Best of the Decade Derby: auteur fantasy league player stats for Hou Hsiao Hsien

In my previous post I referred to some cinemetrical analysis involving scenes and shots. I actually did this with all of Hou Hsiao Hsien films from the past 15 or so years, just to get a sense of any evolution in his career in terms of camerawork and montage. What I learned was that, in terms of shot and scene lengths, Hou has gone mainstream over the past decade.

Bear in mind that “mainstream” is a relative term, and certainly isn’t strictly determined by the number of scenes or shots in a film. Also, Hou’s filmmaking remains way on the austere side of the shot/montage spectrum. Take for instance this comparison of Flight of the Red Balloon with two prominent 2008 releases, one the most commercially successful film of the year, the other a critically and commercially popular foreign arthouse release. I took the first ten minutes of all three films and analyzed them for number of scenes and shots:


The Dark Knight: (complex action sequence, dialogue scene, beginning of dialogue/action scene)
shots: 80
avg. scene length: 0.5 min
avg. shot length: 0.13 min (~7.5 seconds)
avg. shots per scene: 4.00

A Christmas Tale: (brief opening scene, expository montage, dialogue scene)
scenes: 8
shots: 97
avg. scene length: 1.25 min
avg. shot length: 0.10 min (~6.2 seconds)
avg. shots per scene:

Flight of the Red Balloon (boy with balloon, balloon flying)
scenes: 6
shots: 9
avg. scene length: 1.67 min
avg. shot length: 1.11 min (~66.7 seconds)
avg. shots per scene: 1.5

It’s interesting that a dialogue scene in A Christmas Tale actually has more shots (or cuts) than an action sequence in The Dark Knight. Watching the latter, I did admire the film’s use of relatively long takes interspersed with sudden cuts to mix up the pacing with a sequence (this despite all the smack being talked about the film’s action sequences as logically and structurally inchoherent). But in any case, in terms of the average length of each shot Flight of the Red Balloon stretches out by yards over both films, averaging over 9 times the shot length of The Dark Knight and 10 times the length of A Christmas Tale.

Having said this, though, Hou seems to be cutting more in his films over the past 10 years.  Check out this cinemetrical analysis of his films from 1995-2008. The best way to read this data is by comparing average scene length, average shot length, and average shots per scene from film to film. (sorry, I don’t have time to put this in table format). Also, since Three Times can be considered three movies in one, I’ve separated the scene and shot data for each part as well as provided stats for the entire film.


Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
runtime: 115 min.
scenes: 41
shots: 80
avg. scene length: 2.81 min
avg. shot length: 1.44 min
avg. shots per scene: 1.95

Three Times (2005)

Part 1: 1966
scenes: 21
shots: 51
avg. shots per scene: 2.43

Part 2: 1911
scenes: 17
shots: 38
avg. shots per scene: 2.23

Part 3: 2005
scenes: 18
shots: 49
avg. shots per scene: 2.72

runtime: 120 min (US version)
scenes: 57
shots: 138
avg. scene length: 2.11 min
avg. shot length: 0.87 min
avg. shots per scene: 2.42

Cafe Lumiere (2003)
runtime: 108min (Japanese version)
scenes: 49
shots: 81
avg scene length: 2.20 mins
avg. shot length: 1.33 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.65

Millennium Mambo (2001)
runtime: 105 min (edited version)
scenes: 35
shots: 54
avg scene length: 3.00 mins
avg. shot length: 1.94 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.54

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
runtime: 125 min (US version)
scenes: 31
shots: 37
avg scene length: 4.03 mins
avg. shot length: 3.38 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.19

Goodbye South Goodbye (1996)
runtime: 124 min (original version)
scenes: 39
shots: 60
avg scene length: 3.18 mins
avg. shot length: 2.07 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.54

Good Men, Good Women (1995)
runtime: 108 min
scenes: 43
shots: 51
avg scene length: 2.51 mins
avg. shot length: 2.11 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.19

