Hou Hsiao-Hsien was born in the Guandong province in 1947, however his family moved to Taiwan the following year with other refugees of the Chinese Civil War going on at the time. Many of his experiences resulting in his family situation at the time are reflected in his semi-autobiographical movie, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, which was made in 1985. A Time to Live and a Time to Die explores many themes such as family, homeland, death, war, nation, time, and identity. The viewer sees a young boy, Ah-ha, grow up, with his parents and grandparents, all speaking different dialects, as he comes to age in a land that is not his native homeland at a time of instability in China. This movie embodies the term “slice of life,” with a slow pace very much familiar to everyday routine, while exploring family relationships and how a family overcomes suffering and loss. We see the fall of an old generation and the rise of a new one utilizing cinematic techniques with the repetition of images and his long, static, shots in which Hou Hsiao-Hsien is uses the framing of the architecture and attention to the different planes of an image to create a filming technique that emphasizes the pace and nature of the movie. The movie itself has no distinct plot. The main character is not a hero, nor is he a villain. He is simply a boy, and the audience watches as he grows up, makes both good and poor life decisions, and matures along with his siblings and friends. He doesn’t do anything especially spectacular and he doesn’t really do anything to move the plot forward. The sole thing that seems to move the movie forward is life, and death as a part of life. The characters are all very simple, and we watch as all the characters come together as a family to overcome the losses and grief that they have to deal with as well as the everyday struggles that they have to go through. Overall, the movie is compelling in that it is perfectly relateable while at the same time being so different than anything I personally have experienced. We’ve all known loss and we’ve all gone through trouble as a family and to see this family come together is something so familiar while at the same time riveting on another level and that is what I think has gained it transnational acclaim.
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.
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.