After his turn toward more personal filmmaking with 1983’s The Boys from Fengkuei, which was based on incidents from his own life transplanted onto a story of contemporary youth, and the following year’s A Summer at Grandpa’s, based on the recollections of Chu T’ien-wen, an author whom Hou had met and begun a lifelong collaboration (she will write or co-write all of Hou’s features from Fengkuei on), Hou tells his own autobiographical story in 1985’s The Time to Live, The Time to Die, which remains one of his most-acclaimed films and is generally considered one of the greatest Chinese-language films of all-time (it placed third on the Golden Horse Film Festival’s Top 100 list in 2010 — Hou had two other films in the top ten: Dust in the Wind was seventh and A City of Sadness was #1 overall).
The movie begins with Hou’s own voice recounting the story of his family’s move from Mainland China first to Taiwan and then to the small southern town of Fengshan, spoken over a series of images that serve to familiarize us with the family, their home and its environs, elegantly setting the unhurried rhythm of the film that is to follow. The camera finally locates the ten or eleven year old Hou himself, known throughout the film by his nickname A-Ha, and tracks with him. Throughout the first half of the movie, A-Ha will occupy the center of the frame, the camera moving to keep its focus on the boy as he goes about his various adventures. In the second half, the image will grow increasingly static, and the now-teenaged A-Ha will retreat to the edges of the frame. Each half of the movie is punctuated by death: the first his father, the second his mother and his grandmother. There’s little in the way of traditional plot, rather the film is more interested in the textures and durations of everyday life. Though it is far from the austere Slow Cinema form of filmmaking the New Taiwanese Cinema would inspire, Hou’s style is trending further in that direction: with every film from Fengkuei on the takes grow longer, the images more distant, the frame more static (until, that is, Good Men, Good Women in 1995).
It is with this film as well that Hou’s work begins to take on more explicit political overtones. There is overt reference to the Quemoy Incident, in which Taiwan and Mainland China nearly went to war in 1958, as well as the funeral of Vice-President Chen Cheng in 1965, which A-Ha gets beaten up for not properly respecting (preferring to juggle billiard balls, a trick he learned from his grandmother). These serve to both locate the narrative in a specific time (that is, if you know when those events took place), but also begin to equate personal memory with national history, a formula which will come to define Hou’s next great trilogy of films, A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women.
This move from the personal to the historical is most evident in the way we read the grandmother character. Already in her 80s as the film begins, though active and irascible, she spends her time making foil “silver coins” for use in the afterlife and has a penchant for wandering away on long treks in search of the bridge that will lead her back to their home county on the Mainland. In the first half of the film, the young A-Ha joins her on these walks (they gather guavas from a tree somewhere outside of town). But by the end of the film, she is largely forgotten, her wanderings are now solo, being dragged home by increasingly irate pedicab drivers, and she seemingly spends most of her time asleep on the home’s tatami mats, until she reaches her sad demise.
It’s that end that is most wrenching, as the grandmother is left to (literally) whither away while the boys (A-Ha is the oldest in the house now, ostensibly taking care of his little brothers but mostly spending his time playing pool, getting in small-time gang fights and (barely) studying for his university entrance exam) go about their own lives. It isn’t hard to read a generational commentary in there, the Mainland Grandmother forgotten while the Taiwanese youth go about their own self-centered pursuits, the old world and the family abandoned in the name of business. While that dimension is certainly there, the guilt the boys must have been feeling, must still be feeling because this is, after all a true story, is overwhelming. Left on its own, such a memory must have been unbearable, but the making of the film, the excavation of such personal darkness and its transmutation into cinema, while not exactly an act of atonement, is at least a step toward reconciliation, a recognition of personal and generational failure.
Hou’s films seek an objective, nonjudgmental way of seeing his characters and their actions. This is the motivation for his idiosyncratic stylistic choices: pulling the camera back to force us to see individuals in the context of their surroundings: nature, cities, crowds; slowing down the editing to convey the duration of time as it is actually felt; cutting out extraneous exposition in favor of capturing the ways people actually (fail to) communicate; overlapping sounds and timelines in a structured simulation of the stream of consciousness, giving the dreamlike sensation of sharing another person’s headspace. Turning that lens on himself is his most daring move yet. Is it possible to look at A-Ha with empathy and not judgement?
It’s not just a movie about the evils of a forgetful youth, a scold against these darn kids, nor is it the kind of outraged punk provocation that typifies many of the great films of the contemporary but very different Hong Kong New Wave, but rather an act of memorialization, of turning memory into history. In attempting to document the past, it is a positive move toward rectifying this personal and generational forgetfulness. The making of the movie is the happy ending the film itself so crushingly lacks, if a happy ending is even possible.