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January 22, 2009

Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection - Disc 2

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A Time to Live and a Time to Die/Tong nien wang shi
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1985

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Dust in the Wind/Lian lian feng chen
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 1986
Both Sino All Region DVD

A Time to Live and a Time to Die is a somewhat autobiographical story of Hou's youth. The film is about a family, and the generational differences between the elders who grew up in mainland China and those who have known Taiwan for all or most of their lives. Some aspects of the film are very specific to the history of China and Taiwan and may be lost on some film viewers. This is the story about the dissolution of a family as well as the shifts in national identity.

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The father, a teacher, has assumed that his taking a position in Taiwan would be temporary, four years at the most. The grandmother, increasingly senile, forgets where she is and frequently goes on a walk to mainland China, often to be returned home by a rickshaw driver. Against the dreams of a return to a China that no longer exists, the younger generation makes sense out of living in a country that claims to be the true China, that still has vestiges of years of Japanese influence as well as creeping Westernization.

Like most of Hou's other films, A Time to Live and a Time to Die is filmed using medium or long shots. The only time a close-up is used is in a panning shot of the faces of the children when they realize that their tubercular father has died. Death could be seen as a metaphor for the change of Taiwanese identity from one where the country is thought of as temporary home until return to the mainland is possible, to that where Taiwan is considered home.

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Most of the film is from the point of view of Ah-ha-gu, Hou's screen alter ego. Introduced as a mischievous boy who gets into trouble with his mother for stealing money, Ah-ha-gu grows into a young man who still has a penchant for getting into trouble. He is doted on by his grandmother who wants to send him back to mainland China, a place distant both geographically and emotionally. Unlike a western film that seeks to develop an identification between the viewer and the characters, Hou's deliberately distances the viewers from the characters and their activities. As indicated in the title, death is a significant part of the narrative, not so much as end of life as much as a reminder of how life in all of its aspects is transitory.

As indicated in the title, Dust in the Wind also explores the transitory nature of life, albeit more lightly than A Time to Live and a Time to Die. Very loosely, the film is about two teenagers, Huen and Wan, coming together and drifting apart. Living in a small mining town, occupational and educational opportunities are limited. Moving to Taipei, Huen finds a job with a tailor. Wan leaves his job as a printer's assistant to work as a delivery driver until he gets drafted. No matter what may be intended, peoples' lives seem to be continually determined by forces outside themselves.

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Again Hou's viewpoint is one of detachment. The most humorous moment in the film takes place offscreen when the popping is heard of a firecracker mistaken for a candle. In another scene, Wan meets Huen at a train station, and is barely seen fighting with a man as the two are mostly hidden by one of the station columns. Even the feelings between Huen and Wan seem to be hidden, or are not made obvious as a more traditionally made film.

The opening shot begins in darkness until it is revealed that it is the point of view shot from the front of a train. Unlike a film such as Fritz Lang's Human Desire which focuses on the tracks as if to indicate the that the fate of the characters is predetermined, Hou's camera looks straight ahead. It is as if to say that perhaps one's direction in life is fated, yet the only choice is to look ahead to the future.

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The Hou Hsiao-hsien Ultimate Collection is available from HK Flix where you can find other fine classics.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 22, 2009 12:50 AM