CITY OF SADNESS, A (1989, Taiwan)
directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien


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Submitted by edo on 2009-06-21

edo's comment:
The goal here, and so with the profile I am developing for "The Puppet Master" is to segment and analyze Hou Hsiao-hsien's cutting style in accordance with the precise gradations in his shot scales.

Ian Jones and I are both interested in the question of point of view, or perspective, and the peculiarity of Hou's approach to a practical, but also philosophical, problem of narrative filmmaking: How does one frame a story? More specifically, whose story is being told and who is doing the telling?

In a 2003 interview, Hou once described his methods as a perpetual search for a "clear perspective", an inquiry into "what kind of perspective can contain the subject matter" of a film. Filmmaking consists in achieving an appropriate "distance" from the figures, objects, and spaces that make-up a story world. Along the same lines, David Bordwell has posited that the maturing Hou discovered that a film could encompass "not only the objective standpoint of the director but also that of the character. It could also portray what was passing through either the character's or the director's imagination." For Hou, " 'To make a film is to play with these four points of view.' "

As Hou eschews the classical point of view shot, what I take him to mean is not that a film can literally place us in the vantage point of this character, then that character, and simultaneously, because a film, of the filmmaker himself, but rather that a film necessarily places us in a certain relation to the viewed situation. In a Hou film, we at once become involved in a mess of events and maintain a distance from them. We are invited to empathize with characters and at once to view them from Hou's own withdrawn point of observation. We even can extend into the reaches of a character's imaginary - that is, their thoughts, their emotions, and their dreams - and at the same time we are always traversing the imaginary space of the film itself, or the imaginary of the filmmaker.

In "A City of Sadness", this mesh of perceptions and analogs is attained in the very passages from gradations in scale that I have chosen to segment here. There is the intimate, "microcosmic" frame of the medium shot and the medium close-up - the frame for the couple or the individual. Then there is the interior social space delineated in very long, long, and medium long shots. At a wider scale, there is the exterior social space described in extreme long shot - the stage of Taiwanese history. Finally, there is the larger, detached "cosmic" frame, as represented by a collection of mist-flled and mystical landscapes surveying stretches of coast never precisely situated or attached to a specific location in the film. Indeed, I am informed that these shots may not have been taken from the island of Taiwan at all.

Hou' sense of sacle is thus idiosyncratic and unique. Events are withheld, perceived at a distance or not shown at all. We come close to our protagonists in medium shot or close-up only for fleeting moments. The majority of the time they simply pass casually in and out of a porous medium long frame, going about their worldly business. Meanwhile, momentous historic moments loom off-screen, or scatter ominously as purely inexplicable violence into the background of Hou's shots, where hypnotic rhythms and rituals of daily life assume the foreground.

It is my hope that this metric analysis will aid in the development of a conceptual model of the above described framing devices and the way Hou patterns their deployment in the construction of an overarching architecture of interpenetrating and coexisting realms of space. To this end, my shot categorizations have been defined to suggest as neatly as possible the divisions that for Hou illustrate the borders between micro-cosmos (a list of precise definitions of each scale will be found in the comments section).

My hypothesis is that both the overall cutting swing and comparisons of the ASLs between shot scales will yield strong evidence indicating that this film is structured rhythmically much in the manner of a regular tide, i.e. according to a monotony of ebb and flow, whereby long takes within compressed interiors dissolve before the detached, absorbent effect of Hou's voided lanscapes, or to the soft, fragile bubbles of intimacy that are his close-ups. These two scales might become the poles between which "A City of Sadness" oscillates.

Number of shots:
MSL 21.2 22.2 43 42.2 38.6 22.8 50 13.4
StDev 9.6 13.6 28.5 40.6 29.8 14.4 39.3 18
Min 12.4 11.2 8.8 8 4.8 5.2 8.4 6
Max 38 62 117.2 201.6 134 63.6 186.8 98
CV 0.42 0.51 0.56 0.79 0.7 0.57 0.61 0.99

Step: Vertical resolution: Height:
Degree of the trendline: Moving average : Color code?

