Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien
November 15–25
Co-presented with the Freer Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art

“I make films because I love this world and I believe in people,” notes Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, “the world’s greatest working narrative filmmaker” (J. Hoberman). A graduate of Taiwan’s National Arts Academy (known more as a theater school than a film hotbed), Hou first came to prominence as a key figure of the New Taiwan Cinema movement of the eighties, thanks to naturalistic works like THE BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983) and DUST IN THE WIND (1986), which quietly yet eloquently captured the textures and essence of everyday life. Later films, such as CITY OF SADNESS (1989), THE PUPPETMASTER (1993) and FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (1998), added a more sweeping political and historical scope to his work, yet retained that sense of intimacy, of eavesdropping upon ordinary lives that happened to be lived in extraordinary times. (“The growth of an individual, or of a whole nation,” he once stated, “often occurs without us noticing.”) These films, and later international efforts like CAFÉ LUMIÈRE (2004), solidified his status among the world’s elite filmmakers. In 1998, a worldwide critics’ poll named him “one of the three directors most crucial to the future of cinema.”

AFI Silver’s series, which continues through December, begins appropriately with Hou’s earliest titles, including his extremely rare “commercial trilogy.” Low-budget, quickly shot romantic comedies featuring Canto-pop icons, they are certainly atypical of Hou’s later films, yet stand as fascinating representatives of the era’s popular Taiwanese cinema, which was simultaneously overshadowed by the dominant Hong Kong film industry and hampered by its own government’s tight-fisted regulations. Within the gaps, these romantic comedies and dramas thrived, carving out a uniquely Taiwanese identity by addressing the nation’s emerging middle-class culture and concerns about rapid urbanization. Offering glimpses of Hou’s first steps as a filmmaker, these key titles — unavailable on DVD — also provide invaluable snapshots of a Taiwan in the throes of change.

International retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College) in collaboration with Amber Wu (Taipei Cultural Center, New York) and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan). The book “Hou Hsiao-hsien” (Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum and New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) is released in conjunction with this retrospective.

Film notes courtesy of Pacific Film Archive.

For films screening at the Freer Gallery of Art, visit
For films screening at the National Gallery of Art, visit

AFI Member passes accepted at all screenings in the Hou Hsiao-hsien series.

[童年往事, Tong nien wang shi]

In this eloquently simple autobiographical film set and filmed in the village of Hou's youth, little Ah-ha's family has moved from Kwangtun Province in China to try on life in Taiwan. It is 1947. Clearly, they will never go back, at least, not in body, and not as a family. But for the boy and his siblings this is the only world, anyway, and Hou's camera patiently allows it to unfold in selected small, often humorous, sometimes mundane manifestations, knowing but not caring that a revolution is just a shot away — the shot not included in this film. Ah-ha's father, a loving but somehow distant presence (the audience finds out why when his children do), dies; his mother, ever given to a quiet panic, will die too. His grandmother keeps superstition alive in order to keep it at bay and forgets to die. As a historian Hou is not afraid of sentiment (sentiment saves the teenage Ah-ha from the street), and nostalgia holds a place of honor: it is memory, given a generous grace.

DIR/SCR Hou Hsiao-hsien; SCR Chu T’ien-wen; PROD Hsu Hsin Chih. Taiwan, 1985, color, 138 min. In Mandarin and Hakka with English subtitles, 35mm. NOT RATED


Sat, Nov 15, 12:15; Thu, Nov 20, 6:45

[珈琲時光 Kôhî jikô]

“Coffee, Time and Light” is the original title of Hou’s gentle tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, which seamlessly weaves those three themes into a meditative look at love — or the absence of it — in contemporary Tokyo. Living alone in the city, the strong-willed Yoko (pop singer Yo Hitoto) wanders its streets, coffee houses and train stations, seemingly paying more attention to random sights than she does to conversations with her parents, with her main friend, a just-as-quiet bookstore clerk (Tadanobu Asano, ICHI THE KILLER; THOR; DISTANCE). This is a city film that takes its power not from the bustle of urban energy, but from the quietude that one can still find within it, and captures a certain kind of urban solitude experienced by those who are alone, but never lonely, with all of life’s wonders — like coffee, music and light — around them. Commissioned to mark the centenary of Ozu’s birth — the film even opens with the old Shochiku logo of the era — the film is not only a tribute to that great master, but a continuation of his works. “The plot is spare,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum, “but the sounds, images and ambience are indelible.”

DIR/SCR Hou Hsiao-hsien; SCR Chu T’ien-wen; PROD Liao Ching-Song, Hideji Miyajima, Fumiko Osaka, Ichirô Yamamoto. Japan/Taiwan, 2003, color, 103 min, 35mm. In Japanese with English subtitles. NOT RATED


Sat, Nov 22, 11:45 a.m.; Mon, Nov 24, 9:00

[Le voyage du ballon rouge]

Hou Hsiao-hsien abandons his usual Taiwanese settings for a modern-day look at the City of Light in this lovely, ephemeral, and at times experimental update of the classic 1959 French children’s short THE RED BALLOON. Hou continues the obsessions of his CAFÉ LUMIÈRE, tracking the rhythms of life — and the rhythms of light — in the contemporary world to beautiful, dazzling effect. Juliette Binoche is Suzanne, a harried single mom whose job leaves little time for her son, Simon. The arrival of Taiwanese film student Song as a nanny helps ease the stress, especially after Suzanne’s noisy neighbors and absent ex-husband begin to make increasingly difficult demands. At times the film is as entranced by the reflection of light — off buses, through windows, from skylights — as it is by its Ozu-esque “central” topic, the everyday life of the modern family.

DIR/SCR Hou Hsiao-hsien; SCR/PROD François Margolin; PROD Kristina Larsen. France/Taiwan, 2007, color, 115 min, 35mm. In French and Mandarin with English subtitles. NOT RATED


Sun, Nov 23, 11:45 a.m.; Tue, Nov 25, 9:30