Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi)

A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE (Tong nien wang shi)          A          
Taiwan  (138 mi)  1985  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien      co-directors:  Lao Jia-hua, Yang Lai-yin, Xu Xiao-ming

Hou’s autobiographical film bears a strong similarity to Edward Yang’s later masterwork A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), almost as if it is a trial run of the same film, though seen from a different perspective.  Both directors were born in the exact same year (1947) in China with families that emigrated shortly afterwards to Taiwan, where in each film the Japanese style homes of the protagonists reflect the remnants of half a century of Japanese colonization, including the presence of samurai swords left behind, where so much was expected of the first generation of offspring, but the uncertainties of the parents, whose lives were uprooted, are passed onto their children, thinking initially the move to Taiwan would be short term before returning to the mainland.  Set against the backdrop of the island’s turbulent and often bloody history, the significance of education is similarly ignored by bored and disinterested kids, where even the depiction of gang fights is similar, using a static camera to capture a long shot of a street scene, where people move in and out of the picture, where the only depicted violence evolves out of a quick rush of gang members followed by threatening offscreen sounds of yelling and screaming.  These moments of instantaneous chaos erupt out of complete stillness.  The second installment of a coming-of-age trilogy featuring three different Taiwanese screenwriters, coming after A Summer at Grandpa's (Dong Dong De Jia Qi) (1984, inspired by the childhood memories of Chu Tien-wen), and before Dust in the Wind (Lian lian feng chen) (1986, inspired by Wu Nien-jen), the film chronicles the family’s attempt to acclimate to life in postwar Taiwan in the aftermath of the Chinese revolution when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops along with nearly 2 million Chinese were driven by the Communists off the mainland into exile on the tiny island of Taiwan, where the film can be seen as a longterm search to recapture their own identity.  Only the second of Hou’s films to reach the West (following the first segment of the trilogy), the film won the International Critic’s Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986.

More than any other Hou Hsiao-hsien film, this quiet and contemplative film also bears a strong aesthetic resemblance to Ozu, particularly themes of transience and mortality, where the interior shots are framed by a fixed, ground level camera inside a home featuring Japanese architecture, where conventional narrative is abandoned and emphasis is placed on establishing a rhythm through the framing and pacing of observational shots, where the passing of time is reflected through the slowly evolving lives and experiences of a single family, where death plays a prominent part.  Narrated by the director offering “some memories from my youth,” the film covers three generations, a kindly grandmother (Tang Yu-Yuen), the parents, and children, including young Ah-ha (You Ashun), a stand-in for the director, where each develops a unique relationship between the present and the past.  The grandmother continues to believe she’s still on the mainland and keeps looking for a Mekong Bridge that isn’t there, but that doesn’t stop her from searching for it, while the parents, the dutiful mother (Mei Feng) and sickly, asthmatic father (Tien Feng), believe their stay is temporary in Taiwan and that soon life will return to the way it was in the past, while the children are oblivious to any connection to the past and lead rootless lives.  Unfolding in long, lingering shots by Mark Lee Ping Bin, the first in what has become a lifelong collaboration with this director, the film is given a flowing, naturalistic style where a collection of detail accumulates power over time, as the audience grows more invested with the family.  Mostly seen through the eyes of Ah-ha, where due to his father’s asthma, the family has to move from the urban city of Hsinchu further south to the backwater town of Fengshan, where a conflict between urban and rural values is a recurring theme in many of Hou’s films.  Adding authenticity to the story, the film is actually shot in the house where the director grew up as a youth, as do the other stories in the trilogy, as A Summer at Grandpa's (Dong Dong De Jia Qi) was actually shot at screenwriter Chu Tien-Wen's grandparents’ home in the countryside, and Dust in the Wind (Lian lian feng chen) in Wu Nien-Jen's home town.

The film is a flow of recurring memories, seeing his father sit at his desk, or his mother and elder sister working in the kitchen, while he and his brothers play around the house or outside on the street, or we’ll see the entire family sitting around chewing sugarcane while a parent reads a letter received from a relative back home, as the audience is regularly invited into the family home through the director’s perspective.  While the parents are stricken with emotion, realizing the fading connection to their pasts, the kids are more interested in adding the envelope’s stamp to their growing collection, seen peeling the stamp off the paper in steaming hot water, then placing the stamps on a windowpane to dry.  Early on there are images of soldiers arriving in town on horseback, or one can hear the sound of tanks rumbling through the village in the middle of the night.  While these military references are clear, including belligerent radio reports of various military activities, there is no follow up discussion about it by the family, as they all but ignore it.  In contrast, there are also random power outages where families in the darkness must rely upon candlelight, or a recurring image of sounds of the rain pattering against the windowpanes with Ah-ha looking out, often associated with illness or loss, sounds and images of loneliness and isolation.  One of the more poignant scenes comes the night before elder sister’s wedding, where her mother reminisces about the past with her daughter, describing how she lost the second daughter under dire circumstances, a quiet moment where the daughter sits in silence and only the rain outside can be heard, a poetic use of silence and emptiness, where the sound of the rain emphasizes the spreading atmosphere of sorrow, all told in a single shot where the camera never moves, where in only a few sentences we sense how the experiences of a lifetime are being distilled and transmitted to the next generation.  In a single shot, the time jumps ahead ten years with no other accompanying explanation, but a new set of actors play the children.  The shifts in daily routine are accurately recorded, where the balance of childhood is beautifully contrasted against a devastating portrait of growing old.  The death sequences have a jolting power, not that they’re unexpected, but the haunting impact they have on the family can be overwhelming.  Of interest, Hou uses recurrent theme music from Wu Chu-chu that adds a lyric grace note to this exquisite Proustian meditation that may as well be called In Search of Lost Time.

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