David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

new! Chapter 6 | Film Futures pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History added September 2014

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging

Cheerful Staging: Hou’s Early Films

Fig. 5A.1
Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Around the world, from the late 1930s through the 1960s, many films relied on wide-angle lenses—those short focal-length lenses that allowed filmmakers to stage action in vivid depth. One figure or object might be quite close to the camera, while another could be placed much further in the recesses of the shot. The wide-angle lens allowed filmmakers to keep several planes in more or less sharp focus throughout, and this led to compact, sharply diagonal compositions (Fig. 5A.1, right). Although Citizen Kane (1941) probably drew the most attention to this technique, it was occasionally used in several 1920s and 1930s films made throughout the world. (I sketch a history of this technique in the last chapter of On the History of Film Style.) The great French critic André Bazin was the most eloquent analyst of the wide-angle aesthetic, and his discussion of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Little Foxes (1941), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) has strongly shaped our understanding of this technique.

Fig. 5A.2
A Man and a Woman (1966)
The 1960s saw the development of an opposite approach, what we might call the telephoto aesthetic. Improvements in long focal-length lenses, encouraged by the growing use of location shooting, led to a very different sort of imagery. Instead of exaggerating the distances between foreground and background, long lenses tend to reduce them, making figures quite far apart seem close in size. (In shooting a baseball game for television, the telephoto lens positioned behind the catcher presents catcher, batter, and pitcher as oddly close to one another.) Planes seem to be stacked or pushed together in a way that seems to make the space “flatter,” the objects and figures more like cardboard cutouts. The style was popularized by films like A Man and a Woman (1966; Fig. 5A.2, right) and Elvira Madigan (1967), in which the soft haze yielded the long lens added a degree of romanticism. The telephoto look quickly spread, employed by directors as diverse as Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman, whose 1970s films also use the long lens, controlled by zooming, to squeeze a crowd of characters (M*A*S*H, 1972; Nashville, 1975) into the fresco of the anamorphic frame.

Fig. 5A.3
Diary of Didi (1978). Cropped image from anamorphic widescreen.

Fig. 5A.4
Love Story (1970)

Fig. 5A.5
Love Story

Fig. 5A.6
Love Love Love (1974). Cropped image from anamorphic widescreen.

Hou Hsiao‑hsien came to filmmaking via the romance films so common in Taiwan in the 1970s, and this genre employed the long lens extensively. Working with low budgets, filmmakers relied on location shooting. The telephoto allowed the camera to be set far off and to cover characters in conversation for fairly lengthy shots (Fig. 5A.3). In this respect, the directors were not so far from their Hollywood contemporaries; Love Story (1970) employs these techniques on a bigger budget (Fig. 5A.4). Indeed, Love Story (a big hit in Taiwan) may have pushed local filmmakers toward using this technique in their own romantic melodramas; sometime the influence seems quite direct (Figs. 5A.5 and 5A.6).

Chapter 5 of Figures Traced in Light argues that Hou’s early romance-musicals led him to principles of staging which became refined in his later work. These principles were developed almost completely, I believe, in the context of the telephoto aesthetic. Hou’s inclination toward location shooting and the use of nonactors, along with his attention to the concrete details of everyday life, allowed him to see the power of a technique that put character and context, action and milieu on the same plane. His crowded compositions are organized with great finesse in order to highlight, successively, small aspects of behavior or setting, and these enrich the unfolding story, as I try to show in his masterpieces of the 1980s and 1990s. Using a long lens (usually 75mm–150mm) he began to exploit some “just-noticeable differences” that the lens produces as byproducts. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Eastern or Western, he saw the pictorial and dramatic possibilities of the telephoto lens, and they became central to his distinctive way of handling scenes. A purely technological innovation yielded artistic prospects which he could explore in nuanced ways.

We can watch this process unfolding in what many consider Hou’s most disposable movies, the boy-meets-girl romances Cute Girl (1981) and Cheerful Wind (1982) and the pastorale The Green Green Grass of Home (1983). These charming films show him developing, in almost casual ways, techniques of staging and shooting that will become his artistic hallmarks. Chapter 5 provides the detailed argument, but let me highlight three points here.

Fig. 5A.7
Cheerful Wind (1982)

Fig. 5A.8
The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983).

Fig. 5A.9
The Green, Green Grass of Home.
One byproduct of the long lens is a shallow focus, as we can see in the examples above. Because the lens has little depth of field, one step forward or backward can carry a character out of focus. Savoring the effects of gently graded focus is a common feature of Hou’s later work. The masher at the train station in Dust in the Wind (1987) moves eerily in and out of focus in the distance. In Daughter of the Nile (1988), there’s an amazing shot showing gangsters approaching a victim’s SUV outside a nightclub: at first they’re only barely discernible blobs (seen through the vehicle’s narrow windows) but then they gradually come into ominously sharp focus in the foreground, preparing to attack one of the boys inside. The slight focus changes train us to watch tiny compositional elements for what they may contribute to the drama. Hou’s three first films don’t use the option quite so daringly; here the degrees of focus concentrate on the principal players but still allow us to register the teeming life around them (Figs. 5A.7 and 5A.8). Hou can even put different dramatic situations on different layers. In The Green Green Grass of Home, the departure of the little girl, saying farewell to her host family, plays out slightly closer to the camera than the departure of the eccentric teacher (Fig. 5A.9). This principle operates just as well in the wonderfully distracting street and train-platform scenes of Café Lumiere (2004), in many ways Hou’s sophisticated return to shooting techniques used in his 1980s films.


