Part of the fun of Good Men, Good Women is piecing together the narrative as it unfolds. Hou Hsiao-hsien doesn't exactly withhold information, but rather, like in his previous film The Puppetmaster, he tends to explain events only after they've gone on long enough that, if you've made the effort, you've probably figured out what's happening anyway. So, be warned that there will be spoilers here as I'm going to try to sketch out the different layers of a narrative that folds the past and present in on themselves and reflects them back out again like a disco ball.
The several layers of Good Men, Good Women:
1. An actress (Liang Ching, played by Annie Shizuka Inoh) gets anonymous faxes of her stolen diary entries and phone calls with no one on the other line. She sleeps a lot and drinks too much and hangs out with unsavory gangster and government types. She also falls asleep watching Ozu's Late Spring on the television.
2. She recalls her relationship with her now-dead gangster boyfriend Ah Wei (Hou regular Jack Kao). They were in love, she was a bar hostess, he helped her kick a drug addiction, he was murdered, she accepted a payoff from his killers for which she now feels a bit guilty. She often thought/thinks about having a child with him but as far as we know has never been pregnant.
3. Liang gets a job playing the lead role in a movie based on the (apparently) real life of Chiang Bi-yu, who went to China with her husband during World War II to fight the Japanese with Mao's resistance, was initially suspected of being a Japanese spy (because they were from Taiwan and didn't speak the local Cantonese dialect), eventually was allowed to join the struggle and was then forced by circumstance to put her first child up for adoption, returned to Taiwan after the war to settle down with her family, and was imprisoned (and her husband killed) when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (the Koumintang) took over and started rooting out Communists (much of this crackdown (the "February 28th Incident") is dramatized in Hou's A City of Sadness, which I've still, sadly, not seen). Throughout the film we see scenes from this (now finished) movie, indicated by washed-out color, a blueish black and white.
4. There are also apparently "real" depictions of Chiang's life, shown in full color and played slightly differently than the "film" versions. This kind of thing Hou also did in The Puppetmaster, where an event unfolding on screen would be followed by the subject of that event telling us a slightly different version of it in a documentary-style interview.*(See Below)
5. Finally, we learn the film about Chiang is called Good Men, Good Women, which is also the name of the film we've been watching, making it both essentially a "documentary of its own making" and raising the question of whether the film within the film also contains present-day sequences: how much is "fictional" fictional and how much is "real" fictional?
If the film within the film is also the film itself, then Good Men, Good Women is both within and without, just as Chiang's past is both real and depicted, as Liang is both Liang and Chiang (through the act of acting a role) and as Liang's story with Ah Wei is both past and dominating her present (especially as we come to believe that her mysterious phone calls and faxes are being sent by Ah Wei's ghost, literalizing the stranglehold her past has on her present). It'd be silly to reduce this to some kind of metaphor like "time is a river" or pithy articulation like "the past isn't dead -- it isn't even past" or something like that, and Hou doesn't bother to do so in any kind of Malickian voiceover. Instead, he just gives us the flow, with all the currents and eddies, branches and backwaters that go along with it.
This is one of the warmest Hou films I've seen, both in technique and in his attitude to the protagonist. This is the first time I recall that I've seen Hou's floating camera actually move into a frame. Usually he's content to let his long takes float around a single, middle-distance frame, which keeps us at a safe, theatrical distance from the action. In Good Men, Good Women, however, he occasionally moves into the screen space, either to get a closer view (as in a shot that moves from a club's dance floor to shoot through a window into a private room where some gangster business is being conducted) or simply to pivot and reframe a location from a different, closer angle (as in one of the first shots of the film, where the TV playing Late Spring is used as a pivot point to reframe Liang in her apartment as she goes through her morning (hungover afternoon?) routine.
What we take from the film is even more than is usual up to us as viewers. Like Liang Chiang, we have to decide what role the cinematic experience of the past will have on our present lives. In one reasonable interpretation of the film, it is through the process of re-enacting Chiang Bi-yu's life that Liang gains the strength to confront her own past/ghost and thereby move on with her life. Significantly, this breakthrough is a specifically cinematic/narrative one: by experiencing the narrative of another person's life mediated by film (or filmmaking) she is able to contextualize/understand/deal with her own issues. It's by making a story out of history that we begin to understand our own lives.
