K’s Cinema in Shinjuku is presenting a two-month retrospective of Taiwan cinema centered mainly on the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien that includes a lot of films from the 1980s which rarely get shown here any more, despite Hou’s close relationship with Japan. Among these is Hou’s second feature from 1981, the digitally remastered Cheerful Wind, providing what is probably the master’s most conscientious stab at a conventional crowd-pleaser, though there are enough peculiarities in both the story and the presentation to satisfy fans of his more distinctive work. Basically a romantic comedy made during a time when Asian directors were only mildly familiar with the genre, the movie offers up a unique female lead in a setting whose circumstances are deceptively anodyne (Taiwan was under martial law until the late 1980s).
Working with two established stars, Hong Kong idol Kenny Bee and Taiwanese pop singer Fong Fei Fei, Hou subverts the usual male-female dynamic of idol movies by making the female lead an aggressively self-possessed career woman and the male an introvert by necessity, since he is blind. Moreover, he sets up the requisite meet-cute moment with an almost ridiculous plot premise: a location film shooting on a city street for a TV commercial. Hsing-hui (Fong) is the ad agency’s photographer working on the shoot, whose client is a company that makes laundry detergent. The shoot is a chaotic affair, a seeming comment on the “movie-within-a-movie” concept on display, with the director trying all sorts of bizarre ideas, including exploding cow shit, to prove the worth of the subject product. Hsing-hui spots blind harmonica player Chin-tai (Bee) and ropes him into appearing in the commercial based on the very un-PC premise that, even as a sightless person he can appreciate the quality of the detergent just by reputation.
A kind of crush is developed on Hsing-hui’s part, despite the fact that she is informally engaged to a colleague, Lo (Anthony Chan Yau), who is keen for her to meet his mother in Hong Kong. Her reluctance to carry through this obligation indicates, in classic rom-com style, that Hsing-hui’s attachment to Lo is anything but fast, and when she keeps running into Chin-tai on the street she endeavors to place herself in an orbit he can’t quite comprehend, though the audience does. Eventually, we understand that Hsing-hui’s interest in Lo is entirely self-serving, since he is from a family of means and her real desire is to travel extensively on his dime. As with many entertainments of that time, a lot of story time is given up to show the characters’ middle class aspirations, invariably represented by Western encroachments. When Hsing-hui’s father arrives from the sticks to meet Lo, they take him for pizza and Coca Cola, a meal that he finds somewhat repugnant.
Counterintuitively, the romance with Chin-tai is so low-key as to be practically demure, a quality that Hsing-hui herself never embodies. If anything, her casual insubordination at work and rather callous method of dumping Lo come across not as the actions of a selfish individual but rather that of a true free spirit. She pretty much charms everyone she comes into contact with, so her choosing Chin-tai, a blind man with no prospects, as a potential life partner seems particularly subversive; that is, until the happy ending, which is perhaps a bit too fantastic to take at face value. Since rom-coms didn’t really exist in Chinese-language cinema at the time, it’s not as if Hou were standing an established genre on its head. It’s as if he were already having fun with it, and that’s an aspect of his art that applies throughout his work.
In Mandarin and Taiwanese. Starts April 17 in Tokyo at K’s Cinema Shinjuku (03-3352-2471).
Taiwan/Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective home page in Japanese
photo (c) 1982 Kam Sai (HK) Company (c) 2018 Taiwan Film Institute