In his semi-autobiographical film The Time to Live and the Time to Die, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien tells a coming-of-age story that is reflective of experiences of growing up in a Taiwan inundated with various refugee groups of the Chinese diaspora as a result of the communist regime coming to power in mainland China. Born in Guangdong province, Hou’s family and other refugees moved to Taiwan in 1948. This is the time period that the film shows the main character Ah-ha’s childhood years. Then, the movie cutted to his teen years in which he experiences his coming-of-age in a Taiwan redefined by its immigrant population and its historical context. For viewers unfamiliar interested in a film reflective of a young man’s coming of age during the period of the region’s history, they will see a mixture of themes of coping with life’s difficulties that nicely paralleled the melting pot of immigrant groups’ experiences in Taiwan. Similar to the how Taiwan became a country made unique by its political juxtaposition to China and influx of refugees from the mainland, this film will entertain viewers with a unique coming-of-age film made further unique by the setting in which it takes place.
At the beginning, the audience will see the immigrant identity reflected in Ah-ha’s experiences as a young boy in his family’s new situated lifestyle in Taiwan. While Ah-ha grows used to living in Taiwan, the theme of homeland reoccurs whenever Ah-ha’s grandmother tells him she will take Ah-ha back to mainland China. Other remnants of Taiwan’s past as a Japanese colony can be found in the still shots of Ah-ha’s family going about their lives in a Japanese-style household indicated by tatami whereas reminders of the communist rule and Taiwan’s strained tensions with the mainland are reflected in militarization of tanks. With the death of his father, the film immediately shifts into his coming-of-age period as a young adult, but the theme of immigrant experiences continually permeates the film.
In his teenage years, Ah-ha lives in Taiwan as an adolescent male, and his experiences reflect themes of masculinity, responsibility, and death as he matures as a young adult. While actively projecting his masculinity through gang fights, billiards, and lifting weights, tensions between his life at home and his time outside of it with his friends arise when he begins to focus on caring for his mother, his three young siblings, and contemplates his future by taking placement exams to enter a university. In other words, he had this image of being a man given how he always socialized in young-adult-male dominated environments in which his head is filled with a sense of comradery, images of naked women, and the need to become muscular. When faced with responsibilities toward young children and the death of his grandmother, Ah-ha is stripped of this embedded sense of masculinity–he becomes a young adult who has to deal with realizations of his duty as a male in the household with certain inherited expectations. With the death of his grandmother, Ah-ha reflects on his memory as a child collecting fruit with his grandmother, hinting at failed filial piety as a major theme when the young generation in Taiwan fail in their role of caring for the previous generation in their family.
While the audience may draw comparisons between Hou’s film and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, people watching The Time to Live and the Time to Die should expect a different film with respect to the portrayed experiences and the themes. Whereas both directors make use of film techniques such as breaking the 180 degree rule or taking shots that explore the depth of setting, Hou employs the background and setting to a great extent to express historical aspects of the time period. Throughout the movie, the audience should expect a unique film that is reflective of a Taiwan diversified by various Chinese identities as expressed in the use of different Chinese dialects. As Ozu establishes himself as a director with Tokyo Story, Hou creates a film that actively performs the identity of a “new Taiwan” in the mid-1900s.
Through viewing this film, the audience will enjoy viewing themes of a coming-of-age film in a historical and culturally-embedded setting. Each scene has historically relevant details along with metaphors hinting toward themes of the film, creating an intricate and enjoyable viewing experience. After watching Hou’s The Time to Live and The Time to Die, avid film viewers of works from East Asian directors will have no trouble seeing Hou as an accomplished director in his medium and will anxiously wait for the next opportunity to view his work.