ABSENCE is an essential part of cinema. The screen may be filled with images and movement, yet none of it is really there. It's all an illusion, a trick of the light. While the theatrical stage can present us with a limited number of real people and objects, movies can give us virtually unlimited numbers of shadows and reflections, ranging from entire armies to single teardrops. You might say that cinema gives us more of nothing - more absence masquerading as substance - than any other art form. Film's affinity for absence makes it an ideal medium for stories of nostalgia, memory, and loss. No filmmaker has capitalized more brilliantly on these subjects than Hou Hsiao-hsien, a young director from Taiwan whose movies have received international praise.
``A City of Sadness,'' his new drama about family life in politically turbulent Taiwan during the late 1940s, won the grand prize at this year's Venice Film Festival and went on to acclaimed showings at the New York filmfest. ``Daughter of the Nile'' has also been hailed at the New York festival. ``A Time To Live and a Time To Die'' won the international critics' prize at the Berlin filmfest in 1986, and toured the United States in the ``Cutting Edge'' series last year. ``Dust in the Wind'' is now touring in the ``Cutting Edge.''
Mr. Hou's movies have a distinctive look. They never hurry their audience the way Hollywood pictures do. Instead they unfold their quiet, family-oriented stories in long, soft-spoken scenes with no hectic editing. The camera is usually at a distance from the characters; a narrator supplies plot details in mellow tones; and in some films, soft music often plays in the background, heightening the sense of nostalgia.
Hou's style resembles nothing in world cinema except the work of Yasujiro Ozu, a legendary Japanese director. Hou loves Ozu's work, but wasn't much influenced by it - since he never saw an Ozu film until he'd made several movies of his own.
I HAVE conversed with Hou several times in the past couple of years, during the Cannes and New York filmfests as well as the Festival of Festivals in this Canadian city. He is a thoughtful and friendly man who thinks before he speaks, but is rarely at a loss for something to say - and never hesitates to demystify his unusual style by explaining its roots and purposes.
How did Hou arrive at his distinctive approach to filmmaking?
``The first three films I made were commercial blockbusters,'' Hou recalls, describing them as ``very lightweight comedies and love stories'' with popular singers in the leading roles. ``When it came to my third film, I started to have critical acclaim, too. And I started thinking I could really make some good films. So I started to become my own boss.''
Hou made two commercially aimed movies as his ``own boss,'' but ``they were a disaster [at the box office] and lost a lot of money.'' This is when he turned to ``more personal films ... of my own expression.''
Asked how he goes about filming his extraordinary scenes, Hou says, ``It has a lot to do with my own instincts. When I conceive my films, I always pay close attention to the state of things in everyday life - the common activities such as cooking and eating. I visualize the framing and the view, as well as the emotions of the people. ... It's this kind of flow that first comes into my mind.''
Hou discovered the effectiveness of long, lingering shots while solving a practical problem. During his days as an assistant director, so little film was available in Taiwan that movies had to be shot one scene at a time, with each bit of action filmed separately.
HE wanted to use ordinary people rather than professional actors, and he found this procedure very disconcerting for them. ``They became very stiff if you asked them to act according to the camera,'' he recalls. ``I came to find that by using long takes, and keeping the camera at a distance, it was easy to get these nonactors involved in their characters.... That's why I became more and more attracted to this style. And it may also have something to do with my own personality,'' he adds in a revealing remark. ``I don't want to disturb people.''
The special feeling of a Hou film comes from its restrained acting and from technical elements: The distance of the camera prevents the movie from seeming too emotional or sentimental, yet the duration of the shots allows us to become deeply involved with the characters and prevents the film from becoming detached or clinical.
In all eight of his films, Hou has dealt with families and their everyday problems. ``This may have something to do with my background and my own family,'' he says, explaining that he became very interested in his own family memories when he was in his early 20s. This interest increased when he made his autobiographical drama, ``A Time To Live and a Time To Die.''
Hou's career is all the more impressive since it is flourishing when Taiwanese film is generally in decline. Not long ago, the Taiwanese film industry made as many as 200 films per year; today the figure is more like 30 to 40 films. There is one major studio: the Central Motion Picture Company, which has strong government support. Most films are produced by small independent studios.