The Boys from Fengkuei

Around the time of the release of this film, I was following a similar route to the boys depicted. An ordinary teenager migrating hundreds of miles south with some pals to find work in my case. And personal independence.

Immediately on seeing The Boys from Fengkuei many years later for the first time, I was reminded of how universal great cinema can be. It might have been set on the other side of the world where everyone speaks a language I don’t understand a word of but the characters could have been me and my friends, acting daft, getting drunk, showing off in front of girls.

Hou Hsiao-hsien directed only four full-length works that are usually considered Taiwanese New Wave (or New Cinema as it is also known as). These are The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984); The Time to Live, the Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986).

As James Udden put it in No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Collectively these films can be seen as the definitive works of the Taiwanese New Cinema before its semi-official end in early 1987, the year of his next film, Daughter of the Nile.’

As you can tell by the dates, Taiwan was later than most with its cinematic New Wave, a reaction in part to the slightly earlier Hong Kong New Wave, that by the beginning of the 1980s was meeting with much critical and commercial success, as well as generally outperforming home-grown efforts at the box office in Taiwan.

The 1982 Taiwanese anthology film In Our Time – with one segment helmed by Edward Yang – proved groundbreaking, departing radically from those home-grown martial arts flicks and sentimental dramas that young audiences in particularly were finding increasingly stale.

New and younger directors began pushing their way to the fore, and, as with previous New Waves, collaborations flourished. Hou, for instance, co-scripted Wan Ren’s Ah Fei in 1983 and played the lead role in Edward Yang’s excellent Taipei Story a year later, by which time he’d filmed The Boys from Fengkuei.

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Three of Hou’s earliest films were released earlier this year by Eureka, two of which I’d never seen before. These were like discovering that your favourite indie act had once been boy band wannabes. Indeed, Kenny B, a lightweight Hong Kong pop star starred in both Cute Girl (1980) and The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982). They’re both reasonably entertaining albeit fluffy. By the time of the latter film though, Hou is already demonstrating an amazing capacity for technically imaginative camerawork, and displaying a striking ability to coax some very fine performances from the (first time) child actors who play such a crucial part in the film.

His method for directing these youngsters was soon adopted for directing adults too. Rather than insisting on blocking scenes precisely and demanding lines be delivered exactly as written, he instead favoured the possibilities offered by improvisation, suggesting moods and atmospheres that scenes should be inspired by.

As plots go, The Boys from Fengkuei is slim. A group of teenagers from a small fishing village hang around shooting pool, scooting around on mopeds; they drink and stray into trouble with other local young men. Bored, they decide to try their luck elsewhere, moving to the bustling port city of Kaohsiung where one of their sister’s lives and works.

Once installed there and sharing an apartment, one of the boys develops a crush for a neighbour, although he doesn’t let on as she is living with – and presumably in love with – her nonchalant and reckless boyfriend, who’s employed together with her and the Fengkuei boys at a nearby electronics factory.

These characters are flawed although Hou has no interest in flagging up to an audience how they should be judged. They resort to violence too easily. They all struggle to express their emotions. They are naive. Moving to a thriving big city certainly doesn’t shield them from the harsh realities of life. In many ways it only adds an element of alienation into the emotional mix.

The Boys from Fengkuei still

At a time when Taiwan was transforming itself rapidly, with industrialization on the rise, movies like this were a big deal and far more realistic than what had gone before. As a comparison, think how fresh kitchen sink dramas in the late 1950s and early 1960s like A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving must have struck audiences when they first hit British cinemas.

Cinephiles soon took note too and considering the size of the island (its population at the time was only around 17,000,000), it managed to make a real impact globally with films by Hou, Edward Yang, Chen Kunhou and others and then with what became known as the Second Wave, when new directors like future Oscar winner Ang Lee emerged.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career has continued to flourish since his breakthrough film, inspiring many aspiring filmmakers along the way, Jim Jarmusch, for example, called Hou his ‘teacher’. Hou scooped the highly prestigious Golden Lion prize for best picture at the 1989 Venice Festival for A City of Sadness and is recognised today as one of the world’s greatest auteurs.

The BFI suggest the ideal introduction to Hou is 1985’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die but I would go for The Boys from Fengkuei.

Hou hsiao hsien - The Assassin

If you like The Boys from Fengkuei, you might also enjoy The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful wuxia drama that premiered at Cannes in 2015. Described as ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ by The Telegraph and voted best film of the year by Sight & Sound, The Assassin is a dazzling spectacle that lingers long in the memory. I’d guess that even Stanley Kubrick might be impressed by Hou’s attention to detail here. Just about every shot looks to be as carefully composed as a painting by an old master.

What else can I say? Well, I could admit that I also found it difficult to follow at times and if I’m being completely honest, I would have liked to have seen some more spectacular swordplay along the way but I would still absolutely recommend The Assassin.

 

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