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What does Hou Hsiao-Hsien achieve through the use of the long takes in the film? Essay


One of the foremost features of realist editing in cinema is directors’ utilization of particularly long takes, which are meant to ensure the spatio-temporal unity of the explored themes and motifs.

Apparently, by choosing in favor of long takes, as the integral element of realist movies’ spatio-temporal structure, directors are able to achieve a number of aesthetic objectives, such as ensuring the plausibility of movies’ semantic content, providing viewers with the in-depth insight into the workings of characters’ psyche, and allowing viewers to gain a better understanding of the explored themes and motifs’ significance.

Moreover, according to Bazin, viewers’ exposure to the realistically edited movies, which feature an abundance of long takes, helps them to address their innermost psychological anxieties, concerned with viewers’ strive to preserve the spatial three-dimensionality of existence.1

As it was noted by Nitzan, ‘The long deep-focused take, enhancing … three-dimensionality of objects shot in close-up… satisfies spectators’ craving for the mummification of being while positioning them in such a way that they could aesthetically experience the flowing passage of objective time’2 In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an earlier suggestion at length, while analyzing what appears to be the significance of utilization of long takes in Hou’s 2001 film Millennium mambo.

The foremost aspect of how Hou went about providing the in-depth portrayal of film’s characters is the fact that, in Millennium mambo he refrained from emphasizing these characters’ singled-out psychological traits, while allowing viewers the liberty of interpreting them on their own, within the context of how the characters are being shown in the process of tackling life’s challenges.

In its turn, this endows Millennium mambo with the spirit of intellectual honesty. After all, unlike what it is being the case with formalist/expressionist directors, in this particular movie Hou had made a point in treating audience’s members as such that are being fully capable of defining the semiotic significance of film’s themes and motifs, without a director needing to actively ‘assist’ them, in this respect.

In its turn, this leaves very little doubt as to the fact that the specifics of Hou film’s editing are indeed being consistent with Bazin’s idea as to what accounts for the extent of a particular cinematographic work’s spatio-temporal unity, which according to this French movie-critic is being reflective of the extent of director’s willingness to treat viewers as ‘existential sovereigns’, fully capable of relying on their own sense of rationale, when it comes to defining the essentials of film’s aesthetic/semiotic appeal.

This, of course, reveals Hou as a devotee of realist editing, concerned with the absence of ‘expressionist tricks’, such as back-in-time flashbacks, the presence of abstractionist close-ups, and the deliberately undermined integrity of film’s temporal spatiality.

As Totaro pointed it out, ‘Expressive editing invents meaning through juxtaposition of the images…This is trickery; it removes the freedom on the part of the spectator… If the scene has only one simple meaning why insult the audience’s intelligence with needless and obvious close-ups?

Contrarily, if the scene is complex why presuppose only one meaning?’3 Nevertheless, even though there are no traces of expressionist editing in Millennium mambo, in this film Huo did succeed with revealing the whole scope of characters’ psychological traits – mainly, by the mean of ensuring the spatio-temporal soundness of characters’ ‘in-action’ representation.

For example, the beginning of the movie features a rather prolonged take of Vicky walking down the sidewalk (00.02.06 – 00.04.37). Yet, despite the fact that this take is not being formally concerned with director’s intention to provide viewers with the better understanding of Vicky, as a character, by being exposed to the earlier mentioned scene spectators do in fact gain a certain insight into Vicky’s psychological constitution.

The reason for this is simple – the manner in which Vicky walks (with the cigarette in her hand) implies her being a rather spontaneous person, who take life as it comes, while trying to enjoy it to the best of her ability.

The watching of movie’s consequential parts does confirm the soundness of the initial insight into the essence of Vicky’s existential mode, provided by this particular scene. After all, throughout movie’s entirety, Vicky never ceases to position herself as an easy-going individual, who is being quick enough to forgive her boyfriend’s (Hao-Hao) verbal and physical abuses.

As it was mentioned earlier, the realist editing, closely associated with directors’ willingness to utilize long takes, often results in endowing realistic movies with the spirit of perceptional authenticity/genuineness. The reason for this is apparent – by representing characters’ act in a spatially prolonged manner, directors encourage viewers to draw parallels between the ‘cinematographic reality’ on the screen and the reality of their every-day living.