Taking all of this in, the clear trend has been towards shorter scenes with more shots. Three Times and Flowers of Shanghai represent opposite ends of Hou’s recent career; for all the comparison of Part 2 of Three Times with Flowers of Shanghai, there’s much less cutting and, dare I suggest, more integrity of the moment in Flowers. In that sense Flight of the Red Balloon represents a return to the masterful long take formalism that is in evidence in the earlier films. It may have been that Hou needed a bit of a break from that technique after trying (and some would say, failing) to apply that technique to good effect in Millennium Mambo. I revisited a bit of that film this past week and found it to be an exercise of style in search of substance – the central breakup story is pretty thin, and no amount of neon-lit nightclub long takes can cover up that weakness. Cafe Lumiere, with its relatively short scenes (at least compared to the Hou features that preceded it), may have been an attempt towards a more scene-heavy mode of storytelling, which Three Times built upon further. While these numbers don’t mean anything per se, looking at how much cutting there is in Three Times reinforces my feeling that it’s Hou’s most audience-friendly, conventional film – a good entryway into grappling with his formidable body of work, but not his best film by any means.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • HarryTuttle

    What a fascinting analysis! I'm highly interested in this kind of (numerical) close reading of a film structure. And I'm glad you added the “shots per scene” that Cinemetrical doesn't do.

    I don't know if the trend is so evident in his career though. It's more like ups and downs.
    Traditionaly, the mainstream storytelling ASL stays between 2 sec and 20 sec. So going over 30 sec is pretty significant of a much slower pace that the audience will feel. And in the case of HHH, it's always at least ten times slower than a typical movie.
    And since the ASL is statistical, the variation between 1 and 3 minutes, because of the wide discrepency in long take length (from 30 sec, which is a lot for mainstream, to 10 minutes possibly). For what I call contemplative cinema, the ASL variation is more an indicator of the overall rhythm of the film rather than the cutting technique.
    What I mean is the editing becomes more visible/prevalent when the ASL is close to 2 sec, while they tend to become invisible or less agressive when they separate two long takes.

  • HarryTuttle

    I forgot to finish my sentence. It should read :

    “And since the ASL is statistical, the variation between 1 and 3 minutes, because of the wide discrepency in long take length (from 30 sec, which is a lot for mainstream, to 10 minutes possibly) is not as significant to the editing style of a scene as it is in the lower ASL range films.”

    When the ASL is under 10 sec, we know long takes are rare. But with ASL over a minute we can't tell (from the stats) if there are only minute-long takes, or if there are frequent rapid countershots and cutaways between long takes. Two movies could be very different with similar ASL numbers. So your Avg. Shots per scene helps to refine this a bit, but not enough to differenciate the editing style.

    The opening of TDK is an exception (lots of slow tracking shots, observation of the men at work one after the other instead of the traditional simultaneous parallel montage), l guess, like the silent opening of There Will Be Blood (for other reasons), but I would be surprised if the stats on the whole run time of TDK stay like that.

  • Matt Parker

    yeah man fascinating. I have no doubt if I did a similar analysis of my favorite films, they would bend heavily toward the “long take” spectrum.

    The real question, though, is why are we drawn to films with fewer cuts, longer takes? As my taste has moved more and more in that direction over the years, the chance that my wife will actually like what I'm watching has decreased in inverse proportion.

    And of course, it's all subjective – I can't really say that my taste is better than hers. It's just that I want a film that takes its time, that savors a moment, that gives us space to breath. I find most television and popular films suffocating.

  • london flowers

    good analysis CINEMETRICAL ANALYSIS from 1995 to 2008 of different movies like Cafe Lumiere. This is a good post to send to everyone I know and my standard response to people who consider doing anything online. Good one!

  • twilightshirts

    The real question, though, is why are we drawn to films with fewer cuts, longer takes? As my taste has moved more and more in that direction over the years, the chance that my wife will actually like what I'm watching has decreased in inverse proportion.

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