What is Hou Hsiao-Hsien's masterpiece? With limited access to his pre-1990s work, it may be difficult to fully assess his oeuvre, but of the films that are readily available to us 1995's Good Men, Good Women would seem to be the best, his most successful exploration of the interplay of Taiwanese history with the present day lives of the country's people. In this picture, Hou's carefully composed shots give perfect expression to his historical and personal concerns.
Alternating past and present, Good Men, Good Women tells the story of Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh), a young actress preparing for the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, an anti-Japanese and later anti-Nationalist revolutionary. Liang receives mysterious phone calls and faxes from her stolen diary, communications which force her to recall events in her own past, specifically her relationship with her late boyfriend, Ah Wei (Jack Kao), a small-time gangster. The film thus takes place in three temporal settings which interact with and comment on each other: the present, the near past, as events from Liang's diary are recreated, and the 1940s and 1950s, scenes illustrating the life of Chiang Bi-Yu (portrayed in the film by Inoh). Hou conviently films the scenes from the present and near past in color, while shooting the historical scenes in stunning black and white.
There are, of course, parallels between the lives of Liang Ching and the women she portrays, but Hou doesn't force the associations. Both, for instance, suffer the loss of a lover, a man involved in forces beyond his control. However, unlike the noble cause of Chiang Bi-Yu and her husband Chung Hao-Tung, for which the latter dies, Ah Wei dies because of his involvement with petty gangsters. The struggle for a free Taiwan has given way to a struggle for profit. The grief experienced by both women is nevertheless real.
The film's penultimate image shows Chiang Bi-Yu sitting by the deathbed of her executed husband, lighting a small memorial fire at the foot of the bed. The room is otherwise completely empty. Hou's fixed camera slowly zooms in, adding increased immediacy to Chiang's grief. As the camera draws nearer, suddenly the film switches from black and white to color, suggesting a temporal switch to the present day and drawing a parallel between the mourning of Chiang and Liang, a parallel underscored by Hou's decision to have the same actress portray both women. As the past becomes the present, the inextricability of history with contemporary life becomes clear to the viewer, as it has for Liang through her preparation for her portrayal of the revolutionary.