The sublime opening sequence of Dust in the Wind follows a nearly imperceptible diffused white speck – perhaps the referential “dust” of the film’s evocative title – as it momentarily shifts location near the center of the frame then continues on its inexorable course, gradually converging to reveal a light at the end of a tunnel from onboard a lumbering passenger train. It is an indelible metaphor for what would prove to be the bittersweet experience of first love in the lives of the two high school students commuting on the train: a pensive and diligent young man named Wan (Wang Jingwen) and his reticent, devoted girlfriend Huen (Xin Shufen). Faced with limited opportunity for his academic competency beyond handwriting dictated letters for illiterate neighbors in the bucolic peasant village (a seemingly inescapable reality reinforced by his father’s comment, “If you want to be a cow, there will always be a plow for you.”), Wan decides to forgo his senior high school education and move to Taipei. Finding work as a printing press operator at a modest, family-run shop during the day – a job that was only made palatable by his unlimited opportunity to read the assortment of literature being published while typesetting – Wan is determined to further his education by attending evening classes, and strives to forge a career beyond the socio-economic sphere of his provincial coal mining hometown (where a night of carousing for the miners invariably ends up in a comic display of masculine competition involving the displacement of large rocks onto the street). After graduation, the less scholarly Huen follows Wan to Taipei and obtains a respectable job as a seamstress at a dressmaking shop that includes room and board, allowing her to occasionally send money home to her family. The film then follows the plight of the young couple as they drift through the waning days of adolescence between their humble work lives in Taipei and periodic visits to their hometown, reluctantly awaiting Wan’s inevitable military conscription with the reassurring knowledge that they will be able to marry after completing his compulsory service.
Based on a true account of a formative episode in the life of novelist, screenwriter, and early Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborator, Wu Nien-Jen (who subsequently played the role of N.J. in contemporary Taiwanese filmmaker, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi), Dust in the Wind is an understated, contemplative, and elegiac portrait on the ephemeral nature of time, youth, love, and existence. Hou’s familiar aesthetic of distancing, alienated framing and stationary camera incorporates the predominant imagery of natural landscape that – like Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, and Mrinal Sen – figuratively reinforces man’s insignificance in relation to his environment. The recurrence of trains and stations through the course of the narrative – the approaching tunnel shot of the introductory sequence contrasted against the retreating view of a tunnel from the rear of the train as Wan and Huen travel home to visit their families; the transversal shot of a passing train against the image of a footbridge in the quaint village seemingly left behind by industrialization and technology; the resigned, emotionally muted farewell at the Taipei station as Wan returns home to report for military duty that is humorously expressed in the grandfather’s (Li Tianlu) subsequent explosion of firecrackers along the train tracks in honor of his grandson’s departure and symbolic maturity – metaphorically reflect the film’s theme of physical existence as a transitory human passage. In the end, the trains in the film serve, not only as a reminder of life’s unalterable progression, but also as silent, unobtrusive vessels for the commutation of fleeting, isolated personal memories to a more encompassing, elemental landscape of an interconnected human experience.
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