Users' comments:

Author: Date: 2009-06-21

Please adjust to...

Vertical resolution: 2-3 p/s

Height: 500 pix.

Trendline: 6, 12.

Color code: Yes.

Also, the 'other' category of shot includes the opening and closing credit sequences. So to achieve a better approximation of the cutting swing, I suggest disengaging that category so that the slope is not overly skewed at the head and tail.

Author: edo Date: 2009-06-22

My improvised lexicon for Hou's shot scales. These definitions apply to both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master more or less, but where they do not quite fit the latter I have commented on the alterations I made to scale categories in the author's comments for The Puppet Master.

Landscape: A shot representing a wide stretch of land and sky, emptied of characters and suspended between passages of the diegetic movement. It is a transition shot, emptied of thematic significance such that a range of emotions from longing to foreboding may breath through its space.

Exterior, Extreme Long Shot: These shots 'situate' or 'embed' figures and places in a larger social world and rhythm of life. Their exaggerated scale has the effect of trivializing the human presence and retarding all individual actions by plunging them into a larger sea of movement and stillness.

In both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master, these shots often evoke the theater of the absurd.

Very Long Shot: In interior sequences of action, Hou often likes to set his camera at a pronounced and often interfering distance, so that actors or bits of setting partially obscure our view even as dire dramatic events unfold. Such shots are these. They are often deep-focus and less tightly compressed than the next scale down.

Long Shot - Medium Long Shot - For scenes in which characters are seated around a table discussing life and politics, this is Hou's preferred scale. These are dense, telephoto compositions for which it is often difficult to judge the proper scale as they consist in many striations of depth and surface.

Medium Shot - These shots are designed mostly to frame one or a couple of characters, creating a permeable membrane of space that feels vulnerable within a larger context. When more than two characters enter the shot, the compression of the telephoto produces a cramped, claustrophobic density that compromises the fragile integrity of individual figures.

Medium Close-Up - This is the last film by Hou in which the medium close-up is still understood and applied in a conventional sense. There are even a couple of scenes where Hou resorts to the classical mechanism of the shot-reverse shot. Nevertheless, usually the effect of the MCU in this film is to produce a further tightening of space. The realm of the individual constitutes a frail sliver of space in marked contradistinction to the large-scale landscape shots which present us with an eternally receding, hazy depth.

Variable Shot - Many of Hou's shots pass through one or more compositional scales in the business of their staging.  As reframings are employed liberally and intermittently, I have grouped shots containing camera movement or complex figure movement into the broader category of a 'variable shot'.

For both A City of Sadness and The Puppet Master, I have used the shot notes feature to describe individually each of these shots according to mode and function of varability, but there are twoprominent types of this kind of shot worth defining more specifically:

- Depth staging: Hou often likes to use staging in depth, often in conjunction with a simple camera movement such as a pan, to map intersecting regions of social space. For example, in the opening sequence, of A City of Sadness, a variable long take foregrounds big brother Wen-heung as he paces outside the room where his mistress is about to give birth. At the same time as he crosses into the dining space, a female servant traverse the background to appear in the kitchen behind Wen-heung. Thus, Hou lays bare the man's space in relation to that of his women.

- Action Staging: Interior scenes that prominently feature violent action of either physical or emotional sort occasion complex blocking and reframing. Here, the goal is to create a sense of stifling containment, of human beings flailing at each other within a constrained zone of action. What this kind of shot gestures at is something like a temporal aether, from which there is no escape for the figures who pass through the frame. This kind of staging and reframing becomes the paradigmatic mode of expression in many of Hou's mature works, especially  "Flowers of Shanghai", "Millennium Mambo", "Three Times", and "Flight of the Red Balloon" where the camera is set in nearly constant motion. Here, they are but one of many compositional modes in his repertoire.

Other - A City of Sadness features a large number and variety of shots which do not fit under any category. It also contains several intertitles, which I should have liked to have a separate space for, but have settled for merging into this miscellaneous section for convenience. I have designated all these intertitles using the notes feature. In keeping with its elevated sylistic rigour, The Puppet Master features only one atypical shot, a close-up of a photograph no less.

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