The Boys from Fengkuei opens to a static shot of a near desolate thoroughfare in the bucolic, fishing village of Fengkuei in the Penghu islands, as a slow moving bus momentarily stops to open its doors off-camera – seemingly to accommodate or disembark some unseen passenger – before continuing on its unhurried journey along the rural coastline. In another part of town, four inseparable childhood friends play a diversionary, uncompetitive game of billiards at a local pool hall, humoring a well-intentioned, but bad-sighted elderly scorekeeper as he obliviously and repeatedly asks for whom a penalty score should be entered. Having left school (albeit prematurely) and currently awaiting their imminent call-up for compulsory military service, the aimless young men spend their idle days in a transitional, existential limbo between carefree adolescence and responsible adulthood: attempting to cheat a street-savvy little boy over an illegal card game; sneaking into an international art house movie theater (that ironically is featuring Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, a film that similarly depicts themes of fraternity, adulthood, and responsibility); playing innocuous pranks on each other; and trying to catch the attention of an attractive young woman by making a spectacle of themselves, intermittently doused by the crashing of waves against a seawall. With few opportunities available to them, the friends decide to move to the larger city of Kaohsiung in search of employment. Assisted by an older sister who arranges for a modest apartment next door to a petty criminal named Ah-ho and his mistress Hsiao-Hsing, the friends eventually obtain interim work in the warehouse of an electronics assembly plant. Perhaps the most adrift of the friends is the reticent Ah-ching, an introspective young man who struggles with paternal disconnection after his once affectionate and hard-working father became permanently incapacitated after sustaining severe head injuries from a baseball accident. Separated from his family, faced with the inevitability of conscription and the resulting separation from his friends, and developing an unrequited attraction towards the emotionally unavailable Hsiao-Hsing, Ah-ching becomes increasingly ambivalent over the direction of his future.
Hou Hsiao-hsien elegantly and compassionately captures the melancholy, inertia, and travails of maturation in The Boys from Fengkuei. Primarily composed of stationary, medium shots and incorporating pillow images of the idyllic, natural landscape – an aesthetic composition that invariably invites comparison to Yasujiro Ozu – Hou creates a pervasive atmosphere of stasis and irresolution that reflects the friends’ waning days of adolescent irresponsibility (note the elided tragic event represented by the Ozu-esque shot of the unoccupied wicker chair during Ah-ching’s homecoming visit). Hou’s distinctive cinematic language further emerges through efficient and understatedly powerful use of narrative ellipses that visually distill Ah-ching’s nostalgic longing to its underlying, emotional clarity: the silent and starkly overexposed sequences that reveal the sudden and unforeseeable cause of his father’s recreational accident, his salvation from a potential snake bite by his protective father, his father’s persistent doting at the family table. By presenting the personal toll of separation – a recurring socio-economic theme that Hou would contextually explore within the historical framework of his subsequent Taiwan trilogy (A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women) – Hou elegiacally encapsulates the awkward uncertainty and unarticulated trauma of inflicted transition and irrevocable change.
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