Fig. 5A.10
Cute Girl (1981).

Fig. 5A.11
Cheerful Wind.

Fig. 5A.12
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.13
Love Story.

Fig. 5A.14
Millennium Mambo (2000).

Secondly, the long lens yields a flatter-looking space. It has depth, but the cues for depth that it employs are things like focus, placement in the picture format (higher tends to be further away), and what psychologists call “familiar size”—our knowledge that, say, children are smaller than adults, even if the image makes them both of equal size. One favorite Hou image schema is the characters stretched in rows perpendicular to the camera, and the telephoto lens, by compressing space, creates this “clothesline” look more vividly. We can find the clothesline composition in many early films (Figs. 5A.10 and 5A.11). Another favorite schema is the “stacking” of several faces lined up along a diagonal (Fig. 5A.12). Interestingly, this can be seen as a refinement of a schema that was in wider use, as an example from Love Story indicates (Fig. 5A.13). But Hou uses this sort of image more subtly. The telephoto lens lets him stack faces in ways that encourage us to catch a cascade of slight differences (Fig. 5A.14 [from Millennium Mambo (2000)]). In the table scenes of Flowers of Shanghai (1998) this principle is carried to a degree of exquisite refinement without parallel in any other cinema I know.

Fig. 5A.15
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.16
The Green Green Grass of Home.

Fig. 5A.17
The Green Green Grass of Home.

Fig. 5A.18
The Green Green Grass of Home.

Fig. 5A.19
The Green Green Grass of Home.

In general, because Hou is committed to a great density of information in the shot, the compression yielded by the long lens tends to equalize everything we see. Minor characters, or just passing strangers, become slightly more prominent, while details of environment can get pushed forward as well. The zoo scenes of Cute Girl enjoy showing us our characters in relation to the creatures around them (Fig. 5A.15), and the tile rooftops of The Green Green Grass of Home, secured by bricks and pails and tires, become just as important as the father and son crouching below (Fig. 5A.16). In the latter film, Hou develops the equalized-environment option in quite a precise way in one particular scene. A long-lens distant view catches the teacher coming to the father’s house along a corridor of rooftops (Figs. 5A.17 and 5A.18). When the teacher confronts the father, instead of tight framings on each man, Hou cuts to another angle that activates yet another range of environmental elements—principally the train passing in the background, prefiguring the trip that the man’s son and daughter will take in an effort to find their mother (Fig. 5A.19).

Fig. 5A.20
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.21
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.22
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.23
Cute Girl.

Fig. 5A.24
Cute Girl.

Because the long lens has a very narrow angle of view (the opposite of a “wide-angle” lens; see Figures, p. 197), it affects the image in a third major way. If you use a long lens in a space containing several moving figures, people passing in the foreground will block the main figures: they pass between the camera and the lens. Hou elevates this blocking-and-revealing tendency to a level of high art. Throughout Figures Traced in Light, I argue that many great directors, from the silent era forward, have staged action in the shot so as to block and reveal key pieces of information, calling items to our attention at just the right moment with unobtrusive changes of figure position. The possibility of blocking and revealing arises from the “optical pyramid” created by any camera lens. (See the discussion on pp. 62–63.) What I’m suggesting is that using the telephoto lens on location probably made Hou exceptionally sensitive to the resources of masking and unmasking bits of the shot. So we get not only passersby drifting through the foreground (Fig. 5A.7 above) but also quite refined use of slight character movement to attract our attention in the course of the scene. The loveliest example I know in the early films is the Cute Girl shot analyzed in Figs. 5.23 to 5.28 on page 200 of Figures, when Fei‑Fei confronts the surveyors and the man in the red shirt serves as a pivot for our attention (e.g., Figs. 5A.20 and 5A.21). A less drastic example occurs when the surveying team starts quarrelling with the locals around a walled gate: The team’s blocking of the gate (Fig. 5A.22) gives way to movement into depth (Fig. 5A.23) and a struggle there between them and the townsfolk (Fig. 5A.24).

In all, it seems to me that these three resources of the long lens—the shallow focus, the compressed space, and the narrow angle of view—supplied bases for Hou’s shooting and staging in the later films. This is not to ignore his use of the wide-angle lens on occasion, particularly interiors. Once the lessons of the long lens had been absorbed, he could apply the staging principles that he’d developed to other kinds of shots and story situations. Nor am I claiming that other directors hadn’t also explored some of these options. Years before Hou, Kurosawa and other Japanese directors used the long lens to create very abstract compositions (Figures, p. 201). Still, the Japanese directors tend to use the lens more flamboyantly than Hou does. His style is fairly unemphatic. (One indication of Hou’s skill in keeping our attention on his unfolding story is that as far as I know, no other critics have noticed the staging strategies I’ve pointed out here and in Figures.)

Overall, I think that Hou saw certain pictorial possibilities in the long lens, and after developing them to a certain point in popular musicals, he recast them when he took up another kind of storytelling. He realized that leisurely, contemplative narratives permitted him to refine these visual possibilities, and they could become powerful, nuanced stylistic devices. A more general lesson follows from this. Norms of form and style are resources for artists. Some artists follow the schemas that they inherit, while others probe them for fresh possibilities. A few can even make a handful of schemas the basis of a rich, comprehensive style. Ozu did this with the techniques of classical Hollywood editing; Mizoguchi did it with depth staging in the long shot. Like these other Asian masters, Hou reveals how much nuance a few techniques can yield, even when deployed in crowd-pleasing, mass-market movies.

© David Bordwell 2005.

David Bordwell
top of page

comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.