Director Hou Hsiao Hsien, in a 1988 New York Film Festival World Critics Poll, was voted one of three directors who would most likely shape cinema in the coming decades. He has since become one of the most respected, influential directors working in cinema today. In spite of his international renown, his films have focused exclusively on his native Taiwan, offering finely textured human dramas that deal with the subtleties of family relationships against the backdrop of the island's turbulent, often bloody history. All of his movies deal in some manner with questions of personal and national identity, particularly, "What does it mean to be Taiwanese?" In a country that has been colonized first by the Japanese and then by Chiang Kai-Shek's repressive Nationalist Government, this question is pregnant with political connotations.
Hou was born to a member of the Hakka ethnic minority in southern Guangdong province in mainland China, but his parents emigrated to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 1949, to escape the bloodshed of the Chinese civil war. After serving in the military, Hou entered the film program at the National Taiwan College of the Arts. He graduated in 1972 and worked as a salesman until he landed a job as an assistant director and a screenwriter. In 1980, he made his directorial debut with Cute Girl, but he did not attract critical attention until The Son's Big Doll appeared as an episode of the omnibus film Sandwich Man (1983). This film, along with another portmanteau movie, In Our Time(1982), is considered one of the first films of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, which injected a new level of sophistication and vitality into a moribund film industry previously known for martial arts spectaculars; it arose from the Foundation for the Development of Motion Picture Industry and the loosening of censorship laws in the late '70s and was led by such young filmmakers as Hou and Edward Yang.
Hou's work centers on two recurring themes, the social upheaval and erosion of traditional family ties resulting from Taiwan's rapid urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s and the representation of Taiwan as a multicultural, multilingual society, a view that intentionally differed from the government's enforcement of Mandarin as the official tongue. For example, Dust in the Wind (1986) follows the lives of two country innocents who move to Taipei, and Daughter of the Nile (1987) tells of a displaced family torn apart by the pressures of the city. Characters in Hou's films, more often than not, speak Taiwanese, Hakka, Fukienese, or even Japanese, as opposed to the state-sanctioned language, as seen in his autobiographical A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) and in City of Sadness (1989). Stylistically, Hou has been compared to Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Both directors favor a minimalist approach that downplays overt melodrama, focusing instead on the quiet nuances of human emotion. Both employ long static shots and low camera angles. But unlike Ozu, Hou's films challenge the viewer in their use of episodic plot lines, complex juxtapositions, and off-scene space.
In 1989, Hou overcame government censors to create his masterpiece, City of Sadness, the first film to confront the so-called Incident of February 28, 1947, a Tianamen Square-style massacre of native Taiwanese committed by government troops. Well-received domestically, the film was acclaimed by international critics and won the first Golden Lion awarded to a Chinese film at the Venice Film Festival. For his next film, the second in his Taiwan trilogy, Hou continued to investigate Taiwanese history in the semi-documentary Puppet Master (1993), which focused on Japan's occupation of Taiwan as seen through the eyes of puppet artist Li Tien-Lu. The final film in the trilogy, Good Men, Good Women (1995), about a political prisoner released in 1987 who finds modern Taiwan cold and alienating, has often been cited as one of the finest films of the 1990s. Such subsequent films as Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998) have also been critically lauded but have failed to find an audience at home. Apart from directing, Hou also served as production manager for the landmark mainland Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and acted in Edward Yang's Taipei Story (1985). In 1997, French director Olivier Assayas directed a documentary about Hou entitled HHH: Portrait of Hou Hsiao Hsien.