(Mandarin and Hokkien dialogue)
Touted as a stylistic departure from his previous pics, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Goodbye South, Goodbye” is more a motley collection of shavings from them. With none of the historical and modern resonances of his “The Puppetmaster” and “Good Men, Good Women,” the movie serves up a two-hour slice of contemporary ennui among a group of Taipei lowlifes that looks set to appeal only to diehard auteurists and hardcore admirers of the Taiwanese helmer. This is minor Hou at best.
The second of Hou’s movies financed by Japan’s Shochiku Co. (following last year’s “Good Men”), the pic has a protracted production history. Skedded to be rapidly shot last summer in hopes of a Venice fest bow, it went back before the cameras late in ’95 and a third time early this year. The credits name two cameramen, but the film’s overall visual palette shows no sign of reshooting; however, its obtuse, veering narrative makes it impossible to tell what changes, if any, were made during production.
Hou says the film is an attempt to “create a new rhythm, different from my previous films,” but with its long takes, minimal action and offhand dialogue, the first half-hour is classic Hou in spades. After that, the characters and bare-bones storyline slowly swim into focus, with a final hour that’s livelier and more engaging. But with its willful swings in dramatic focus and pacing, the pic constantly slips out of the viewer’s grip just when it’s starting to hook the attention.
Central character is Kao (Hou regular Jack Kao), a tattooed Taipei gangster whose laid-back girlfriend, Ying (Hsu Kuei-ying), is a divorced mother working as a bar hostess. Kao’s best buddy and sidekick is Flathead (rock singer Lim Giong, another regular), who tows along his squeeze, the kooky Pretzel (songstress Annie Shizuka Inoh), also a bar girl.
The film opens with Kao leading the group into the highlands to set up a short-term gambling den with his old friend Hsi (Hsi Hsiang), a fellow gangster with an extremely short fuse. The trip turns sour when Pretzel slits her wrists after getting into major debt.
Hsi hears of a scam in the south of the island that involves the government condemning some land and buying back (at a premium) all the pigs on the territory, with government, local farmers and the underworld each taking a cut of the sale. That goes fine, but when Flathead tries to get some extra money owed by relatives in the region, he’s beaten up, setting off a chain of retaliation.
Hou has been down the underworld road earlier with the 1986 “Daughter of the Nile,” which in many respects anticipated the ’90s cycle of nihilistic Taiwanese pics.
Even as a study of two aimless generations — non-achiever, thirtysomething Kao and Gen X-ers Flathead and Pretzel — pic scores only fitfully. With minimal backgrounding of the characters, and almost no development of the femmes, it’s hard to get engaged in their lives, especially when scenes follow scenes with virtually no linking. The film plays like a collection of sequences from a longer, more detailed work.
Kao, as always, cuts a charismatic figure. Lim is good as the explosive, frustrated Flathead, but the character is thinly detailed. Inoh (fine as the lead in “Good Men”) is thrown away in a nothing role.
Tech credits are top-drawer, with beautiful lensing of the Taiwanese countryside and Hou’s customarily rosy-colored, shadowy interiors. Music is deployed far more extensively than in previous Hou pics.