A Time to Live and A Time to Die follows Ah-hsiao (nicknamed Ah-ha) and his family as they adapt to a new life in Taiwan. The film is the second installment in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s coming-of-age trilogy. Released in 1985, A Time to Live and A Time to Die won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1986 Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Non-American/Non-European Film Award at the 1987 Rotterdam International Film Festival. The film’s international accolades reflect the mesmerizing cinematography and understated directorial ability of Hsiao-Hsien.
The film begins in 1947 after Ah-ha’s family moves to Taiwan from mainland China. The semi-autobiographical A Time to Live and A Time to Die draws from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s own relocation and upbringing in Taiwan. Ah-ha, a reflection of Hou, represents the first generation of children raised in Taiwan by Chinese immigrants. In the 1940’s, the Chinese Civil War split the country into two opposing factions, the Communists and the KMT Nationalists. Those who sided with the KMT fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party of China gained control of the mainland. Taiwan’s political histories, both the lingering Japanese influence on the island and the Chinese Civil War, never overwhelm the film. Rather, Hou Hsiao-Hsien hints at the Japanese occupation and Nationalist Party control. The camera holds a shot of tank tracks in the mud. The family as listens to planes fly over their home at night. Military horses gallop across the background of a scene. Although national history sets the stage, Ah-ha’s family history takes the foreground.
A Time to Live and A Time to Die examines filial duty, youth and death in a family removed from their homeland and cultural traditions. Hou’s experimental style avoids approaching these topics with melodrama. The characters in the film, many of whom were not trained actors, breathe believability into their roles. Much like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, A Time to Live and A Time to Die utilizes realism for a strong emotional payoff. Ah-ha, his grandmother, his neighborhood, and his friends all become palpable. We feel as though we know these people and places. The acting never feels forced. In this aspect, the film borders on documentary.
The lush, tranquil setting of A Time to Live and A Time to Die sanctions the slow pacing of the film. 138 minutes long, the film takes its time telling Ah-ha’s story. For many, the length may be a turn off, but the pacing respects the defining moments of Ah-ha’s childhood. When Ah-ha and his grandmother walk through the thick vegetation of the Taiwanese village, we watch his grandmother long for the old country. In one scene, she asks a stranger for directions but the woman speaks a different dialect of Chinese. In this moment, we are presented with Taiwan’s disjointed society.
Unlike his parents and grandmother, Ah-ha most forge a new culture from the remnants. As he grows older, Ah-ha must explore sexuality and filial duty on his own. He joins a street gang but continues to care for his ill mother and grandmother. He and his friends act against authority with displays of hyper-masculinity. They start brawls in pool halls and beat up classmates. The first generation of mainland Chinese settled in Taiwan, Ah-ha and his siblings must navigate unfamiliar waters. In the transition, the institutions of education and family lose authority but not importance.
Understated and slow, A Time to Live and A Time to Die examines suffering, identity, and youth with a careful eye. The film does not deliver extreme violence or passionate kisses punctuated with fireworks, but Hou Hsiao-Hsien does not disappoint. We are allowed to watch a family’s most intimate moments. We witness the sadness and joy that define their lives. A Time to Live and A Time to Die is an unsentimental study of youth that leaves the viewer emotionally fulfilled.