Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: A coming of age story, pointedly autobiographical, this film recounts a childhood in a family that moves from mainland China to Taiwan after World War II. Superficially a series of small incidents that define the various lives and the way they intertwine in one family, it is also a film dominated by loss. The boy's coming of age involves taking care of and finally saying goodbye to family members, perhaps most prominently the grandmother--as a person who frequently loses track of time and self, a source of trouble and also a tie to the never-to-be-returned-to past.
Style: Hou Hsiao-Hsien employs a style that appears casual, documentary-like, neorealist. His camera keeps us at a slightly greater distance from the characters than we might be accustomed to, although he is far from the first Asian director to so position the camera; and he has long, sometimes static takes in which the viewer may "browse" the scene for meaning. Pacing is deliberately anticlimactic, both within and between scenes, but the accumulation of uncommented, self-revelatory vignettes from childhood (told in the third person) adds up to a mood of an era.
Background on director/film: This was the first internationally heralded feature of Hou Hsiao Hsien, born in 1947 in Canton province, China. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's family moved to Taiwan in 1948 and settled in the south. As was reported in the major retrospective of Pacific Rim cinema in 1987 at Toronto Film Festival, his father died when he was 12, and his mother when he was 18. After military service (where he served in a film unit) and studying film and drama he began working in the film industry. He made the claim that The Time to Live and the Time to Die was his last autobiographical film, although a later film, Dust in the Wind, seemed similar in tone and subject matter. His most recent film, City of Sadness (1990), was intensely controversial in Taiwan, because it dealt with the way the lives of a Taiwanese family were disrupted and transformed for the worse by the arrival of mainland Chinese immigrants. That history, from the Taiwanese perspective, had long been off-limits. He said in interview (quoted in the Toronto festival catalog), denying a political agenda, "I am not trying to express any special ides. What really interests me is people. I am emotional about people. Only people move me."
Film production context: Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China are all competitors for the same audiences; all produce prolifically for avid audiences of movie goers. Until its market in Vietnam collapsed and Hong Kong competition undercut it, in Taiwan action-adventure films dominated production. In 1982, the government in desperation backed young, relatively uncommercial directors whose work explored the personal meaning of Taiwanese identity, and won awards and profits. These younger Taiwanese directors have created a subgenre of personal, sometimes touching and sometimes brooding, films of daily life that have evoked parallels with directors as diverse as Satyajit Ray and Antonioni. The most celebrated of them is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Other names include Edward Yang, who like many younger Pacific Rim Chinese filmmakers trained at the University of Southern California; Wan Jen; and Yu K'an-P'ing. In the later '80s, the Taiwanese government withdrew subsidies and the incipient movement foundered. However, production continued, with over a hundred films produced annually.
Importance: Widely praised and awarded in film festivals, the film had a small repertory circulation in the U.S. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is recognized as a leading Asian film artist, and this is his own coming of age film professionally. This film is also important for revealing a subjective version of a bitter and many-faceted period of post-war reorganization on the Pacific Rim.
John A. Lent, The Asian Film Industry. Austin: University of Texas, Press, 1990.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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