The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-Hsien / Taiwan, 1985):
(Tong nien Wang Shi)

The English title, with its echoes of Remarque, rather ungallantly gives away Hou Hsiao-Hsien's complex structure, a consideration of transience and mortality as the main elements in an art composed of pictures and movements based on "some memories from my youth." Hou's stand-in is a boy nicknamed Ah-ha (You Anshun), whose clan migrated from mainland China to the bucolic Taiwanese burg of Fengshan in 1948. Mother (Mei-Feng) labors to keep their rituals alive, but tradition has been decentralized, the asthmatic father (Tien Feng) lies slumped on a wicker chair while the grandmother (Tang Yu-Yuen) wanders the countryside, looking for Mekong Bridge. News from home filter through radio and letters, the kids are too busy playing outside to notice the poetic merging of the personal and the historical -- youngsters with dueling tops look like the freest of creatures, only their games are to segue into indolent delinquency as dislocation is made manifest (predecessors include Pather Panchali, King's I'd Climb the Highest Mountain, and Killer of Sheep). The disintegration is shot by Hou with a tranquil camera that misses no detail (circles cut out of silver paper and made into faux-currency, metal scrapes from a telephone pole, stamps stuck to glass panes) and effortless instances of light caught between scrims (the family wiping down the floor as the daughter recounts a tale that brings tears to her eyes is one exquisite example among many). Hou can be stunningly subtle and forthright: The grandmother's faint voice as she calls out for Ah-ha is what connects her to the next shot of the children at play, a power outage has people fumbling in the dark until the lights come back to reveal the lifeless father. The untrained eye might mistake the film's relaxed stylistic intricacy for plainness (The New York Times wrote of a "streamlined ordinariness that amounts to a kind of eloquence," incredibly), although there is no mistaking the emotional impact of the characters' accelerating turmoil, sweeping so gracefully that only by the end you realize how overwhelming it is.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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