The first of Hou’s ‘coming-of-age’ trilogy is a delightful capture of the nostalgic days of childhood.
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1984 | Taiwan | Drama | 93 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin, Hakka & Shanghainese
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Wang Chi-Kuang, Li Shu-Chen, Lin Hsiu-Ling
Plot: A coming-of-age story about a young brother and sister who spend a pivotal summer in the country with their grandparents.
Awards: Won Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention (Locarno); Nom. for 2 Golden Horse Awards – Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Child Star
Source: Central Motion Picture Corporation
Subject Matter: Light
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at the Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective – first published 14 Mar 2016)
A follow-up to his breakthrough The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), A Summer at Grandpa’s is a delightful capture of childhood innocence and growing up, as experienced by a boy, Dong Dong, and his younger sister as they visit their maternal grandfather in the countryside during the summer break.
It is the first of Hou’s ‘coming-of-age’ trilogy that would later see him make A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986). For these two kids who have lived in the city for years, this annual trip allows them to be reacquainted with the village children, who bask in the sunlight, climb trees and swim in the river, activities not afforded to urban dwellers on a daily basis.
By keeping a diary, Dong Dong reveals his inner thoughts on the summer vacation, the drama unfolding with his relatives, and concerns over his ill mother in the hospital. These punctuate the film every now and then, in a sort of reflective stance that tells us from a maturing child’s perspective the joys and perils of growing up, though not all things make sense to him.
This film is inspired by screenwriter Chu Tien-wen’s childhood memories.
There are a number of interesting characters, in particular a mentally-disabled mute who performs a significant action in an extraordinary moment in the film. Dong Dong’s uncle, heavily ostracized by the patriarch of the family, is also central to the drama. In a memorable scene, he bears the brunt of his father’s anger – the latter chases him out of their house with a rod… and a train passes by.
It’s not an ordinary scene – the railway train is both a recurring visual motif and an enabler of access between urban and rural areas; it is also the last remaining symbol that adequately represents both old and new, literally bridging the two together. In addition, there’s also a sense of modernity slowly encroaching the space of the natural. A most acute example is the scene where Dong Dong, upon his arrival, trades his remote control toy car with a turtle from the village kids.
A Summer at Grandpa’s shows Hou at his warmest and most genteel, yet we also sense that, and with his next two films, he is crafting a larger narrative out of vivid memories and experiences of childhood, one that would provide a counterpoint to his next set of much more serious and mature dramas (starting with A City of Sadness (1989)) that tackle history, tradition and trauma.