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ALL BAR ONE of Hou Hsiao-hsien's films have screened at previous Melbourne Film Festivals. This year, the Festival is proud to present Hou's most recent film, winner of the Golden Lion at last year's Venice film Festival, and to welcome the director as a Festival guest.

A City Of Sadness represents Hou's biggest film to date. It is a sprawling family saga that parallels the lives of members of the Lin family with the history of Taiwan between 1945 and 1949. (In 1945, Taiwan's colonial period ended with the withdrawal of the Japanese; in 1949, the Communists took over mainland China and established a government-in-exile there.)

The plot evolves around two of the four Lin brothers. The eldest is a nightclub owner and gangster, the youngest, a deaf-mute who runs a photo studio and is friendly with members of the independence movement. The film's remarkable dramatic thrust lies in its constant evocation of transience - from young to old, from traditional to modern lifestyles, from innocence to political activism - and the precariousness of its characters' lives.

Rich and precise in its depiction of detail and character, the film unfolds in languid, measured scenes that are reminiscent of the films of Ozu. Hou complements this with glowing photography and evocative music.

With its rich tapestry of historical detail {it takes a while to grasp it all) and a running time of 158 minutes, A City Of Sadness certainly makes demands upon the viewer. The rewards, however, are many. With this film Hou declares himself as one of the adventurous, accomplished and promising directors of contemporary cinema. - (PKa)