“Borne aloft or sinking as the soft wind lives and dies”. There’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia to Tom Shu-yu LIN’s Winds of September, which seems to embody that strange liminality of summer’s end and autumn setting in. Beautifully paced and compellingly constructed, the film is a coming-of-age story that feels utterly real.
Yan and Tang are close friends in a tight-knit high school friendship group. United by a love of baseball, their chalk-and-cheese values and diverging personalities never seem to matter very much…until they do. Against the background of a series of corruption scandals spreading like cancer through their beloved baseball team, the sunny optimism of the boys’ youth and friendships begins inexorably to cloud over.
Yan, Tang and the others see a baseball game amidst the roar of the stands. Yan watches with huge enjoyment, beaming and on the lookout for jokes. Tang is enjoying himself too, but with a quiet intensity, registering every play. In a later scene, when the two talk baseball, it’s Tang who’s able to reel off a rostrum of players from memory; Yan is happy to nod along. Their differences that work in harmony over baseball chat and beers become something more intractable when it comes to girls and the consequences of Yan’s philandering.
In the early stages the school clique moves as one, getting in trouble together and comparing war wounds in the form of demerits. A lovely device after that first baseball game sees each boy summoned to the principle over the tannoy, with echoes of the recruiting scene from The Dirty Dozen. As each name is called we see the boys’ reactions, similar but unique: a strong start to this character-driven story of which the majority is told through the quotidian interactions of its characters. It’s what makes the portrayal of the clique, with its hidden rules and morality by negotiation, so compelling and true to life.
Thematically, the story has something in common with Monga, the film which follows a teen who gets pulled into the world of the Taiwanese mafia. There’s the same spirit of camaraderie, the same sense of morality, and the same feeling of spiralling deeper into danger. With its smaller scope and scale – the action is focused around the school or various homes – Winds of September feels both more intimate and more subtle. The third act takes a markedly darker turn as the realities of life seem to forcibly invade the boys’ lives, and the innocent misdemeanours that garnered mere demerits weeks before transmogrify into scenarios with profound consequences. Here, too, it’s the naturalistic relationships that lift the story above the melodrama of something like Monga, keeping the story relatable and the characters sympathetic.
In Katsuo Ishiguro’s powerful novel When We Were Orphans, the main character, an English detective, comes across his childhood friend in Shanghai, now a soldier for the Japanese army. What’s portrayed so affectingly is the shock of letting go, of realising that the friendship of memory has little bearing on present reality. Winds of September has that same feeling at its heart. There’s a letting go, a realisation that summer is ending and autumn’s on the way. A realisation, too, that September winds can bring times of refreshing – ushering in the new even as they spirit away the old.