Goodbye, South, Goodbye
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien (1996)
A sort of prequel to Millennium Mambo (2001), Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1996 film shares most of the later release's ingredients, quite obviously with regards to plot, character development and cinematographic techniques.
Part of the Taiwan director's small-time crook series, thus known for its involvement with the lives and times of budding mobsters, the movie echoes Hou's (Flowers of Shanghai, City of Sadness) borderline documentary style, perplexing in its fascinated focus on reality's extremes: the camera stays equally still whether someone's ass gets brutally kicked or when a protagonist sits down to chomp on noodles.
Even though this trend has won him global acclaim, it doesn't entirely flatter rather minimal storylines, all too often resulting in a plot lacking consolidation.
Here, Hou's heroes (occasionally named identically to the correlating actors/actresses) initially give us a glimpse at their tittering existence in northern Taiwan, with main person Kao (Jack Kao) forced to constantly untwine problems created by younger brother Flathead (Giong Lim) and his semi-deranged girlfriend Pretzel (Annie Shizuka Inoh). Kao's frustrated attempts to make it do not escape criticism from his own better half, Ying (Kuei Ying Hsu), the story's most reasonable party.
Later on, Kao's entourage travels south, only to become needlessly implicated in a feud with greedy relatives backed by corrupt officials, eventually landing them banishment from their ancestral lands, hence the film's nostalgic title.
Hou and company wanted to provide us with social commentary yet chose once more an approach so low key and subtle, we're left behind from the onset, never really graduating into the philosophizing phase. Such a ho-hum attitude of course rules out memorable dramatic performances, but then Hou's products of this vein usually strive for real-life material, not Oscar fodder. Goodbye South, Goodbye does feature marvelous photography and beautiful scenery, although music-wise it was left wanting.
More important as a lesson in time's maturing process than anything else, and when compared with Millennium Mambo it clearly reveals how much Hou grew in the five year interim. Sadly, Goodbye's primary entertainment value stems from a retro kick induced by seeing everyone lugging huge Motorola cell phones and one of movie history's most meaningless ending scenes, and as such it does not come highly recommended beyond a limited art-house, ambient screening context.
(cityweekend.com.cn February 19, 2004)