(Originally posted on 12/19/03)
"What can we do?" asks an aged grandfather in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 1986 critical hit Dust in the Wind, a meditative film about one teenage Taiwanese couple's journey from their rural hometown to the city. The old man's question, spoken solemnly while sitting alone on the steps of his house, articulates the film's fixation on man's inability to halt the forward march of time. Wan and Huen are childhood sweethearts who, seeing the limited opportunities of their small town lives, move to Taipei, where Wan gets a job working at a printing press and Huen finds a position at a tailor's shop. The two seem ill at ease with their new surroundings, and Hou -- interested in criticizing the burgeoning urban migration movement -- uses deep-focus master shots that feature disharmonious spatial organizations (such as whenever Wan speaks to Huen at work through iron metal bars) to illustrate Wan and Heun's isolation, desperation, and increasing despondence. When Wan discovers that his motorcycle has been stolen and attempts to steal another despite Huen's objections, the sight is one of abject moral degradation.
Recurrent images of watches/clocks and forward-moving trains -- including breathtaking first-person shots from the front and rear of a locomotive -- highlight the theme of time's inevitable progression. Although Wan's failure to make it in the big city leads to thoughts of suicide, he eventually returns home for a brief visit, only to learn that he's been drafted by the National Army to serve a two-year stint on an island off the coast of mainland China. A touching farewell meal with his father, in which the regularly drunken patriarch lights his son's cigarette and then gives him the lighter as a gift, serves as Wan's ceremonial entrance into adulthood. After his letters to Huen are returned, Wan learns that she has married a postman in his absence. In a gorgeous final tableau, Wan, his family, Huen and her husband are frozen in profile, and the image represents Hou's final attempt to stop the inexorable progress of human life and, specifically, the quickening pace of urban migration. Such a goal is dubious at best -- the director's characterization of the countryside as bucolic and the city as malignant is ludicrously simplistic -- but Hou's intense sympathy for rural communities in the face of modernization, as well as his sorrow over Wan and Huen's decimated affair, is nonetheless anguishing.