Given the fact that the reality of people’s every-day living often appears rather unsightly, in aesthetical sense of this word, it does not come as a particular surprise that many of realistically edited movies’ long takes represent reality ‘as it is’, even if such reality’s cinematographic representation appears to be detached from movie’s main idea.

The scene, in which Vicky and her friends socialize in the bar (00.04.49-00.10.07), illustrates the legitimacy of an earlier suggestion. After all, the main feature of this scene is that the conversations, which take place between the partying individuals, do overlap to the point of being unintelligible to the viewers.

This, however, does not lessen scene’s cinematographic appeal because, by being exposed to this particular take, viewers do get the genuine sensation of how they would feel, had they found themselves among the partying young people.

Just as it is being the case in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, which contains a number of spatially prolonged scenes, in which characters’ conversations can hardly be heard, due to the loudly played music in the background, the ‘bar scene’ in Millennium mambo cannot be referred to as being particularly appealing, if assessed through the lenses of classical editing-methodology.

As Martin suggested, ‘Hou films his dinner-table or restaurant scenes (and bar scenes, we may add) with a kind of maximum suppression of expository, explanatory information, and by the same token a maximum openness to all the instant possibilities of interrelation, of reshuffling of intersubjective identities’.4

Yet, when analyzed within the context of what represents this film’s overall semiotic significance, the spatially prolonged take of Vicky and her friends being shown in the bar appears indispensible, as it does provide audiences with a comprehensible insight into characters’ positioning in life.

Moreover, viewers’ exposure to this particular take does convince them (on unconscious level) that, unlike what it is being often the case with expressionist directors, the ideologically-charged manipulation with the specifics of their psyche’s functioning never accounted for Hou’s subtle agenda.

In the earlier mentioned take, director had left it for the audience’s members to define their own attitude to what they get to see on the screen – those who are being no strangers to socializing in the bar will be most likely to find the spirit, emanated by this take, appealing. Alternatively, moralistically minded viewers will be most likely to find the ‘bar scene’ as an implicit proof of characters’ moral depravity. However, the earlier outlined different categories of viewers will still find the ‘bar scene’ representationally honest.

Apparently, Hou never ceased being aware of the foremost principle of realist editing, which presupposes the full appropriateness of cinematographic representation of reality proper. As it was noted by Wilson, ‘There is no reason why film presentation should not reflect certain aspects of the normal perceptual position.

This alternative style would respect the complexity of the purely spatio-temporal integration of a field of action while being willing to leave, e.g., the psychological and causal integration of the action less articulated’.5 In Millennium mambo, the ‘actual reality’ appears to be the focal point of director’s attention – in full accordance with Wilson’s suggestion.

The soundness of this suggestion can also be illustrated in regards to the film’s scene in which Vicky comes homes, undresses, spends some time in the shower, lights up a cigarette and ends up being annoyed by Hao-Hao’s trying to have sex with her (00.10.54-00.16.25).

The whole earlier mentioned plot’s developments take place in a clearly consequential manner, with no montage cutting being applied, whatsoever. Moreover, while shooting this particular take, Hou had made a point in applying the ‘perceptually deep’ shooting-technique, made possible by director’s choosing in favor of using the camera with deep-focus lenses.

In its turn, this allowed Hou to provide a clearly defined aura of three-dimensionality to the scene – even though that for duration of this scene, Hao-Hao mostly remains in Vicky’s background (in another room), viewers get to perceive him in a manner as if they happened to be physically present in Vicky’s apartment.

This, of course, does add to the extent of take’s authenticity rather immensely. The same can be said about this scene’s sheer duration (6 minutes), which emphasizes the spatial particulars of a continually deteriorating relationship between Vicky and Hao-Hao. After all, as it appears from Millennium mambo, there were no many objective reasons for both characters to decide in favor of breaking up with each other for good (this is why the off-screen narrator tells that it has never taken too long for Vicky and Hao-Hao to reconcile, after having had a particular break-up).

