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Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou Hsiao-hsien) 1996

 

    The opening scene of Hou Hsiao-hsienís Goodbye South Goodbye really typifies the emotional and spatial disconnection that dominates the rest of the viewing experience. As a pulsating Chinese techno track thuds in the background, the filmís lead characters are shown rocking back and forth on a train, mindlessly lost in the moment. Gao, the protagonist, receives a call on his cell phone, but promptly loses the signal as the soundtrack intensifies. The implications for the characters seem simple. Because of their instability in life and because of the willingness of technology to help them forget any void that their lives might contain, making any connection is tough for them. Itís a brilliant shot, but this is probably the closest that the film comes to eloquently making us understand their disassociation. As the picture progresses, and we find out more about them, we realize how aimless and empty their lives are, and because they are such completely clean slates, they become tougher to relate to. Of course, the problem here is that if Hou made them more interesting, his thesis would be pretty much shot to hell.

    Whatís most impressive about Goodbye South Goodbye is the way in which the film seems so completely disenchanted with the antics of its protagonists. They are small time hoods, and though they seem to be somewhat successful in orchestrating minor grifting schemes, the movie isnít much impressed by it. They arenít exactly judged harshly either, and are instead looked at with a noncommittal documentarianís gaze. It seems that Houís feelings toward them are rather unresolved. He canít endorse their actions, because they arenít exactly living productive, full lives. At the same time, he canít help but point out that because of the increasingly city-based Taiwanese way of life, suddenly the old way of life doesnít apply, and no one has really defined for them how they should act. The movie finds them getting lost in video games and techno music precisely because the repetition found in them provide a safe constancy thatís otherwise missing in their lives.

    Itís easy to admire Houís insistence that these characters and our response to them cannot be defined concretely, and the filmís ending is extraordinary precisely because it feels so arbitrary. The techno soundtrackís abundant energy suddenly becomes nervous anxiety, when we realize that itís standing in for verbal communication. Technologyís advances seem to match lifeís retreats here, and the metamorphosis becomes unsettling. That being said, Goodbye South Goodbye isnít exactly an enjoyable film in a conventional sense. Because of its disillusioned attitude toward its characters, it canít help but feel a bit boring at times. The static interior shots are only interrupted by exuberant outdoor tracking shots, which gleefully take the characters to nowhere special. To spice up their story with showy stylistic flourishes would be to lend credence to their lifestyle, and would also invalidate the filmís hard earned real time flow. Outside of a few situations that slowly but fiercely boil into an explosion of violence, it can be said that nothing much happens. What must be noted then when discussing the mildly plotted Goodbye South Goodbye is that it isnít what happens that is important. Itís what doesnít happen here (thereís no catharsis and really no climax either) that distinguishes the film and makes it worthwhile.

 

* * * 1/2 

3/28/02 

Jeremy Heilman