Time to Live, a Time to Die, A (1985)

Hou’s autobiographical film is a potent tearjerker and a vivid portrayal of life lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s in rural Taiwan.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
1985 | Taiwan | Drama | 138 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin & Hakka
M18 (passed clean) for coarse language

Cast: Chang Chia-bao, Chang Neng, Chen Chih-Chen, Tang Ru-Yun
Plot: This depiction of childhood and adolescence draws heavily from the filmmaker’s own boyhood. Like many of their compatriots, Hou’s family moved from the mainland to Taiwan in 1948 and was unable ever to return.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize – Forum of New Cinema (Berlin); Won 2 Golden Horse Awards – Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay. Nom. for 4 Golden Horse Awards – Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Sound
Source: Central Motion Picture Corporation

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #1,294

(Reviewed at the Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective – first published 28 Apr 2016)

Spoilers: No

The first outstanding work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s career, after impressing with his breakthrough, The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), and his beloved early classic, A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), A Time to Live, a Time to Die signals a more mature approach to his filmmaking. 

It is in some way a deeper film about life lived, yet also retaining the naturalistic photography and earnest drama of his preceding works. The film centers on a family from the point-of-view of Ah-Hsiao, a young boy who lives with his parents, siblings and an old grandmother. 

Meant to be autobiographical, Hou’s work is a personal recollection of the bygone days of childhood and his transition into a young man who mixes with small-time gangsters in his precinct.

Ah-Hsiao is rather distant from his father, but less so towards his mother.  His grandma (played by Tang Ru-Yun in a Golden Horse-winning supporting performance) is especially affectionate towards him, and in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, they embark on a day trip on foot to the Mainland to pay respects to their ancestors, picking guavas along the way.

Later in an extraordinary moment, in all of her aged years, the grandmother attempts to (and successfully) juggle three guavas.  Her grandson then follows suit. 

These are very straightforward scenes, yet they somehow tug at our heartstrings because all of us have that one treasured memory with our grandparent.

While it is a potent tearjerker for a number of reasons, A Time to Live, a Time to Die best captures ’50s and ’60s rural Taiwan in evocative light, and also the troubling social reality marked by street gangs. 

This bridging of two essential Hou themes––nostalgia and problematic, disenfranchised youths continue to permeate some of his later works such as A City of Sadness (1989) and Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) respectively.

With standout performances and a poignant use of music, A Time to Live, a Time to Die is a classic of the Taiwanese New Cinema, and one of Hou’s most cherished works.

Grade: A




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