A Time to Live and a Time to Die is the first movie I have seen by Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, and if it turns out to be the best he will ever make I won’t be surprised. Hou’s film has been compared to masterpieces like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but even if it had not been I would have probably drawn such parallels on my own. It is a quiet, contemplative movie, and it only gradually reveals itself to be about things so large and sad that this might be the only way to make a movie about them. Like another Taiwanese director I have come to admire, Ming-Liang Tsai (Rebels of the Neon God), Hou explains little and shows all we need to know, and we come away feeling that no explaining is needed.
The film draws directly on Hou’s life, and almost by accident becomes a portrait of the lives of many people like him—expatriates from the Chinese mainland who came to Taiwan, settled there to find a better life, and found that but also felt a terrible sense of loss and dislocation that being among their own family could not dispel. Hou himself was born in Kwangtung, and went along with the rest of his family when his father pulled up roots to seek prosperity after WWII. The film opens with them already settled in Taiwan, but Hou’s father has asthma, and they are compelled to relocate from the urban Hsinchu to the more backwater Fengshan in the south.
Live follows no particular story at first. It simply shows the family engaged in their daily routines—the father, a bureaucrat, in his study, practicing calligraphy; the children playing aimlessly and sometimes dangerously; the mother doing her best to ensure the family presents a good impression to their neighbors. There is also Hou’s grandmother, a bent old woman who wanders off constantly, calling incessantly for Hou (“Ah-ha!” she shrills, using a diminutive version of his name). She is sliding further and further into senility, and when she isn’t looking for Hou, she hires rickshaw drivers to take her back to the bridge on the mainland near where she used to live—and there is some gentle comedy when the family refuses to pay up on the grounds that the driver should have known she was asking the impossible.
Then, slowly, out of the pieces of everyday life, the story comes together. Hou’s father is not merely asthmatic but tubercular. His illness worsens, and then one day he dies. What Hou, as a director, does with this part of his history is something that I suspect people who have been raised on more conventionally-assembled movies will find disquieting. He gives us a scene where the little Hou, his mother, his grandmother, his siblings, and others sit by the corpse and hold a night vigil. There is no real beginning or end to this scene; it just sits and observes how people behave during what must be the longest night anyone will ever spend. They weep, and at length—not because Hou is trying to rub suffering in our faces, but because that is simply what people do at a vigil.
This scene is actually not all that different from many of the others in the film. Most movies enter a scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible so that we can move the plot forward and get on to the next bit of manufactured plot business. Live sits and watches, and waits, and sometimes nothing happens in a scene at all simply because there are moments and days like that in our lives, and the movie knows it. There are moments where Hou squats in the alley behind the house and fans a charcoal fire, grilling something, or when he and the rest of his friends watch idly as an electrician repairs a piece of utility wire.
In a movie that revolved on more familiar plot mechanics, this would be boring, but Hou makes this stuff into the substance of his film because that itself was the substance of his life. There are other moments, too, that are more dramatic, but in a quiet way. There is a scene sometime after Hou’s father dies, when Hou has grown into a muscular young man, where he sits by the window on a rainy day and sings a saccharine love ballad. In the other room, his mother reminisces to his sister about their father. In only a few sentences we sense how the experiences of a lifetime are being distilled and transmitted to the next generation, and there is a truly saddening moment when we realize their mother withheld breast milk from Hou’s younger brother, now dead, because she simply did not have enough for both of them.
Hou grows, but he does not really mature. His bored games in the street turn to violent confrontations with rival gangs of kids, most of them fruitless. At one point he and his confederates try to jump a cloth merchant, but the other man’s driving a motorcycle, wasn’t born yesterday and is not about to slow down for a bunch of hoodlums. Then, gradually, the specter of death reasserts itself in his life: his mother, too, is dying—not of TB but an oral cancer. She will not have her tongue cut out of her head to save her life, and we are presented with the infinitely sad image of the mother, lying in state, son weeping over her, while the now-wholly-senile grandmother sits idly by not even realizing that she has outlived her child. And then, even sadder, is the moment when Hou realizes his grandmother has finally died when he sees ants crawling across her body as she lies on the floor.
Films like this are medicine to me. They cut out all the noise and posturing that are too often injected into movies. There’s nothing obligatory or contrived about Life, not even in the scenes where Hou is forced to choose between his warring buddies and his sickly mother. That his friends—who we now realize are far more rootless and disaffected than he ever could be—could even ask him to do that is sickening, and in the end Hou regrets that so much of his time as a boy was wasted on resisting his family instead of celebrating or defending them. Motives like this almost never enter into the movies in the first place—at least not the movies as we get them now—and when they do, they are invigorating.
Some elements of the film are not as obvious to people unfamiliar with Taiwan. At one point, for instance, a teenaged Hou gets into terrible trouble with his superiors for starting a fight on the anniversary of a founding president’s death. But these are not details that will derail anyone with an open heart; the vast majority of the film is as universal and timeless as you can get.
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