and the life of ordinary people. Since the filmmakers of Taiwanese New Cinema committed themselves to cinematic representation of local history, they addressed issues of so-called “nativeness” (Li 100). Directors strived to depict authentic daily experience with all its joys and sorrows without decorating or strengthening it with special effects. To make an accent or emphasis on their art, they widely used the long take and deep focus shots as well as static camera. Due to these methods, the history reflected trough the memories of the ordinary people (Udden). Besides these core traits, choosing of realistic locations and inviting of non-professional actors also belonged to the distinguishing features of the movement.

Hsiao-hsein Hou was not an exception from the tendency and followed the basic rules but in his individual manner, permanently experimenting with cinema art techniques. Thus, in spite of numerous directors widely used the long take, Hou is considered to be “true long take master” (Udden 133). In the picture Dust in the Wind (1986) he managed to find the balance between the length of shot and static camera, and it was the reason of such great effect. The average duration of the shots in the film was around thirty-three seconds and only in 1/5 of them the slight camera movements can be observed (Udden). At the same time, the director compensated the static position of the camera with the active moving of his protagonists. There was the picture with shorter or longer shots duration, but it was rather complicated to make static long take better than Hou’s. However, it was easy to recreate this aesthetic decision and numerous directors not only Taiwanese but also Asian followed this path. Because of this, Hsiao-hsein Hou is considered to be the founder of Asian minimalism style (Udden 132).

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As the representative of Taiwanese New Cinema movement, Hsiao-hsein Hou depicts the trivial issues of ordinary life. His films are mostly plain from start to their end, and only the static long take makes the realistic images and emotions to revive. Thus, in Dust in the Wind, none of the effects were used to demonstrate the bewilderment and emotional suffering of the people but the long shot. By means of it, the director contrasts the magnificence and wealth of nature to the misery of Taiwanese settlements, joins the Wan’s emotions and raging ocean, allows looking attentively in the facial images of the protagonists and their glances each to others. The numerous shots of eating the rice emphasize the absence of decent nutrition and daily worries of Taiwanese people about their bread. It shows that survival is the primary issue for this community. 

It is worth admitting that Hsiao-hsein Hou used in the film neutral perspective. Depicting a lot of facts that disrobe the not-humanistic policy, unworthy deeds or human inertia, the director does not use any instruments for demonstrating his position such as judging or approving. His film is a narration and nothing else. Even linguistic replica such as father’s indignation about the corruption in the authority where all the staff is the relatives of the community's head sounds like an ordinary explaining of the situation. The same can be said about grandfather’s remark that there is no way besides accepting the existing circumstances as they are because it is a fate and nobody can change it.

The film includes a lot of scenes with quotidian details the actual meaning of what is not clear at the moment they take place. Firstly hidden context is disclosed only through the following scenes. Here is one more technique of “retroactive casual narrative structure” that Hou used locally in his previous films and turned it into global strategy in Dust in the Wind (Udden 137). The scene where Huen presented Wan with the watch that his father bought him is the brightest example of mentioned approach. At first sight, Wan’s behavior does not correspond to the situation and instead of joy the boy demonstrates his anger. Only later the scene of writing letter home where he asks sister to make inquiries about the present’s price emerges. Then the viewer understands the reason for Wan’s reaction that once more reveals the misery of Taiwanese reality. To simplify the audience linking the film’s segments and shots, Hou uses the voiceover (Fang, Chen, Lee, and Huang).

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However, there is a place for tradition among the network of the minor events. One can observe the existing concept of the family, treasuring the relationship of consanguinity, and ceremonies of respecting the ancestors (Li). Thus, the director depicted the holiday of spirits when all family’s members arrive at their home. It was a single scene when both Wan and Huen were with their families on this day, previously they went home alone. Moreover, the grandfather mentions a few times about the anger of ancestors that implies the crucial significance of worshipping them. All these elements disclose the vast influence of Confucianism as far as they are core values of it. Moreover, the fact that children leave their homes for earning money and send them to their families seems to be an additional manifestation of the poverty at first sight. However, if considering that taking care for elder, weak, and babies is one of the fundamental principles of Confucianism, one can see the situation from the perspective of tradition (Lupke).

The meeting with the family from the Chinese Mainland is another evidence of significant cultural links between China and Taiwan. The nostalgia can be read in the ordinary humanistic behavior of Wan’s colleagues who feed the occasional guests and provide them with everything needed for returning home, including tape recorder and Wan’s lighter presented to him by the father. The director shows that Mainland of China is the native home for numerous Taiwanese, and these nostalgic feelings are a meaningful aspect of their identity (Li & Jennings).

Hou also experimented with the intricate mismatches of sounds and images trying to create an ambiguity. Thus, blur sequences of Wan’s disease in Dust in the Wind accompanied by hallucinations, dreams or memoirs about the past events are the bright representation of this technique. Such complexity distracts a little, but it is shaking the audience and stimulating it to ponder and find out the explanation. It is the hint of the only way to understand the film because the significant part of the context may be lost without decoding the hidden symbols.

Despite the seeming triviality of the picture, the art symbols occupy one of the leading places among the Hou’s visual techniques. Thus, the watch and train appear rather often in Dust in the Wind. Regarding the film’s title, it seems to hint on transiency of human life that can be blown away as dust  in the wind. The allegory of insignificance also appears in the final scene of magnificent nature which undermines everything one can loose in the huge Universe. The viewers can only guess whether director wanted to emphasize the Taiwanese despair, their miserable condition or give the hope saying that everything goes by, and human sorrow is only the dust in the wind that can be changed with new better reality. It seems the director again allowed the audience to find the answer by basing on inner vision and aspirations. It was quite philosophical decision corresponding with the core technique of Hsiao-hsein Hou.

In conclusion, director’s career of Hou may be characterized by the chain of art experiments during which he polished numerous cinema techniques. By doing this, the director managed to overcome the technical limitation of his previous pictures and present his breakthrough in Dust in the Wind. This film became not only his biggest achievements but also the philosophical and aesthetic milestone in spite of failing in receiving awards and even recognition among the Taiwanese people. 

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