Yet, it also appears that the idea of breaking up with each other never ceased affecting both characters’ existential modes. The reason for this is simple – just as it is being shown in the earlier mentioned take, both: Vicky and Hao-Hao continued to co-exist in the state of an extreme psychological tension.

And, it was namely by exposing viewers to the long take of Vicky and Hao-Hao dealing with their mutual annoyance of each other that the director was able to provide watching audiences with the clue as to where this tension had originated out of, in the first place.

There can be little doubt as to the fact that, had Hou resorted to the classical or the expressionist editing-methodology, while striving to reveal the hidden roots of psychological incompatibility between Vicky and Hao-Hao, he would not be able to achieve the same effect. The reason for this is quite apparent – it is only when the essence of a relationship between both characters is being revealed to the viewers in a spatially plausible manner, that they can grasp what amounted to the objective preconditions for this relationship to begin deteriorating.

A good illustration to the legitimacy of an earlier statement can also serve the long-take scene in which Hao-Hao begins to grub in Vicky’s wallet and finds a long-distance calling bill, which in turn causes him to suspect her of having some affair on a side (00.33.15-00.37.38).

Even though that, throughout this scene’s entirety, Hao-Hao continues to act as nothing short of a mentally deranged individual, viewers do not find Hao-Hao’s act as being utterly implausible, simply because scene’s spatio-temporal unity does help to accurately portray the subtleties of a process of an individual becoming gradually filled with the irrational anger.

The foremost aspect of this process can be defined within what represents the conceptual framework of cause-effect dialectics, when one thing leads to another. After having found a long-distance calling bill in Vicky’s wallet, Hao-Hao begins to grow ever more suspectful of his girlfriend – yet, there is a whole spectrum of emotions to this process.

As it can be seen in this particular scene, Hao-Hao does try to prevent his irrational anger from taking over his rational being. However, at the scene’s conclusion, he fails at that rather miserably, while becoming enraged to the point of being ready to hit Vicky with his fist.

The conversation that takes place between the two characters, heard in the scene, is helping to facilitate the extent of scene’s authenticity even further, ‘Hao-Hao: Who were you calling? Vicky: I told you, I called home! Hao-Hao: Who did you call? Vicky: I said, I called home… Hao-Hao: You’d better not be lying…Vicky: Crazy! Why would I lie to you? Hao-Hao: I’ll fucking beat you, you know’ (00.35.48).

It is needless to mention, of course, that Hou’s utilization of a continuous take (in this scene) was dialectically predetermined, as it was the main contributing factor to ensuring scene’s spatio-temporal unity – hence, the heightened measure of this scene’s overall semiotic credibility.

Nevertheless, it would be quite inappropriate to refer to Hou’s tendency to take advantage of long takes in Millennium mambo as such that is being solely concerned with director’s strive to emphasize the spatial realness of the explored themes and motifs. It appears that, by having an abundance of long takes in this particular movie, Hou also aimed to highlight the metaphysical significance of a theme of existential alienation, which is being integrally interwoven into plot’s very unraveling.

There is a memorable scene in the movie, formatted as a single take, when Vicky is being shown sitting in front of the window, with viewers being exposed to the sight of passing trains outside (01.33.36 – 01.35.30).

While referring to the significance of this particular scene, Hasumi states, ’All that is visible is a constant stream of trains passing back and forth outside the window by which she (Vicky) stands. Nothing tells her where he has gone. All she can grasp for in this foreign city is the absent shadow of his (Jack’s) treasured presence, but it has vanished into the distance’.6

It is understood, of course, that just as it is being the case with the earlier discussed movie’s scenes that feature a clearly defined spatio-temporal integrity, this particular one does help viewers to gain a better insight into Vicky’s state of mind. This, however, is not only the scene’s purpose.

Apparently, while focusing camera on hotel’s window, so that viewers would get to see passing-by trains, Hou wanted to emphasize that the very passage of time results in ‘objectualization’ of people’s subjective desires and anxieties. Hence, tragic undertones to this particular scene – the passage of time remains irrespective of how people position themselves within the reality’s spatial framework.

Therefore, it will only be logical to assume that there is also a symbolical quality to how Hou went about incorporating long takes in Millennium mambo. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated in regards to the movie’s final scene, which features a prolonged take of Yubari’s snowy street (01.38.36 – 01.39.42).

