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The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi, 1995)

Hsiao-hsien Hou


137 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

After the huge disappointment of FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI, I was very reluctant to see another film by Hou. However, being a firm believer in second (and third) chances, I decided to sacrifice another 3 hours of my life to see another of his highly praised masterworks. I was treated to the usual spiel of the Dryden Theater intro person (not the Curator this time), who insisted that (a) we wouldn't understand the film without proper background in Taiwanese history, (b) the film was nevertheless great, and (c) the director was the greatest living filmmaker. All three were false.

I am no expert on the history of Taiwan, but even with my modicum of historical knowledge I could grasp the ideas. The film, in fact, is not about that at all, it is a (autobiographical) story of one of many displaced families, who have come from the mainland only to find out that they are unable to return because of the Communists coming to power there. The main problem with the story is that it is real: i.e. simply too pedestrian to be of any interest to a general audience. It is like showing others pictures of your wedding. They may be great memories for you, but to others they are just a bore. As Hou's other films, this one is languorous and muddles through without having a point to make. It has its moments, but for me its appeal was in the close parallels with my own childhood experiences. Which is to say, I liked it because it brought fond memories. I was actually quite surprised by that; I certainly did not expect the 1970s childhood of a Bulgarian city dweller to have much in common with that of a 1940s Taiwanese.

To put it synoptically, the film is about a family (father, mother, daughter, four brothers, and a grandmother) and the narrative follows their daily routine for a while, first during the late 1940s, until the father dies, then, several years later, until the mother dies, and finally, some time later, until the grandmother dies. Except none of the tragic events seemed to tragic, either to me or to the children. The father stays aloof from the family (we later learn he had tuberculosis) and the mother constantly takes care of him. The family cannot afford to send the gifted daughter to a good high school, but manages to do that for her brother (not uncommon for a patriarchal society, where the sister is expected to get married anyway). The protagonist, Ah-ha is a bit of a naughty child and grows up to be a leader/member of its own small-time gang.

All in all, the film is an unsatisfying portrait of a family, and despite all the secrets and hidden passions lacks the magical touch of Ozu, a director who mostly dealt with similar questions and had a similarly restrained approach. The major complaint has to do with the lack of focus. There is no point that the film wants or does make. This may not be a problem with a spectacle or with a production, whose cinematography leaves one breathless. Unfortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, Hou's offering is bleak and emotionally empty. The camera, which never as much as moves, retains its distance from the goings-on, and so do we, the audience. The movie is not subtle and, although not sentimental, does not deliver the promised goods.

May 24, 2001. BLS