The Story : Gao (Uncle Gao) is a low-level schemer, constantly searching for that one plan, that one connection, to get himself and his girlfriend out of Taipei. Gao is surrounded by his fellow hoodlums and shady family members, particularly the impulsive Flatty (or Flat-Head as they mockingly call him), a youth with a temper, little sense, and a gambling girlfriend named Pretzel. Gao dreams of setting up a club in Shanghai, and is almost constantly on the phone, haggling some kind of deal, most of them never work out, but maybe his new one will. Along with some other people, Gao sets up a scheme that involves selling pigs to the government, pigs deemed to be studs but actually are not, and he hopes to use the profit to finally escape. But, he also must deal with Flatty's disagreement with a cousin and corrupt local cop which may ultimately involve saving both their lives from the local gangsters.
The Film : Think of Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) as Mean Streets without any drama.
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Dust in the Wind, City of Sadness, Good Men, Good Women, Flowers of Shanghai) has a style of direction that is largely action free. It consists of long, reeaaallllyyy loooonnnnngggg, single camera takes, in which the camera will barely move, and more often than not, the characters are going about their daily lives, simply sitting around, eating, and lackadaisically talking... We know that Flatty is impulsive and has a temper because in one scene (one shot, one long take) for about three minutes a group of guys gambling talk about how good the tea they are drinking is, they then begin to talk about Flatty's name and he asks them not to call him Flat-Head, this goes on for two or three minutes before Flatty suddenly jumps up and knocks the table over and starts trying to fight one of the men. They then casually discuss what a temper he has for a couple of more minutes... Likewise we are treated to evocative tracking shots from trolley cars as they move through the city, and it is a clearly a symbolic message of the characters wanting to escape their environment to a better life. As they get more prosperous we see a long tracking shot following them as they ride mopeds (for four long minutes, like Cario Dario but without the narration), and eventually they ride around in a car, which metaphorically crashes at the end, showing that they are not yet ready or incapable of escaping their seedy lives.
Days of Being Wild, another Mean Streets-like film, had relentless energy and performances. Goodbye South Goodbye had a scene in total blackness, where all you could see was a tiny pinhole of a flashlight (they lost their keys in a field at night) and this went on for three minutes with barely any dialogue. Get the difference?
For me, it is not enough just to turn the camera on and let the scenes casually play. Its not a matter of my not having the attention span for it. This is a case where, for me, it isn't enough just to observe, you want to feel, and there isn't a spark of life to the proceedings. Bresson did the same but made you feel. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's style becomes so relaxed that the story is lifeless. I never felt like any of the characters went beyond caricature, because I mainly watched them doing nothing, so there was no emotional investment, no scenes that made me feel like I had penetrated their world and was part of it. Jim Jarmusch, for example, can do a single camera, long take, with no action or dialogue in Down By Law but still make the scenes revelatory and interesting. A film maker like Claire Denis can construct a film to be completely ambiguous, but with sly and ease slip in, suggest, the information we need to know, defying convention but still being revealing... Some people may love his style, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an acclaimed filmmaker, but for me, its like watching paint dry. I guess he is one of those challenging film makers some people latch onto- he largely forsakes any real character development, plays out the scenes with large amounts of inaction, there is barely a narrative or any exposition, the actors all casually lay about, and he scarcely moves his camera- so some people will praise him as an auteur because he shies away from any "entertaining" conventions. I call it boring. I got the point early on in the film, and I didnt need 50 more five minute long scenes of casual life to clue me in.
The DVD : Fox Lorber presents a fairly mediocre transfer that should be merely okay for Asian cinema and Hou Hsiao-Hsien fans, but it is not without its flaws
Picture- Widescreen. The gritty cinematography of the film was neat, with lots of shots composed in doorways windows, and using various filters, but the transfer doesn't present these elements in very good shape. Contrast is very lacking, overall very gray. Sharpness and color are acceptable, but certainly could look much, much better. Color at times gives off a yellow-red tint around the corners of light sources, so I had to muck with my settings to fix it.
Sound- Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with clear, optional English subtitles. The sound was fine, not dynamic by any means, but clear and free of any distortions.
Extras- 16 Chapters--- Weblinks--- Trailer for Flowers From Shanghai--- Filmography and Awards section.
Conclusion- Good enough buy for fans, but I'll give it a rental overall since the direction left me feeling detatched.