The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985

The Time to Live and the Time to Die is prefaced by the gentle, soft-spoken voice of an off-camera narrator (presumably filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien) as he recounts the story of his family’s postwar migration from Mei County in the Kwangtung Province of mainland China in pursuit of career opportunities and the prospect of a better life in Taiwan: “One year later, my father wrote home saying ‘This is a nice place. It has tap water.’ He asked my mother to bring the whole family over.” However, the father’s ill health and chronic asthma, exacerbated by the northern climate, compelled the family to uproot themselves again and move from Hsinchu (leaving a respectable post as a supervisor in the Education Bureau) to the bucolic town of Fengshan in south Taiwan. The restless young Ah-hsiao, teasingly nicknamed Ah-ha by the other children (for his grandmother’s perennial beckoning calls throughout the village in search of him), seems unaffected by the cultural estrangement experienced by the older generation, spending most of his idle time in the streets, playing with other children. In contrast, his fragmented and absent-minded grandmother, oblivious of her geographic distance from the mainland, would often take long walks in an aimless search for Mekong Bridge near the family’s ancestral home. In an affectionate and comical recurrent image, unable to find Ah-hsiao to fetch him home for dinner, the grandmother would become hopelessly lost, and invariably be returned home by a rickshaw driver seeking compensation for his time and effort in bringing the exhausted and disoriented old woman back. The film follows the precocious and trouble-prone Ah-hsiao as he experiences the strange, turbulent, and in the end, unalterable events that would prevent his dislocated family from returning to their ancestral home.

The Time to Live and the Time to Die is a serene, compassionate, and deeply affecting examination of the cultural disconnection, irresolution, and uncertainty experienced by a generation of displaced mainland Chinese residing in Taiwan during the communist revolution of China. Using signature long shots that distance the observer from the characters and repeated visual framing that positions the characters in similar compositions throughout the film, Hou Hsiao-hsien establishes a pattern of detachment and alienation inherent in the mundane ritual of daily life: the image of his seemingly distant father sitting pensively at his desk; the grandmother’s constant wandering in search of the elusive bridge that leads home; the women performing household chores; the children playing games (and later, the disenfranchised young men committing petty crimes) on the street. By presenting Ah-hsiao’s unremarkable family life against the curious boyhood memories that allude to profound change, Hou creates a pervasive sense of nostalgia and melancholy that reflects the undercurrent of longing and incompletion inherent in the country’s irreconcilable loss. Inevitably, although Hou describes The Time to Live and the Time to Die “some memories from my youth, particularly impressions of my father”, what emerges is a haunting portrait of a national soul struggling against the rootlessness, estrangement, and transience cultivated by its turbulent and irreconcilable past.

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