Buried cash. Buried love. Buried dreams. The Time to Live and The Time to Die is a coming of age story from director Hou Hsiao-Hsien that sees three generations under one roof, all coming to terms with the idea that the Taiwan they fled to as a refuge has become their permanent home.
We meet Ah-hao as a young lad already getting himself into trouble. In an early scene, he buries a banknote he’s stolen from his mother’s purse. As the story unfolds, this petty crime becomes a metaphor for all the other things – material and otherwise – that Ah-hao has leeched from his family and buried in the ground.
The semi-autobiographical story begins in 1947 and spans the 50s – a key time in Taiwanese history, when the Nationalist army’s hopes of retaking Communist China began to die. On one level, the story is Ah-hao’s faltering journey into young adulthood. But as he grapples with life and loss, there’s a profound sense too of something greater passing away: a lost era, a lost home.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien tells his story with a lilting pace and a lingering lens . For a film with displacement at its heart, there’s a strong sense of place: a handful of locations around the sleepy town of Fengshan become repeated motifs throughout the story, evoking those childhood years where a simple tree or street corner becomes intimately familiar. Cinematographer Ping Bin Li also worked on Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and there are echoes of those dreamy textures in the lush depictions of typhoons in the balmy southern heat.
A sentimental piano score that fades in at times belies a story that , though nostalgic and sensuous, is far from saccharine. There’s an edge to the tale and an invitation to look more closely. One thing that stood out for me was the portrayal of women. Though we focus on Ah-hao, some of the most expressive and extensive dialogue is reserved for the female characters, who seem uniquely able to express the sense of regret that permeates the story. Through them, too, there’s an implied criticism of the patriarchal conventions of the era. We learn for example, that Ah-hao’s sister is not only responsible and capable, but academically bright – and a brief scene in which she laments a missed opportunity to go to a good school in the capital is one of the most moving.
In A Time to Live and A Time To Die, Hou Hsiao-hsien portrays a rapidly changing Taiwan through one town and one family. In both domains he tempers poignant nostalgia with clear-eyed reality, telling a story, rooted in a tumultuous decade in Southern Taiwan, but with universal appeal.