(Originally posted on 12/12/03)
The Time to Live and the Time to Die is the first film I've seen by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and it strikes me as a near-masterpiece. A challenging, immensely moving semi-autobiographical portrait of two decades in the life of a Chinese family displaced from mainland China to Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s, the film is, in certain respects, reminiscent of the Italian neorealism movement and the work of Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu. Hou favors long, unbroken takes and unintrusive master shots (i.e. wide shots that capture the entire scene from start to finish) that turn his film's action -- mostly made up of mundane events such as people washing the floor and kids playing in the street -- into beautifully naturalistic snapshots of everyday life. Yet while the film shares with its aforementioned cinematic predecessors both a relaxed, fly-on-the-wall immediacy and emphasis on detail and mood over melodramatic action, Hou's gorgeously sweeping camera and ethereal editing -- which blends scenes together with dreamy, almost subconscious grace -- are all his own.
The film focuses on second-oldest son Ah-ha (based, in part, on Hou), who moves with his family first to Taiwan to escape the communists, and then from North Taiwan to the South to accommodate his father's debilitating asthma. The film's cheery first half, which charmingly depicts the family's inter-personal relationships, soon segues into heartrending turmoil as both parents die and Ah-ha becomes a delinquent. Hou's cinematographic style lends the film an air of isolation, especially when it comes to the family's father -- shots of the ailing man amidst his temporary wicker furniture elegantly symbolize the disjunction between the characters and their new environment. Yet despite its sadness, the film conveys an overpowering sense of nostalgia through its clear-eyed presentation of Ah-ha's maturation. The increasingly delusional grandmother repeatedly gets lost trying to find a bridge from her native home, and a scene featuring her and Ah-ha juggling fruit in the afternoon sun while pretending to be back on the mainland reveals a deft balance between humor and wistfulness. The free-flowing narrative structure sometimes makes it easier to connect emotionally to specific moments rather than the characters themselves, but The Time to Live and the Time to Die is, in the end, much more than the sum of its parts.