The third film in Hou’s ‘coming-of-age trilogy’ eschews sentiment for a bleak if poetic visual meditation on fate, space and time.
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1986 | Taiwan | Drama/Romance | 109 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin, Cantonese & Min Nan
M18 (passed clean) for coarse language
Cast: Wang Chien-wen, Hsin Shu-fen, Li Tian-lu, Fang Mei
Plot: Wan and Huen are high school sweethearts living in a small mining town. With no money for education, they drop out of school and move to Taipei. Both of them think they are destined to be together. But when Wan is called away to serve in the military, their fated love is put to the test.
Source: Central Motion Picture Corporation
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on CatchPlay – first published 5 May 2017)
An underrated work in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s unparalleled filmography, Dust in the Wind is the third of his “coming-of-age trilogy”, based on the childhood memories of writer Wu Nien-Jen. The other two films are A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), and his first great work, A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985).
Dust in the Wind begins with darkness, before we realise that we are on a train coming out of the tunnel. A similar scene exists at the start of Hou’s Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996), continuing the director’s lifelong fascination with trains, up to its culmination in Cafe Lumiere (2003), a centennial tribute to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.
We are introduced to the two protagonists, Wan and Huen, two teenagers who are meant for each other at the cusp of adulthood. They find work in Taipei, sending money home to their poor families in the village.
Occasionally, they would return from the city, sometimes together, sometimes alone. The train station is a space of arrival and departure for them, while the tracks connect both urban and rural spaces.
Hou often shoots his landscape shots from a distance, as if the characters are mere pawns in the larger picture of fate and time. He would further formalise this rigourous style in his two masterpieces—A City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster (1993).
In this vein, Dust in the Wind feels like a poetic if bleak meditation on life’s mutability—the characters are unbeknownst to change, like dust in the wind, or “tears in rain” (to borrow a line from 1982’s Blade Runner).
Hou eschews sentiment in this film, at least relative to the other two films of the trilogy. Emotions or thoughts aren’t expressed that explicitly through action or narration, and the romance between Wan and Huen is quietly marked by silent glances and muted conversations about work and family. They rarely ever speak about the(ir) future.
An accompanying solo guitar occasionally punctuates the silence, inflecting the film with a sense of melancholy, while also preserving these precious moments in time, if only temporarily, until the inevitability of permanence sets in, turning them into memories.