In 1962, at an anonymous Taiwanese village, a somber, lackadaisical man curiously dressed as a clown and laden with advertising billboards promenades through an array of indistinguishable city streets on a sweltering summer day, trying to attract the attention of the occasional passerby with the constant beating of a toy ceremonial drum before momentarily wandering into the church grounds after seeing a crowd gathered near the entrance and changing his planned advertisement route. Observing the people forming a queue in front of a group of aid workers who are doling out rice to the indigent, Kun-chu – still in costume – hurries home to alert his wife Ah-chu and prompts her into lining up for charity before the supply runs out. But before Ah-chu can collect her sack and head out to the church for the humble errand, Kun-chu spots a doctor’s prescription left on a table and, unable to decipher the information, becomes alarmed over their newborn son, Ah-lung’s health. Ah-chu attempts to assuage Kun-chu’s fears by explaining that the prescription is only for contraceptive pills, a revelation that turns his anxious concern into hostile consternation, arguing that such modern, esoteric drugs could only lead to permanent infertility (not to mention public embarrassment). Kun-chu’s seeming outrage over his wife’s decision plays out against a flashback of his own reprehensible attempts to goad a then-pregnant Ah-chu into drinking a homemade potion to induce a miscarriage, arguing that they cannot afford to have a child until he can find steady employment. And so Kun-chu’s frustrated, unremarkable existence is gradually revealed through a series of poignant and bittersweet memories, as the desperate, undereducated expectant father, unable to find a job, convinces a movie theater owner to conditionally hire him as a walking, two-sided billboard – a “sandwich man” – hired to generate increased ticket sales for the week…to be a human spectacle.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s contribution to The Sandwich Man, an omnibus based on contemporary Taiwanese author Huang Chun-ming’s stories of the working class in 1960s Taiwan, and featuring then new-generation Taiwanese filmmakers that also includes Zhuang Xiang Zeng and Wan Jen, The Son’s Big Doll is a spare, elegantly conceived, understatedly realized, provocative, and insightful portrait of sacrifice, perseverance, and human dignity. Using asequential flashbacks, narrative ellipses, anecdotal conversations, and prefiguring sound (and dialogue), Hou incorporates complex, yet minimalist structure that would come to define his distinctive cinema: Kun-chu’s flashback while playing with his son that betrays the argumentative hypocrisy and empty bravado of his resistance to Ah-chu’s use of contraception; a recalled encounter with an uncle who had refused to help the unemployed Kun-chu feed his family, and now decries the young man’s sole means of income as causing their family public embarrassment; a sequential shot of students near a school that triggers Kun-chu’s memory of his inability to write down Ah-lung’s name in (and even being assessed a fine for the delay in filing) the registration papers for his son’s birth. Furthermore, note Hou’s implementation of a witnessed event in which the contextual relevance is withheld until the subsequent scene – Kun-chu’s appearance at the scene of a rice truck accident involving a child – a narrative strategy that Hou similarly implements in his magnum opus A City of Sadness in Wen-Leung’s coincidental appearance as a bystander in the police investigation of a cigarette peddler’s death, an incendiary incident in Taiwanese history that led to the February 28 uprising. In each instance, Hou reveals the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and estrangement: from traditional customs, to ancestral (extended) families, to language (Kun-chu’s illiteracy seems equally symptomatic of Taiwan’s own cultural identity after emerging from a period of turbulent national history, as the nation evolved from Japanese occupation, to reunification – then separation – from mainland China), and even socio-political circumstances. It is this disconnection that is inevitably reflected in Kun-chu’s own dashed hopes and disillusioned life: an existence rooted in transience, uncertainty, accepted humiliation, and fickle fate.
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