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The Boys from Fengkuei (New Waves #2)

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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.

The_Boys_From_Fengkuei_-_still_2

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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Easy Rider (New Waves #1)

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Easy Rider Quad Poster

As I mentioned in my last post, The Wild Angels kickstarted an outlaw biker movie craze. Some were very enjoyable like Hell’s Angels on Wheels, which starred Jack Nicholson, but there was only one truly great biker film and that was Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper.

Hopper was a fascinating man. He arrived in Hollywood as a teenager believing he was the best young actor in the world. He landed a part in Rebel Without a Cause and changed his mind. James Dean was the best young actor in the world. Hopper also began an affair with Natalie Wood. He was hired again to work with Dean on Giant. When Elvis Presley branched into an acting career, making his debut in Love Me Tender in 1956, he sought out actors with a Dean connection including Hopper. The two hung around together, Hopper passing on some acting tips. Though maybe not enough of them.

On the downside Hopper also quickly earned a reputation for being a difficult actor. Influenced by Dean, on every set he stepped on to he would rail against ever becoming a ‘director’s puppet’. One argument with Henry Hathaway led to the director telling Hopper that he would never work again in Hollywood (although Hathaway did later employ him again).

The roles did begin to dry up, though, to the extent that Hopper had to earn money from his photography for many high-end magazines. He shot celebrities such as Jane Fonda (and her brother Peter), as well as a number of bands, most notably The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane.

Smiths fans will certainly recognise his Biker Couple from 1961.

Dennis Hopper, Biker Couple, 1961.jpg

Managing to secure some minor roles in films like Cool Hand Luke and The Sons of Katie Elder, didn’t stop Hopper from regularly launching into lengthy diatribes against the studio establishment, accusing the old order of being dinosaurs and claiming he would save Hollywood from big budget conservative family fare like Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Dolittle.

Significantly Hopper also acted in an AIP biker flick The Glory Stompers and together with another Hollywood rebel Peter Fonda, he attempted to get a project called The Last Movie off the ground.

He preached what he called a socialist model of filmmaking and envisaged a future for himself directing independently made features. When Fonda offered him the chance to helm a film about a couple of freewheeling bikers, that Fonda would produce and both would star in, Hopper was ecstatic.

So would Easy Rider usher in a revolutionary new era with a generation of young directors, producers, actors and crew all working in a spirit of co-operation, leaving their egos behind to concentrate on the bigger picture?

In a word: no.

With his long hair, headband and hippy threads, Dennis Hopper might have looked like his world revolved around the whole peace and love ethic of the day but in reality he was pugnacious and paranoid. More Raging Bull than Easy Rider.

‘I am Frank Booth,’ he later told David Lynch, after being sent the script for Blue Velvet.

He would guzzle alcohol by the gallon, smoke Cheech and Chong levels of pot and trip on peyote and acid as well as sniffing Amazonian tree frogs.

Okay, I made that last one up but it might just be true.

While filming, Hopper often went ballistic. He argued furiously with actors and even brandished a handgun at times.

Whatever his faults, he did go on to prove he was an inspired choice to direct Easy Rider.

In Easy Rider, Dennis is Billy (the Kid), while Fonda is Wyatt (Captain America). Billy in beads, fringed buckskin jacket and bushy tash; Wyatt in black leather and shades.

The plot of Easy Rider is simple.

Billy and Wyatt make a drug deal (cocaine) and head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure, riding from Mexico across America on a pair of Harleys, the coke cash stashed inside the fuel tank of Wyatt’s chopper. They intend to travel to Florida and retire on the profits made from the deal.

En route they smoke a load of dope (and of course the actors did inhale); dine with some poor ranchers; encounter a boozy but perceptive lawyer named George Hanson (a show-stealing Jack Nicholson); pick up a hippy hitch-hiker and visit a commune; get hassled by some rednecks who despise their non-conformity and drop some strong acid during the Mardi Gras with two high class hookers played by Karen Black and Toni Basil.

Easy Rider - New Orleans sequence

With its manic and murky out-of-focus camerawork often displaying lens flares, the New Orleans footage is especially remarkable. It includes a sequence where Fonda improvises a monologue, verbalizing his thoughts on his mother’s suicide to a statue of the Madonna in a graveyard. This was absolutely against his wishes, but he was forced into it by Hopper.

The pair argued throughout the shoot and the animosity continued afterwards as Easy Rider became an instant bonafide counterculture sensation, picking up a number of awards and ending 1969 as the third highest grossing film in the States.

Since then it has been called the definitive statement on the death of the 1960s and is generally credited, along with Bonnie and Clyde of 1967, as a vital part in heralding in the New Hollywood era or the American New Wave if you prefer,* a movement that would lead to the successes ofThe Godfather, The Exorcist and Taxi Driver during its heyday.

The soundtrack has often been called groundbreaking too, one of the first to extensively utilise found music (in the form of popular current rock and country rock acts like The Band, The Electric Prunes and Steppenwolf) rather than a orchestral score. The accompanying album made the Billboard top ten and by January 1970, it had been certified gold.

Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, here is one of those tracks, The Byrds and Wasn’t Born To Follow:

Since its release, much has been disputed about the making of Easy Rider. The initial idea is disputed. The budget. The length of the shoot. But it’s the screenwriting credit – officially shared by Terry Southern, Hopper and Fonda – that is the most contested.

Hopper has alleged Southern didn’t write a line of the screenplay while Southern maintained the only reason that Hopper and Fonda received credits was as a favour from him. Hopper liked to claim complete responsibility and asked Fonda and Southern to give up their claims to it though neither agreed to his demands. Since then, Hopper has occasionally been more magnanimous. On his director’s commentary, he even gave Fonda and Southern some credit.

So, did Hopper and Fonda ever kiss and make up?

Sadly, no. When Fonda discovered that Hopper was dying, he made several attempts to see him but Hopper always refused any request to meet. Fonda did fly in to Taos in New Mexico for the funeral but wasn’t allowed into the service.

IF YOU LIKE EASY RIDER THEN YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue from 1980 (this is where Primal Scream came across their ‘Kill All Hippies’ sample for the opening track on their XTRMNTR album) and River’s Edge, a 1986 cult hit that featured an uber-intense Hopper as Feck, a former biker who lives with an inflatable sex doll he calls Ellie. Possibly the bleakest teen film I’ve ever seen.

* When applied to music, the term New Wave takes on negative connotations for many – although Malcolm McLaren, for instance, favoured the term over ‘punk’. While discussing cinema, being labelled as New Wave is generally looked on much more positively (more on this in the coming months).