TIME TO LIVE AND THE TIME TO DIE, THE (Tong nien wang shi)
(director/writer: Hou Hsiao hsien; screenwriters: Chou Tien-Wen/Chu T’ien-Wen; cinematographer: Pin Bing Le; editor: Wang Quiyang; cast: You Anshun (Ah-ha), Tien Feng, Mei Fang, Shufen Xin, Ann-Shuin Yiu, Tang Ruyun, Xiao Ai, Yu-Yuen Tang (Grandmother); Runtime: 137; Central Motion Picture; 1985-Taiwan)
“This is a very subtle and wonderfully crafted film that depicts childhood in a very simple but relevant manner, that only a very few filmmakers have been able to do in such a sentimental but unsentimental way.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An autobiographical film of Hou Hsiao hsien grounded in the history of Taiwan from 1947 through the 1950s, and touching upon the early 1960s. This was a very demanding and taxing film for me to follow, not because of its slow pace and lack of action scenes; but, because I didn’t have a full knowledge of what Taiwan was historically undergoing during that time frame. Therefore, the many innuendos and references to past events didn’t always connect with me as well as it should have. I could only watch the film from the point of view of what I got from the film itself. The story of a family trying to cope with their own secrets and their own idiosyncrasies that proves to be a very human tale, something along the lines of an Ozu film.
The family leaves the mainland of China in 1947 and settles in Taiwan, where the father remains aloof from running the family business; he leaves all that to his wife. He concentrates on his school job. He gives his wife most of the salary and she uses it to take care of their big family, which includes the elderly grandmother. Ah-ha is the child who most misses having a father around. He is seen as a rebellious child, often disciplined by his mother. But he is also shown acting like a typical child playing games and running around with the other children, enjoying a childhood with many pleasant memories. He is deeply loved by his grandmother who tells him stories about the mainland and their ancestors, telling him her wish to return there; that is something he doesn’t understand, since he feels perfectly at home in Taiwan.
When Ah-ha becomes a teenager, he hangs around with a street gang. As a result he does not distinguish himself in school until he realizes that he will have to pass the exams and choose a career, or else he will have a tough time financially surviving in Taiwan. Ah-ha is also attracted to a girl who wants him to go to the university, which stimulates him further to pass the exams. His older sister is the more dominant one in the family. We soon see him growing more and more loyal to the family, especially when his father dies. When his mother dies he is deeply shaken, showing the great love he had for her. The film is shot through the point of view of Ah-ha.
What is beautiful about the film is its lushness, the sunny colors it evokes, giving it a strange sense of touching down on a paradise; and, in the small matters that are very human that it pays very close attention to: the softness of the rain falling, his father sitting so nobly by his desk, and his grandmother acting so eccentric and being loved by the family for what she is. When Ah-ha reads the letters of his mother he realizes that his father remained distant from the family because he had tuberculosis and was constantly sick, not wanting to contaminate the rest of the family. This was a condition that he didn’t tell his wife about before they were married, much to her displeasure, causing her to remark, later on, to the family — that health might be the only thing that is real. He, now, begins to understand his father and the family he was brought up in. It is amusing to hear in the letters, how his father made the family buy bamboo furniture because he always thought the move away from the mainland was a temporary one, and that someday they would go home again and it would be no problem discarding the cheap furniture.
This is a very subtle and wonderfully crafted film that depicts childhood in a very simple but relevant manner, that only a very few filmmakers have been able to do in such a sentimental but unsentimental way. This is a work of considerable merit.
REVIEW ON 2/2/99 GRADE: B+