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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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A Time to Live A Time to Die
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   A Time to Live A Time to Die  


A Time to Live, a Time to Die

Reviewed by sieteocho

Chinese Title: Tong nien wang shi
Director: Hou Hsiao Hsien
Writing Credits: Chu Tien Wen, Hou Hsiao Hsien
Cast: Mei Feng, Tang Yu Yuen, Tien Feng, Xin Shufen, Yiu Ann Shuin
Genre: Drama
Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Year Released: 1985
Runtime: 138 min
Rating ****½ (out of five stars)

I watched my first two Hou Hsiao Hsien films in college. The first was The Puppetmaster. I knew that he was an interesting guy, but that film blew me away. He had invented this whole new visual idiom that I hadn’t recognized elsewhere before. Actually, no. I had already watched Edward Yang's Yi Yi and that one blew me away. Then I watched the The Puppetmaster because I read somewhere that Edward Yang picked up his chops from Hou Hsiao Hsien.

The signature depiction of gang fights, something I’m familiar with, since I’ve already watched A Brighter Summer Day, is very typical. Long shot of a street scene, camera static, in contrast to the excitement of the violence. Gangsters chasing each other in and out of the frame. Lots of screaming off screen where the violence is supposed to take place. The suddenness of the attacks contrasted with the serene, nonchalant movement of the camera.

[WARNING: Spoiler here.]

Since this is a film about his own childhood, Hou Hsiao Hsien strives to keep the tone light. Even when there’s violence it all takes place off screen. The first gangster scene had this sinister, menacing build-up, where a whole gang was plotting to rob a textile hawker. Then a discussion about how much money the poor guy is carrying. Then the leader meticulously orders each gang member to seal off all the exits of a junction. Then when the hawker is about to drive away on a motorbike, a gang member waylays him but fails to get him to stop. The gang leader curses and swears at him that even such a fat guy can’t even stop a motorbike. It is truly hilarious.

Some of the scenes are intentionally goofy. The scene where Hsiao Yen finds a parang and starts sharpening it could have been very menacing, but the testing the sharpness of the blade against his arm, and his neck, of all places, and his clumsy handling of the weapon reminds us all that he’s just a kid.

Or the scene with a gang intimidating a rival gang member who slighted them, takes the route of humorous depiction, with the watch-out alerting his fellow gang members of the approach of a teacher, and their sarcastically greeting him. (For all you Caucasians out there, all pupils in Chinese schools have to greet their teachers on sight as a rule.)

The comments that follow are general enough that I could be talking about Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang, or Tsai Ming Liang.

The Hou Hsiao Hsien technique I especially like is the landscape long shot. It holds the camera there, long enough for you to pick out all the visual cues. This is the visual foreplay before the sex, and guys take note: foreplay is important. Hold that camera there long enough for the viewer to get his money’s worth. Let his eyes roam, and decide where to go. Thus, we have a camera inside a camera. I get the feeling that rather than watching a movie I’m seeing an album of moving photographs that have some loose sense of connectedness to each other rather than being portions of a tightly knit narrative. Do not tell a story, leave that for Edward Yang to do. The narrative "rawness" and lack of conventional narrative structure is all the more interesting because of the ambiguity and the number of ways with which to piece the thing together.

You got to understand that all stories encase the facts in some kind of a mental box. Anything that is structuralised will have some constraints. Hou Hsiao Hsien loosens the lid of this box and his images get more room to breathe, and as a result. Divested from their structure, the anecdotes have this languid desultory feel to them. There’s this intimacy, and you hear something more in the vein of a friend’s "oh-by-the-way" cock talking. Not for him the Chekhovian "If-there-is-a-pistol-in-my-short-story-it-must-be-fired-before-the-end" tightness. Then you’ll listen to him because you feel like it, not because if you don’t, you’ll miss out on the story line.

The thing about the film is that it’s all about life itself. Everything moves slowly, because maybe life moves slowly. But it gives the film a great kind of motif. The tree at the center of the village square is probably a character of its own right, since its verdancy (and great age) is a physical testimony to the passing of time. The structure of the movie is very close to memory itself. What you do remember takes an eternity to take place. But then there are the huge gaps in between which symbolize lost time. It’s that Proustian thing. The cinema lingers on the screen long enough for you to feel that something beautiful is passing away.

If you were to sum up Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films in one sentence, it is "the passing of time". Even the film titles – A Time to Live, A Time to Die, Dust in the Wind, City of Sadness, Goodbye South Goodbye, Millennium Mambo – all allude to the passing of time and lingering regret. The literal translation of The Puppetmaster’s Chinese title is "Puppet Show, Dreams, Life". Life as in "this mortal coil" thing.

But when you run your eyeball over it you soon realize that not only "cinema time" has passed, but that you’ve invested your own time as well. So you will feel its loss more acutely. Of course, this is not an excuse for amateur filmmakers to purposely drag out their films so that they achieve this effect. Like Antonioni, all of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s shots are exquisitely composed. Everywhere you look, there are visual marvels. Or put it this way, would you rather be spending 30 seconds looking at a picture of Anna Nicole Smith circa 1993, or Anna Nicole Smith circa 2005?

Watching a Hou Hsiao Hsien film is the nearest thing to being able to claim, "I live in the same country as a cinema master". A lot of the scenes are familiar, either through personal experience, or the stories told to us by our parents growing up in kampongs. Stealing fruit. Cycling on dirt paths. Fetching water to bathe with. Goofing around in class. Attempting to cheat in exams. Burying your marbles in a stash. The bright incandescent glow of a bulb in the middle of a village. Getting punished by having to kneel in a corner. Getting thrashed by a mother while running away from her, in a style reminiscent of chasing after a chicken for a beheading. (In Singapore the standard thrashing apparatus of choice is the feather duster.) This is the standard upbringing of a child in a Chinese family that we’re all familiar with. Even the playground taunts of "tuah lampar" are familiar.

At least those guys had electricity. My folks had to use kerosene lamps.

I've also watched City of Sadness. There's not much that I can say about it that this website doesn't say.

Twenty years down the road, I fully expect to see all his films out on Criterion or something similar. He deserves this much.

[This review first appeared in sieteocho .]