(Contrast this with Michael Haneke's approach to a similar dynamic in Cache, where a bourgeois man is confronted with anonymous messages reminding him of a crime from his own past that is heavy-handedly symbolic of Haneke's belief that the French should suffer collective guilt over their ancestors' colonization of Algeria. Hou is sympathetic to his damaged, dissolute heroine and asserts cinema as a means to help her overcome her guilt and make her life a little happier; Haneke seeks to punish his hero and uses film as a means to assert our own complicity in his guilt and brutalize us, to "teach us a lesson", in the process.)
Good Men, Good Women is very similar narratively and thematically to my personal favorite of Hou's films, Millennium Mambo, whose heroine follows much the same progression as Liang: a bar hostess breaks up with a gangster boyfriend, has issues with drugs and apathy and eventually experiences a cinematic epiphany. Like that film as well, the breakthrough, moving as it is, is also a potentially hollow one. We're not really sure when the filming of the film within Good Men, Good Women takes place. It seems to run concurrent with the events in Liang's home, where she is stalked by phone calls and faxes and which are apparently resolved with her confrontation of the "ghost". But that can't be the case as the film shoot is on-location, and thus Liang would have to be away from her apartment. The shooting of the film has to take place after Liang has confronted her past. Conversely, the joy Shu Qi's Vicky in Millennium Mambo experiences in the snow of the Hokkaido Film Festival is a memory, something that happened somewhere in the middle of her story between her petty gangster boyfriend and her older gangster protector (played by Jack Kao), all of which is seen through the lens of a much older Vicky thinking back on her youth in the film's voiceover.
It's possible that the key scene in Good Men, Good Women is only alluded to in voiceover, when Liang tells us about meeting and interviewing Chiang Bi-yu shortly before her film shoot began. It maybe that this interview, the inspiration from meeting the aged heroic woman, was the point Liang resolved to confront her past and that her phone call with the ghost took place after this interview but before filming began. Hou then simply elided what should have been the dramatic high point of his story: the direct confrontation between past and present, when the old lady looks at the young woman and calmly demonstrates the moral authority gained by the difference between suffering for a cause and suffering from indolence. That would have been the Oscar scene, but it would have grounded, concretized the movie. It would have drawn sharp lines between past and present and it would have encouraged us to choose sides, to privilege one woman's experience over the other's, to separate and isolate and categorize. What he's given us instead is something much more elusive, more mysterious, more lifelike. It floats.
Added August 27, 2012: One of the many fun and frustrating things about Hou Hsiao-hsien's films is that he never really makes it easy for you as a viewer to understand everything that's unfolding as it happens. Often, only once a film is completed will all its elements begin to make sense. This effect is seen in miniature in a sequence from The Puppetmaster: after twenty minutes or so of scenes in which we witness a loving courtship between the protagonist Li Tienlu and a pretty young courtesan, including an elaborate ruse in which she tests his fidelity by tempting him with another woman and which he passes with flying colors, we get a scene of Li himself narrating the next chapter in their story. At the very end of his interview, as an almost throwaway aside, he mentions that the while he was seeing this woman, he had a wife and children back home in another city. Suddenly the romance is seen in a new light and the fidelity test becomes darkly ironic.
This narrative strategy necessarily makes it difficult to catch anything like every nuance of a film on a single viewing, and sometimes even basic plot or style elements can get jumbled in a confusion of memory and speculation. Hou's films request and reward rewatches as much as any director I know. Which is to say, I wrote this after having seen Good Men, Good Women only once, and watching it again, I realize I was very much mistaken about this point.
The film within the film of Good Men, Good Women is shown throughout in a blue-tinged monochrome. What I initially thought were "actual" depictions of the historical events, though, I now am pretty sure are just "present day" footage of the rehearsals for the film Liang is undertaking. I believe the film's present is in the rehearsal period for the film, as Liang is studying her character, reflecting on her past life with Ah-Wei and receiving mysterious faxes of her old diary entries. At one point, near the end of the film, as Liang's character Chiang Bi-yu is mourning her executed husband in the film, the monochrome image bleeds into color. The is the climax of the film: when the film within the film merges with present day reality. Just as the film posits a fluidity in the relationship between past and present (and history and memory, as in most Hou films), this morphing creates a fluidity between cinema and reality, prefiguring some of the redemptive and transformative power cinema has in Hou's later films like Millennium Mambo, Flight of the Red Balloon and Café Lumière.