A Time To Live, A Time To Die

As with any niche, there’s a caricature about world cinema. It is slow, it is minimalist, and it tends away from straightforward entertainment and more towards naturalism, to the point of distraction. Basically, it’s Tokyo Story on and on and on through the decades. Anyone who has seen enough Jeunet films know that’s not really true, but it’s also not entirely off-base.

It’s easy to forget, however, that caricatures and tropes aren’t always bad, either, and a film that relies on them, in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, can be great, whether it’s a classic coming-of-age drama or an over-the-top action spectacle.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien certainly knows what he’s doing.

The past master of Taiwanese cinema has explored many of the different areas of the Chinese experience since the migration to the island in the 1940s, and all of it stems from A Time To Live, A Time To Die, his 1985 semi-autobiographical meditation on traveling to Taiwan at the most delicate time of life, trying to figure out who he is at the same time that Taiwan is.

The focus of all that semi-autobiography is young Ah-Xiaou, a boy who arrives with his family from the mainland in 1947 with the rest of his family. Cast adrift from everything they’ve known, expecting any day to return to their homeland, they’re not at all prepared to explain to Ah-Xiaou what it means to put down roots and plan for the future, leaving him to face the long hard journey of self-discovery on his own.

It would be very easy to turn it all into melodrama, especially once time and tide begins to take its toll on the family, as his father falls prey to tuberculosis and his mother contracts cancer. From a mixture of his own skill and closeness to the material, Hou instead keeps a natural feel to the film, matched with such a spare technique that verges almost on documentary. Nothing is built up; it merely happens and then must be reacted to after the fact.

And as the family goes, so go the Taiwanese, as they slowly move from being mainlanders waiting to return home to a new generation who don’t remember the lost homeland. They now only know the poverty and want and boredom and longing of their new home.

To a certain degree, within the sparseness is truth. From time to time it turns against itself, offering little in the way of context and requiring a sudden exposition dump to fill in the missing pieces. In that way, it seems to be what it is, the recollections of its director turned into a narrative.

If that’s a negative, it’s not enough of a negative to seriously impact what Hou has accomplished. A Time To Live was early enough in Huo’s career that the few problems which do show up from time to time were worked out in later works. But he never quite reached this level of truth again.

Cast: Tien Feng as The Father; Mei Fang as The Mother; Tang Ju-yun as The Grandmother; Hsiao Ai as Adult Ah Xiaou; Yu An-shun as Ahhagu.

(Central Motion Pictures Corporation; Yi Fu Films; International Film Circuit; NONE)

Review by . Review posted Wednesday, February 27th, 2013. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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