Even though that there is no cinematographic action can be seen in this particular scene, it does convey the idea that the very subtleties of time’s passing naturally predispose people to continually revise their emotionally-charged attitudes towards the surrounding reality. In its turn, this idea correlates with the spirit of spontaneity, emanated by Hou’s film.

The fact that Hou’s movie Millennium mambo appears to be extremely realistic may very well have to do with the particulars of director’s ethno-cultural affiliation. After all, Confucian (Apollonian) tradition does encourage its affiliates to reflect upon reality’s ‘vanishing’ emanations, as opposed to be contemplating upon how these emanations reveal the essence of some fixed ‘metaphysical’ reality, as it is being the case with Christian (Faustian) tradition, for example.

Nevertheless, it would be much more appropriate to discus Hou’s cinematographic realism as such that is being reflective of his endowment of intellectual honesty and of his innate dislike of artificially sophisticate pretentiousness (the foremost feature of avant-gardist/formalist movies).

In Millennium mambo, Hou positioned himself as an individual who firmly believes that, regardless of what accounts for the ethical undertones of objective reality’s manifestations, these manifestations represent the aesthetic value of ‘thing in itself’.

Such Hou’s cinematographic positioning, of course, is being fully consistent with Bazin’s belief that the actual purpose of a cinematographic art is to help people to realize the full extent of reality’s aesthetic beauty ‘as it is’, without depriving this reality of its spatio-temporal unity, ‘A film form… permits everything to be said without chopping the world up into little fragments that would reveal the hidden meanings in people and things… without disturbing the unity natural to them’.7

Thus, it would only be logical, on my part, to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that it is namely the fact that in Millennium mambo, Hou succeeded rather marvelously in ensuring a spatial integrity of the explored themes and motifs, which accounts for this movie’s foremost aesthetic value.

I believe that this conclusion is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis. Moreover, I believe that is namely the realist methodology of film editing, which will be increasingly resorted to by movie-directors in the future. The fact that, as of today, the genre of ‘auteur film’ (associated with directors’ utilization of the expressionist editing-methodology) continues to fall out of favor with the majority of moviegoers, leaves very little doubt as to the full validity of this suggestion.

Reference List

Adrian, M, ‘What’s happening? Story, scene and sound in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, pp. 258-270.

Bazin, A, ‘The evolution of the language of cinema’, in What is cinema?, University of California Press, Berkley,1967, pp. 23-40.

Hasumi, S, ‘The eloquence of the taciturn: An essay on Hou Hsiao-Hsien’, Inter – Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, pp. 184-194. Millenium mambo, [film], Palm Pictures, New York/Taipei, 2001.

Nitzan, B, Film: The key concepts, Berg Publishers, Oxford GBR, 2007.

Totaro, D, ‘André Bazin: Part 1, Film style theory in its historical context’, Off Screen, 2003, retrieved

Wilson, G, ‘Film, perception, and point of view’, MLN, vol. 91, no. 5, 1976, pp. 1026-1043.

Footnotes

1 A Bazin ‘The evolution of the language of cinema’, in What is cinema?, University of California Press, Berkley,1968, p. 36.

2 B Nitzan, Film: The key concepts, Berg Publishers, Oxford GBR, 2007, p. 13.

3 D Totaro, ‘André Bazin: Part 1, Film style theory in its historical context’, Off Screen, 2003.

4 M Adrian, ‘What’s happening? Story, scene and sound in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, p. 263.

5 G Wilson, ‘Film, perception, and point of view’, MLN, vol. 91, no. 5, 1976, p. 1031.

6S, Hasumi, ‘The eloquence of the taciturn: An essay on Hou Hsiao-Hsien’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, p. 192.

7 Bazin, p. 38.

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IvyPanda. "What does Hou Hsiao-Hsien achieve through the use of the long takes in the film?" June 11, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-does-hou-hsiao-hsien-achieve-through-the-use-of-the-long-takes-in-the-film/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "What does Hou Hsiao-Hsien achieve through the use of the long takes in the film?" June 11, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/what-does-hou-hsiao-hsien-achieve-through-the-use-of-the-long-takes-in-the-film/.

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