AKA JIU SHI LIU DE TA
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, in the EARLY HOU HSIAO-HSIEN: THREE FILMS 1980-1983 Boxset from Eureka Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Wenwen is soon to be married off to a man she’s never met because it will strengthen her father’s business and make her grow up. Daigang is a chartered surveyor who looks after an orphan boy but won’t let him call him dad. When both Wenwen and Daigang end up in the same rural village, she staying with her aunt to get some space and he there to survey a planned road that will unfortunately go right through someone’s house, the two become friendly even though the villagers are understandably not very welcome to these visitors….
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao -hsien is sad to say not a filmmaker I’m familiar with even though his work which includes the likes of City Of Sadness and The Assassin has apparently been highly acclaimed by critics and even other filmmakers. Time for me to check out some of his stuff then, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. I said in my review of Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray release of Sleeping Dogs last week that it’s often nice when you receive films to watch and review that you’ve never heard of, and so it was the case with Eureka’s set that consists of three of his early films, Cute Girl being his directorial debut. Hou actually disowned the first two though that in itself shouldn’t automatically mean that the films are poor, as fans of the likes of, say, Stanley Kubrick’s Fear And Desire will no doubt attest to. Much of Hou’s work seems to deal with the history of the past century of Taiwan and revolve around family stories with minimalistic storytelling and a very calm style. I may not be able to say how much the seeds of Hou’s later work can be seen in these three early films, but hopefully I’ll be able to give you an idea of how well they work as movies.
Cute Girl is a romantic comedy, and I’m sure that the term ‘romantic comedy’ strikes fear into the hearts of many who read and indeed write for this website. I’m not a fan either, even there I’ll admit that there were a few classics way back in the past. One can’t like everything. Therefore I approached Cute Girl with some trepidation but it turned out to be an easy, harmless watch, not hilarious but certainly amusing at times, that only begun to outstay its welcome in its third section where it seems that Hou, who also scripted, wasn’t sure on how to get the story to progress to its obvious conclusion. It was made as a star vehicle for Taiwanese pop-stars Kenny Bee and Fei-Fei Feng, which means that you have to put up with a really maudlin ballad several times throughout the film, though viewers experienced in the Hong Kong movies of the decade often have to put with similar musical annoyances in even the most action filled of films, so it shouldn’t be a huge problem.
Wenwen and Daigang meet for the first time in the opening scene when she gets out of her car to check her headlights and he toots his scooter horn and waves at her, after which she almost utters a smile. For the next twenty minutes or so we cut back and forth quite quickly between their doings, showing their jobs and what their lives are like. There are some okay chuckles here, like Wenwen’s shoe coming off during a board meeting and she accidentally putting her foot on the foot of the rather pleased old guy sitting next to him rather then in her errant shoe. She may have a good job [which isn’t specified], but is pretty much told what to do by her very traditional family, especially her rather shouty father. Marriage is more about money and convenience than anything else. She resolves herself to her fate but understandably decides to get away from it all for a bit first. There’s a well handled laugh when she and her uncle run towards each other with arms outstretched but they pass each other and run into others, Wenwen her aunt, and her uncle a goose. This is a good example of the film’s humour, not exactly hysterical, but quite pleasing nonetheless, and the sort of simple humour that travels well. Meanwhile Daigang’s only tie seems to be an orphan boy who likes to call him dad in crowded places to his embarrassment. He sees Wenwen again at the zoo, though she doesn’t see him. His latest job comes up, and of course it’s at the village where Wenwen is.
The film’s funniest material comes here, with the conflict between the villagers and these arrogant men who see nothing bad in cutting a house in half so you’d have to cross the road to go from the kitchen to the toilet [one of them suggests they paint a crossing]. When a small boy bites Daigang, he fools the others – well, most of them – that he’s also been bitten by a snake. A medicinal drink given to him results in him having diarrhea, and I have to admit that I’m one of those juvenile types who finds toilet humour funny so I was laughing along here, though others will probably sit there stone faced, and we didn’t really need the comical music backing to remind us that we ought to be chuckling. Our couple become friendly, many of their key scenes taking place around and even on a particular tree. Bee and Feng are certainly cute together, and Feng acts quite well her character’s slight guilt in developing feelings for this guy because she’s also got this fiancee who’s coming from France to marry her. Despite rather too many pop video-type romantic scenes with no less than three songs that contain the words “cute girl” in their titles, it’s all quite amiable until they head back home to the city and are separated. Daigang sets out to derail Wenwen’s marriage to the dull Qian, but this mostly involves him constantly turning up wherever Wenwen and Qian are and befriending Qian in scenes which are dreary and even pointless while making Daigang into a nuisance. The writing is sometimes poor, such as Qian just happening to have another girlfriend, though in truth it’s no worse than in many other films in this genre. Of course Wenwen’s father is also an obstacle, but things are resolved in a very contrived way which in a way contradicts one of the things the film seems to be saying [you’ll see what I mean], even though the final scene is obviously intended to provide both a big laugh and a warm hearted smile.
The conflict between old and new, tradition and modern ways of doing things, is of course the major theme, and related to that the subject of city life and folk vs rural life and folk though that’s mostly abandoned in the second half. It’s clear that, despite putting in an amusing dream duel between the two men, Hou is far more interested in the first half of the film than the standard developments of the second, with a lovely relaxing feel to many of the village scenes as we sometimes stop to watch people going about their business. The cinematography of Kun-Hou Chen is very evocative of the locale and there are some truly lovely shots. I’m sure that most Taiwanese romantic comedies didn’t attempt this kind of artistry, though I’m also sure that viewers more experienced with this filmmaker will be able to link things in it to later films. It’s obvious though that the first half of the film, even the first two thirds, are the work of a filmmaker with a great deal of talent and a love of people, even if he seems very restrained by the genre he’s working in. And Bee and Feng are really quite good, Bee here the far less experienced performer [his list of credits will become huge] but already showing a flair for comedic performing at times.
Overall Cute Girl is just a piece of puppy love-level fluff, but even in the less interesting if increasingly ridiculous second half I did find myself wanting this couple to be able to surmount all the obstacles that are put in front of them and be together, so in that respect you could say that the film did succeed.
The picture on Cute Girl sometimes suffers from mild flickering, something probably unavoidable for a film that was made very cheaply, but for the most part it’s fine. As with the other two films in the set, it get a video essay, but it’s housed on disc 2 with The Boys From Fengkuie, so my comments on it can be read with my review of that film.
*Limited Edition O-Card (First print run only)
*1080p presentations of all three films, across two Blu-ray discs
*Uncompressed LPCM audio on all three films
*Optional English subtitles
*Video essays on all three films by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López
*A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp