Vocab Quiz: ‘Liu-Bai’ Minimalism

This portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien doesn’t give many details, but only offers you a ‘context.’ Wait… what?

Okay people, it’s time to step up your command of intellectual film jargon. Have you heard of “Liu-Bai” minimalism? Well neither had I, but after reading this interview snippet from acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), you can bet I’ll be throwing it around at every film screening, cocktail party, art auction, book group, coffee klatch, backyard barbecue, bingo match, flea market and tractor pull I attend this spring! (I kid because I love, Mr. Hou.) To quote the director himself:

Like the Chinese painting plum flower, they actually draw just one flower, instead of the entire tree. Those ‘un-drawn’ parts are ‘Liu-Bai’ [留白], the extension of concrete image and emotion. The audiences need to engage themselves by using their imagination for viewing and interpretation…It doesn’t give many details, but only offers you a ‘context’; unlike Western drama that focuses on the story structures, foreshadows, narrations, etc.

I actually think Hou’s definition of the term—which he’s borrowing from ancient Chinese painting—goes a long way toward explaining the static camera, long takes, and generally slow (some acquaintances, I’m sad to say, have even gone so far as to say boring) pacing of his films. You can read far more detailed analyses from Edwin of Faster Than Instant Noodles here, and Kevin of Shooting Down Pictures here, but basically the director’s films are all about not showing everything and not spelling everything out, which makes them far more rewarding experiences in the long run. Hmm… you don’t suppose Michael Bay is reading this blog, do you?


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