This was my 3rd Hou Hsiao-hsien film and in many ways it is a departure from his earlier work. Hou has often been compared to Ozu, both in terms of style, in how they rely on stationary, still camera shots and long takes, and in the subject matter in dealing with people and families in changing society and culture climates. However, this comparison is more evident in films like A City of Sadness or Café Lumiere than in Goodbye South, Goodbye (GSG). In GSG, Hou borrows from another legendary Japanese director in Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi's trademark of the elegant, moving camera (usually by way of crane shots) is all over GSG. Hou's long take is still in effect, and I'd guess that most takes average well over a minute in length. It's often this aspect - of staying with a scene when not much is happening - that turns many off to Hou's films.
GSG has been dubbed as Hou's Taiwanese version of Scorsese's Mean Streets, and the two films do bear some similarities in terms of subject matter. What really separates the two however is the narrative focus. Mean Streets actively involves you in the lives of its pathetic and tragic characters - chronicling their journey through the world of low-level crime. Hou's direction has a very different relationship with his characters. We often find that when any scheme, plan, or anything relative to the plot is being discussed, Hou's camera couldn't seem less interested. A great example happens early in the film with Kao having a conversation with his relatives, while the camera moves off and follows Flatty and Pretzel playing with a baby and just being silly in general. Another example comes later with Flatty discussing his "missing" money, while the camera moves off to focus on Kao feeding some pet dogs. Hou seems to be mocking these characters and their pathetic attempts to make it big, instead of focusing on the central "plot" he will move off to focus on seemingly unimportant things.
Beyond the change in focus, Hou's masterful compositions and depth of field usage is prevalent throughout. Hou usually sets up his camera, and uses space to present the narrative perspective and relationship with the characters. The opening shot is the epitome of this idea, as we see Kao in the foreground, relatively close to the camera on the right, with Flatty and Pretzel in the background on the left, and techno music thudding along. Hou plays with space so that the distance from the characters and emptiness around them speaks louder about the scene than the plot itself. One reviewer described this technique as "spatial disconnect". Scenes where the average film would place its camera in the midst of the happenings (such as when Flatty is forced into a car and taken away), Hou instead hangs back and views from a distance. Allowing us to merely observe, but not actively participate in the narrative happenings.
Hou often fills this quietness with interruptions from modern life. Cell phones, video games, techno music, Western references - all of these things invade GSG like a purposeful annoyance. Thematically, Hou seems to be stressing the distancing inconvenience that modern conveniences provide for us. People constantly chatter on cell phones, talking but rarely communicating. Pretzel plays a video game while weeping. And techno music fills scenes of quiet, perhaps suggesting how we fill the silence in our own lives. Beyond the above invading elements are scenes of trains, cars, motorcycles, roads, and movement. There are atleast 4 distinct scenes that reiterate this idea of "movement" - of heading somewhere, even if we have no idea where that somewhere is. In a way, this works as a wonderful metaphor for these characters, and perhaps most people in modern life. Perhaps the scene that epitomizes this is Kao, Flatty, and Pretzel's bike ride that winds for minutes down a narrow road, heading uphill, eventually using the phrases "So far away", "Almost there". Of course, this fits perfectly with the characters lives. So far away from anything meaningful or any real purpose, but almost there with regards to whatever temporary destination they are heading towards.
The final scene of the film is also wonderful. To not give it away, I'll merely say that there's a superb element of complete arbitrariness about it. After your first viewing you might be thinking "what the hell? What was the point of that?" But the idea that there is no point - or rather, I might say that there is no element of purposeful fate - seems to be significant to how random these characters' lives are anyway. As if they never had control of anything to begin with. There are several scenes that reinforce this - one is of Kao throwing up after a party, and lamenting about failing his father.
As intriguing as I think this film is, I also feel that it is flawed, and not Hou's best. I couldn't help but think that it runs too long. My initial thought was that there were several scenes that could've been cut and the film would've been much tighter and effective. But after a second viewing I tend to think that there's nary a scene that isn't important or relevant to something. An alternative solution would've been to merely trim these scenes, allowing the film to flow easier. The problem isn't necessarily one of fat, but merely bloat. This film's style is difficult and distancing enough without scenes that outstay their welcome, and I can't help thinking that with a 10-15 minute less run-time this film would've been much better. That said, this film is rhythmically complex enough that the length is only a minor inconvenience.
One negative critique of the film said that "while this film tries to tackle the lives of its characters, these are some of the most uninteresting lives I've ever witnessed". The great irony is that despite the pathetic nature of their lives (one karaoke singer nails the sentiment with the line "These are really foolish people") they are still generally much more interesting than our own. Hou, by way of the Italian neo-realists, has delivered a film that could almost be a documentary. GSG - and most of Hou's films - do not try to hype reality, but merely present it. With his careful narrative focus, compositions, and meticulous film technique he's able to reveal and discuss a great many things about the society and culture of Taiwain as well as our own. You may notice that I've said relatively little regarding the actual narrative or characters - that's because this is a film whose value doesn't lie in either. If you approach GSG looking for Tarantino-esque colorful characters, or a Scorsese-like powerful narrative, then you will be sorely disappointed. This film - and Hou's films in general - are films for people who are seeking the opposite aesthetic of that of what modern Hollywood offers. And that is the film of the every-man, and all the scabs and warts associated with it.
Ultimately, this is a difficult and distancing, but subtly complex and rewarding film; One that, for those who are intrigued by its unique aesthetic, will likely come back to so that it can reveal its thematic nuances with repeat viewings.