A Time to Live and A Time to Die (1985) Film Review

Written by Simon Yang

Time flies as we age, whilst the first bite of sorbet from the ice cream van in our memory will never melt away—it's just very remote, inaccessible to some people.   

To call A Time to Live and A Time to Die either a semi-autobiographical film or coming-of-age is too simplistic a judgement on this time-tested masterpiece. We not just are invited by director Hsiao-hsien Hou to stroll down his bittersweet memory lane, but also witness the ups and downs of a generation in the flesh.

Ah-ha, a homonym for the name of the director, through whose eyes we can not but see the inevitable cruelty of things that prompts us to grow up. As was employed previously in The Boys from Fengkuei (風櫃來的人 1983), in which youths are stressed about their uncertain future, the similar structure of coming-of-age applies in Time to Live again as one of the essential themes in Hou’s early films; that is not to say we can simply regard Time to Live as a reproduction of Fengkuei. The different thing is, Hou ambitiously started to venture, even farther later in A City of Sadness (悲情城市 1989) as we know, into the more complex fields of historical and political taboos, but still with humanistic concerns.

The emphasis on internal monologue over dialogue means there is a lot of hidden, implicit information to be discovered, via cinematic elements such as non-diegetic sound. For instance, in Time to Live,  the broadcast content on the radio would shed a light on the situation all the characters face: it mentions president Kai-Shek Chiang (蔣介石), the former political and military leader of China before overthrown by the Communist Party in the civil war, retreating to Taiwan afterwards, along with millions of refugees from mainland China. 

With marching band music in the background, which is another vital hint, it points out the drastically changing political situation in Taiwan back then. (If we take a closer look, we will find that Ah-ha family live in a japanese-style house, which was very likely built in the japanese colonial era.) It also explains why Ah-ha’s parents always feel like mentioning their old days in mainland China, the hometown they saw off and would never get a chance to revisit for the rest of their lives. 

The sound of coughing or weeping fills us in on what happens but untold by the characters. From a long take lasting tens of seconds, we know that Ah-ha’s father is suffering from a certain terminal illness, without a line, just coughing heavily, followed by a close-up of bloodstains on the letter he read. The death of the breadwinner comes as no surprise right after an ominous power outage, which is a brilliant idea in screenwriting (Tien-Wen Chu), with himself being found static and breathless on the chair. The camera pans from left to right to scan through the mournful scene, in which everyone is speechless, weeping and having pent-up emotions to release. The waves of sorrow are beyond description. At some silent moment, as much as created in any fast-paced film that utilises overlapping dialogue, the enormous tension existing in a pause is expressed in a less noticeable way and needs viewers to listen delicately to. 

The composition of camera shots and editing also play vital roles in storytelling as a whole. More than once, the camera guides our attention to the place where Ah-ha hides his toy marbles in the opening—a tree is there as a noticeable repeated element, as if it was a secret character, to stand the hardest test of time alongside with the Ah-ha family.

No one else than the grandmother in the family knows better the feeling of getting stranded in a place, which is thousands of miles away from hometown, and the struggle of communicating with people speaking the same language with an utterly different accent. Ah-ha’s grandmother (played by Ru-Yun Tang, who’s also known for playing another similar figure in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi—a grandmother in a coma), never gets to find her way home—not just the current one but literally her original home in mainland China.

Every time she loses her way, there is a different rickshaw (human-powered vehicle) man, speaking Mandarin in an accent different from the previous one’s, to give her a helping hand. There’s a strong implication that time flies and things are changing—these men are from different regions of mainland China, as a result of the civil war; what’s more, when she and Ah-ha stop by a vendor on the street to enjoy some sweets, the dialect the vendor speaks is Southern Min (or Minnan), which is the most common dialect among the vast majority in Taiwan, whilst the Ah-ha family speak Hakka. Hence, the vendor fails to figure out what grandma is talking about, and the only thing that the latter can do is smile, in an attempt to distract everyone from this awkward scenario. 

Things get even tougher for Ah-ha. Growing out of his clothes, Ah-ha starts to rebel like any teenager at his age does, and tends to speak Southern Min instead of Hakka, especially when he has a profanity-laced chat with his peers. More blatantly, he bludges, builds muscle, bullies boys from other groups, and ropes himself into street fights. He rebels, with a cause, just to keep his insecurity from sight. 

At long last, it is the death of Ah-ha’s mother that ultimately alters his life. The death of his grandmother close behind is even more melancholic, poetic, and symbolic: it represents the irreversible historical result and foreshadows an upcoming wave of identity shift. Ah-ha, with his genuine narration at the end being probably the highlight of the film (and of the Taiwan New Cinema Movement), getting over the identity crisis, finding himself out somewhere in between individual and group, no longer loses his bearings and, just as a reflection of the society of Taiwan to start to open up a new chapter, determine to hit the trail regardless of unexpected obstacles ahead. 

Read more: The New York Times

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