Sunday, February 8, 2009
TIME TO LIVE, AND THE TIME TO DIE (Taiwanese) is a work of nostalgia in its most considered, sensitive, and articulate form. It is a semi-autobiographical extract on the part of director Hou Hsiao-hsien, concerning a family that has relocated to Taiwan from China (taking place during the mass exodus of roughly two-million Chinese to the island of Taiwan with their Nationalist leader Chiang-kai shek after Mao established the Communist “Peoples’s Republic of China.” Spanning the years of 1947-1960, the film follows the maturation of young Ah-ha, as he and his family cope with the shock of leaving their homeland. Ah-ha acclimates quickly to his new conditions, but the strain of the move and the subtle cultural alienations that plague his parents, marry to the angst of his coming-of-age and build a wedge between them. This condition of a growing generational divergence, reveals itself through Ah-ha’s siblings, such as his older sister who contends with her mother’s inclination towards “domesticity over education.” Across the film’s 138 minutes, we experience a medley of incremental moments in the life of this family; steeped in a somehow ravishing domestic innocuity, composed of family meals, children studying for their exams, Ah-ha and his gang inciting a ‘bored youth’ rebellion, etc.
Many subtle decisions on the part of filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, help to embody and express the retrospective dimension of the rather personal material that composes the film, which in context with the Taiwan New Cinema movement (1980’s-90’s), becomes a retroactive clarification of the 20th Century Taiwanese experience, void of any mainland Chinese media filter or mandate. In this sense, A TIME TO LIVE…, alternately personal and microcosmic, operates by tenants that are not necessarily narrative. Hou instead, allows the visual and aural faculties of the film to communicate a quality of recollection. “His film proceeds by accumulation rather than synthesis.” (Corrado Neri) For this reason, the film cannot be discussed in the ways of “A leading to B.” What comes to the fore, in films of this design, are tones and ideas expressed through a particular language of framing and pacing. Time and place supercede explicit narrative, and therefore it is more constructive to discuss the filmmaker’s language as it carries commentary and content by its devices, often rather than, or involving, what happens in the particular.
Hou is a master of obliquity, both by virtue of his non-causal narrative style, but by his aesthetic language of acknowledging the “outside of the picture frame” and the gaps of recollection. Translating to a brand of “indirectness,” Hou enunciates the limited capacity of memories, which are bound by the constraints of the individual’s dated subjectivities, by allowing the unseen to carry weight. Many impending social references are kept off-screen, or mentioned in passing, just as their consequences are suggested peripherally by disruptive sounds and presences; the roll of thunder, tanks rumbling on the road at night and the tracks that remain in the dirt the next morning, a startling punctuation of men on horseback galloping through the town in midday. By this manner of “omission through indirectness,” A TIME TO LIVE… suggests a certain lurking, subversive quality about the continuance of sociopolitical strife; undisclosed but particular to this time period, Taiwan has been left in the wake of the cessation of Japanese occupation.
The film also expresses these veiled realities in the terms of a child, Ah-ha, with only vague conceptions of sociopolitical issues. At the core of the film is the challenge against personal identity inherent in being severed from ones home, as well as the varied adaptivity exhibited by the older and younger generation. The children, raised in Taiwan instead of China, are almost fully detached from the existential severity of that strain. Ah-ha and his siblings are more or less born into a broken frame of reference, a convoluted impression of feeling “at home” while their parents are floating in realm of “homelessness.” This psychological conflict carries a reticent but profound violence. Those who suffer most from the detachment complex succumb to it and die; the tender but disoriented grandmother who left her heart in China (wandering, sometimes even forgetting that she is in Taiwan, asking for directions to places in her old villiage), and the Father, who’s best but ultimately exhaustive efforts were to keep his family safe and taken care of.
Like all of Hou’s films, A TIME TO LIVE… unfolds in long, lingering shots and sequences, which is a great service to the viewer by placing them on the same experiential level as the characters, sometimes literally. For example, during the “mourning sequence,” in which Ah-ha and his entire immediate family are gathered together, weeping and wailing in the room with their Father’s dead body, the camera, at one point, rests on the floor as if to say, we too have collapsed to the ground in sadness. The scene is so humbling and effective in this regard because the camera refuses to leave, distract with movement, nor was it cut to accelerate or artificially enhance it’s pacing. We get the full visceral experience unraveling in its own time. A TIME TO LIVE…’s inclusive effect (which is constantly at play) also occurs much earlier in the film during a dinner sequence. The camera rests lowly, alongside the seated family members, suggesting that the viewer is seated among them. In adopting this role, one is offered a kind of naïve omniscience. We learn things as the characters do, but are uniquely privy to everything that DOES occur, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
Things come slowly in this film. Everything seems to happen at a naturalistic pace, due to the extended takes which exploit how long it actually takes for any dance of actions to complete itself (though I often thought they could go even longer). The visual makeup of each scene is incredibly intimate, though with a sensitivity is neither saccharine nor overly sentimental. In fact, “Hou carries out his work through a de-personalization of the narration, putting his intimate feelings at a distance and choosing a detached perspective, as if he were merely a spectator of his own story and not the protagonist.” (Corrado Neri) In effect, Hou and the viewer become synonymous in their designation. The intimacy therefore lies in a concomitance of visual proximity to the characters, and the degree of revelation concerning them.
Since most of the film unravels indoors, the camera captures low, linear, interior shots and compositions, often framing the simultaneity of interior and exterior spaces (and by extension of metaphor, public and private realms). Cinematographer PIN BING LEE mostly employs progressive axial cuts, and moderate pans (generally to keep characters in the frame.) rather than any boisterous or self-conscious displays of stylistic movement. All the self-conscious implications are carried by the viewers’ unflinching awareness of each situation. LEE's restraint helps keep the camera within a human range of motion, relating to the viewers’ own. It is also a beautiful response to the architecture of the homes, which informs upon so much of the culture. Lee’s cinematography is reflexive of the seeming simplicity of Ah-ha’s family’s lifestyle. The word “seeming” is important because the simple, calm, and ultimately gorgeous linear compositions by LEE are in fact a juxtaposition to the series of complex and affecting existential strains experienced by both the young and old; passing school, work, maintaining the household in the absence of a parent, illness, conflict of identity, adolescence.
Perhaps the most obvious visual tactic by Hou is the films palette. It is a collection of mostly desaturated greens, beiges, grays, and resonant whites (which effervesce a youthful, chaste ambiance inside the house.) Just as images degrade in time, so have these memories, the family structure, the sustainability of cultural maxims, ect. Hand-in-hand with the film’s piece-meal accrual, Hou’s muted palette evokes a sense of the passing of time by the vehicle of memory.