A lesser-known Hou film, but not any less brilliant – this is a gritty, uncompromising look at small-time crime in the backwaters of Taipei.
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1996 | Taiwan | Crime/Drama | 116 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin & Hokkien
NC16 (passed clean) for coarse language
Cast: Jack Kao, Lim Giong, Annie Shizuka Inoh, Hsu Kuei-Ying
Plot: A non-stop schemer, Kao devises a plan to raise money by trading subsidised pigs to the government for cash. The ruse works, but when the temperamental Flat Head antagonizes the wrong people, the two find themselves caught up in a dangerous game of corrupt politics.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes); Won 1 Golden Horse Award – Best Original Song
International Sales: Shochiku
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 11 Mar 2014)
This is only my second Hou Hsiao-Hsien picture that I have seen, after The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). Obviously, I need to catch more of his works. But so far, I have not been disappointed. I regard Hou very highly, and I think many would agree that he is one of the greatest of Taiwanese filmmakers working today. Goodbye, South, Goodbye is a splendid film, centering on a man named Kao (Jack Kao) who runs a gambling den, but is struggling financially. His uncouth sidekick Flathead (Giong Lim) threatens to ruin things with his callous actions. Simply put, Hou’s film looks at small-time crime set in the backwaters of Taipei. There is no real story though you may see it as a story of the people that inhabit such an environment.
Hou’s direction is superb, especially his use of long takes. In the opening shot, the camera is placed at the back of a moving train as it exits a small town before it cuts to the film’s title. This is the mark of a film master. Another exemplary long take sees Kao and Flathead on their motorcycles traveling on a winding road. It is a frontal shot of them, so we don’t see what’s in front of them for the whole duration. It is a captivating scene, possibly my favourite in the entire film, capturing the key theme of Hou’s film – we move towards the future, towards the unknown, but life goes on regardless. But what if we stray from the path that has been charted for us?
One of the top three films of the 1990s, according to the Cahiers du Cinema.
Goodbye, South, Goodbye is gritty and uncompromising in its treatment. Stylistically, it is similar to Martin Scorsese’s more intimate and raw movies like Mean Streets (1973), including the use of songs from decades past. But unlike Scorsese’s breakthrough feature, Hou’s film doesn’t make us sympathize with his characters. There’s a feeling of detachment towards Kao and Flathead. It is different from not feeling anything as that suggests poor characterization. Here, the characters are well-developed, yet we are made to feel that the lives of these people don’t amount to anything. They are but only a drop of water in the sea.
Goodbye, South, Goodbye remains to be a lesser-known Hou film, but it is no less brilliant. At this stage, I can only hope to have the opportunity to catch some of his acclaimed masterpieces like A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) and A City of Sadness (1989).