Romantic Beginnings, by Scott Nye
Forbidden handholding, false teeth, and Shakey’s restaurant (to name some of the more unexpected elements) function so similarly in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first two features, Cute Girl (1980) and Cheerful Wind (1981), that one could almost view the latter feature as a more mature reimagining of the former. They even share the same principle cast, headed by pop stars Feng Fei-fei and Kenny Bee. Neither film, however, acts as any sort of announcement of the major figure Hou would become in world cinema. While many of his admirers have consequently sought to distance themselves, and the director, from these mainstream romantic comedies, seeing Hou work inside a commercial system makes apparent the versatility and depth of the director’s talents in ways simply seeing Dust in the Wind (1986) and The Puppetmaster (1993) could not.
Writing for Reverse Shot in 2008, Andrew Chan notes, “there is nothing mysterious about it at all in [Hou’s] first features,” going even further to insist that “[i]t can be unpleasant to watch Hou – famously delinquent in his youth…achingly poetic in his art – stumble through these polite genre exercises.” But auteurism requires more imagination. A “personal vision” is not incompatible with a commercial format. The clash of what we understand of Hou’s sensibility (thanks to his latter work) and the demands of an audience hungry for romantic comedies are precisely what makes Cheerful Wind in particular so mysterious and invigorating. Yes, Dust in the Wind is a purer work – despite running twenty minutes longer than either of these first two films, it’s spare and exacting in all the ways that Cute Girl and Cheerful Wind are wild, broad, even at times sort of careless. But because they are working in a mode that rewards melodramatic flourishes, those early films are occasionally the more inspired, reflective of the unpredictability of human emotion and sudden desire.
Feng stars as a photographer dreaming to travel to Europe. She meets a blind man (Bee) during a commercial shoot, incorporates him into the ad, and the two become fast friends. Unlike Cute Girl – which seems to remember halfway through that the romantic comedy demands complications, then works overtime to accommodate them – the doubt in Cheerful Wind is more internalized. Will he still love her once his sight is restored? Does she have room for him amidst her personal and professional goals? And always there’s the question of work. He’s a student, and his prospects are growing. She’s promised to fill in for her schoolteacher brother in a rural suburb. She also has a coworker who has courted her for years, a modernized mirror of the dilemma in Cute Girl, wherein Feng is facing an arranged marriage when she meets Bee (in both, the beau is played by Anthony Chan). The earlier film sees the two would-be competitors become fast friends; in Cheerful Wind, their recognition of one another is more complex, a quiet acknowledgment that one of them will walk away unhappy.
“Why can’t a woman marry two men?” Feng laments in Cute Girl. Earlier, she expressed a secret desire for men to more actively pursue her, before concluding that it’d probably be an annoyance. She had not predicted the heartache. This is more deeply complicated by the circumstances of she and her fiancé’s inevitable breakup, when he, recognizing that she loves another man, admits that he, too, has a girlfriend back in France (where he works), and isn’t especially eager to hurt her. Hou holds the end of this scene on a shot of Feng, as she processes just how complicated her formerly-simple love life had become. She plays this scene beautifully, accepting a rejection that effectively allows her the freedom to be with the man she prefers, yet still saddened by the rejection itself. When Bee shows up to her office the next day, shouting her name, she doesn’t joyfully rush out to meet him, but rather avoids him to the point of confrontation.
In both films, Bee is very much the aggressor, forcing progress in their relationships when she would much rather take time to process. In Cute Girl, he is rewarded for it (its own form of honesty, as men often are); in Cheerful Wind, he comes to accept her agency. The film ends with an incongruent, but strangely moving, freeze-frame and explosion of pop music at the moment when he effectively says “go, live your life; I’ll be here when you return, if you return at all.” Whereas one can easily view Cute Girl as fitting in rather well with an established mold, whether one has any direct experience with that mold, Cheerful Wind is a far more unwieldy creation, expressing a sense of melancholy and uncertainty that Hou would develop more fully later, but which is effective and moving (and, yes, achingly poetic) in a wholly different, perhaps even more dynamic way.
Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien continues through May and June at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, as well as the Aero Theatre and REDCAT.