The Time to Live and the Time to Die

An elegy of life and death, and everything in between.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die is one of the most intimately touching stories I have ever seen. Influenced by Hou’s own adolescence it chronicles a young boy growing up in provincial Taiwan. We share glimpses from his life- the innocence of childhood, the seemingly increased complexities encroaching youth and running vicariously into petty turf wars with an uncaring attitude. The intensity of the film is not in what Hou shows, but in what he doesn’t. Perhaps, the work of a great artist finds it sublimity in not just including shots to grab our attention. Hou strips down each scene to its bare essentials and lets it linger on the screen for us to inhabit that space and time.

Rain plays an important part in deriving emotions throughout the film. Although Hou admits having never seen a Ozu film before A Dust in the Wind, some scenes vividly recall to mind, rainy scenes from a Ozu film. Consider the long conversation scene between Ah Hsiao’s (Hou’s filmic counterpart) mother and elder sister before his sister’s engagement. It is a static medium wide shot, taken from the ledge outside the house to the interiors. Their faces are distant, yet we feel a warm plethora of emotions. She shares moments from her life- marriage, the responsibility of a mother, a secret affair she had concealed from everyone and the premature death of her second daughter. It is almost as if she is passing on her experiences like a wise monk to her protégé, before liberating herself to another realm.

The film plays into several such moments. On a sultry afternoon, Ah Hsiao and his grandmother walk on their way to the mainland. They find a guava tree and to her utter delight collects guavas with childlike enthusiasm. I find it immensely sentimental, for the fact, when I was of his age, I was closest to my grandmother. The scene has an uncanny similarity with one of my most precious moments in life. Like in the film, it was a mildly humid afternoon when we strolled at a place near her house. We found, to our surprise a bunch of green mangoes rolling beneath the tree. We picked up as many as we could and shared a good laugh about it. No words come close to explaining my feelings to this day when I remember her smile that afternoon at the sheer joy of discovering a few abandoned fruits.

A Time to Live, A Time to Die can alternatively be deemed a silent film. The few conversations that exist could have been done without. They exist not to bridge information gaps in the narrative. Rather, they are veritable reflections of Hou’s own experience. However, it can be said that the dialogues suggestively reproduce a slice from that place and time. All the emotions are essentially drawn from its visuals and sound. Edward Yang’s Taipei Story stimulated within me a sense of desolate pervasiveness amid a dense urban population. Hou’s Prometheus feature evokes an emotion, fundamentally different to it, yet with further scrutiny I find him to be exacting the same instruments to construct scenes. We hear the chatters and humdrum from the town folks in a leisurely pace, engaging in desultory conversations. The music is incredibly buoyant, evocative of a strong feeling of childhood and nostalgia. Reconstructing the fleeting times of dull, humid summer afternoons in rural Taiwan, it induces a ruminating state of suspending memoirs.

Films above all are extremely personal associations. When we fall in love with a film, it is because it establishes a strong connection within, bounded primarily by emotions. Therefore, we unsurprisingly find very few films that carry us past the horizon, until it recedes, thinning into a line. I watch quite a lot of movies round the year and I always find something to take away from each film. Most of them are structured though, with characters- protagonists and antagonists that seek a resolution to their conflict propelled by dramatic actions.

A Time to Live, A Time to Die doesn’t have a well-defined goal, neither has it been written keeping in mind the traditional dictums of a screenplay. It is about the growing experiences of a boy constantly torn between the past and the present, life and death, animosity and empathy as he learns to live. By the time the film prepares to draw curtains, he has begun to understand himself, if only a little. Then it becomes his time to move on to the next phase, to know what it means to live, and to know what it shall mean- to die!

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