Nan guo zai jian nan guo
image from Shochiku web site (Japan)
Jack Gao Jie (Kao), Lim Giong (Flathead), Hsu Kuei-ying (Ying),
Annie Shizuka Inoh (Pretzel), Hsi Hsiang (Hsi), Lien Pi-tung (Tung),
Kao Ming (Ming), Vicky Wei (Hui), Lei Ming (Kao's father)
|Reviewed at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival by Shelly Kraicer
Hou Hsiao-hsien continues to move away from exploring Taiwan's history and towards interrogating its present. He began with Good Men Good Women (a film split into a historical half and a contemporary half). That contemporary half, a small-time neon lit karaoke bar gangster's world, has now expanded into an entire film: Goodbye South Goodbye.
Jack Gao stars as Gao, a would-be Taiwanese gangster/shady businessman (something in between: the film underlines that there is no useful distinction to be made between the two), with a burden of problems: his "gang", space-cadet Flathead (Taiwan pop star Lim Giong, who did the film's superb music) and perpetually strung-out Pretzel (Annie Shizuka Inoh) can't keep out of trouble. And Gao's extended family (most of the characters in the film are various sorts of "cousins" of Gao) call on him with crisis after crisis. Gao is a non-stop schemer: he plans to set up a gambling den in Taiwan, get into business in Shanghai, start his own restaurant, and make a quick buck in a shady deal with government support to resell pigs for cash, all so he can settle down and marry his girlfriend Ying, with whom he has a baby. But nothing really seems to work out: in the film's most moving scene, Gao's iron reserve cracks while he's ill in a restaurant toilet, and he starts to weep over his frustrated ambitions, lack of direction, and seemingly limitless series of pressures. Flathead eventually gets the gang into serious trouble (he has a penchant for starting fights with well-connected toughs) in the south. With the aid of corrupt cops and a polician who works like a gang leader, things move to a curious non-resolution.
This may not sound all that funny, but GSG has a quiet undercurrent of comedy. Gao's problems sometimes border on ludicrous: we're treated to shots of would-be gangster pig-dealers herding their charges into trucks. Flathead and Pretzel get to sport wild parodies of Taipei urban "punk" outfits: they would look ludicrous if Hou hadn't succeeded in gradually mustering our sympathy for these lost souls. Not misfits: their problem is that they fit in all-to-perfectly with contemporary Taiwan's rootless, coreless, money-as-a-substitute-for-values society. They drift dangerously, pointlessly and self-destructively within their aimlessly drifting present day materialism-mad Chinese society (Hou's vision might apply equally well to contemporary Taiwan, Hong Kong, or mainland China).
GSG doesn't have Hou's usual abundance of exquisite, perfectly framed and proportioned images: he's after a completely different style here. Present are the long takes, non-explicitly connected narrative moments, and indirect shots (through doors frames, windows, mirrors). But the images this time are rawer, harsher, even ugly. As if he has the confidence to abandon offering us the pleasure of gorgeous cinematography, and instead create something more "realistic" and disturbing. His earlier films were aesthetized by nostalgia: their narratives exist in the past, in memory. This beautifies them. Filtered through nostalgia for loss, for what was imagined but perhaps never really was, things can look more beautiful than they are. But GSG rudely, abruptly introduces a new look. Harsh, unnaturally coloured scenes are everywhere, from the lurid but "found" neon night lights and garish karaoke clubs to a strikingly use of yellow, red and green filters that transform many scenes into hallucinations or nightmares.
Music in this film works in the same way: in the past, Hou has used a spare film score to underline moments of special remembered beauty and grace. But GSG unwinds over Lim Giong's jagged, aggressive guitar and chanted vocals set to a series of propulsive hip hop dance beats.
Long expressive tracking shots seem to be the fashion this year among great Chinese directors. Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad and Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon both highlight this technique (largely to express personal, intimate points of view), but Hou reserves them for a very specific purpose: to depict movement and travel. GSG is full of long shots from the backs of trains, through series of tunnels, along the tracks into a village, out the back seats of cars, following a long motorcycle ride in the country. And they serve as moments of punctuation, the only islands of grace and calm in the film. We have a clue here to what might be at the core of the movie. To reject looking obsessively backwards is to concentrate on looking ahead, moving forwards, or at least constantly to be moving, in some direction. Abandoning the fixed perspective of memory means to settle for what's available now: a set of sliding, mobile and dispersed points of view that define contemporaneity. That several-minute-long motorcycle scene: we see, from a camera just preceding them up the mountain, Flathead and Pretzel on one bike, Gao just beside them on another, all three smiling, gliding and weaving their way up the road. No words, just a picture of energy, play, a euphoric celebration of freedom and motion.
But Hou is not giving us a world where anything goes, just as long at it moves. "Don't fall asleep at the wheel" may be the "moral" of the story, if there is one. Flathead and Pretzel, and assorted hoodlums (both official [government] and unofficial [underworld]) look respectively comical and sinister in either their blind aimless drifting or barren, corrupt stasis. Gao, on the other hand, needs to be constantly in forward motion. His plans may fail, one after another, but he knows that to stay alive he must come up with a new one every time. Alone in the film, it is Gao who is alive: we learn to follow his despair, his frustration, and the moment of joy he finds, no matter how many obstacles litter the path of his journey of self-invention.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer