A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1986), Hou Hsiao-hsien's autobiographically informed film about the favorite son of a Chinese family that relocates to Taiwan after Mao's ascension, is episodic in narrative and personal in scale, but organized structurally around a brave and surprising question: What kind of person were you at the time of your parents' deaths? Ah-ha, Hou's surrogate in the film (which recently screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Taiwanese survey), is a rambunctious elementary-schooler in the first hour, which climaxes with his father's death of chronic asthma, and a lazy, cocky, somewhat Westernized teen caught up with gangs as his mother ails in the second hour. The two primary young actors are revelatory, and well-directed: Hou observes their easy athletic confidence, and catches them in isolated flashes of anguish over their acutely, barely fathomed awareness of the hopes held for their so far incomplete lives.
In one scene, teenaged Ah-ha wakes up from a wet dream, washes his shorts and, returning to bed, finds his mother, sobbing by lamplight as she writes her eldest daughter to tell her she may have cancer. It's a great, confused moment, the interruption of a (very) private, internal daily worry with heavy, objective consequence, and it gets at the almost unbearable present tense in which relationships, even our closest and most lasting, are transacted.
One moment in time, when father is still alive: Ah-ha and his brother carry the mail in to him, and wait, standing by his desk as he, smiling silently and indulgently, cuts the stamps off the envelopes. In the living room now, albums of stamps open on the table, the boys drop their collection's new additions into a pot to boil the glue off, then stick them to the window to dry. As water drips off, droplets carving trails in the steamy glass over their shoulders, Hou cuts in for a close-up of the stamps stuck to the window—and then, after a few slow seconds, another cut: Ah-ha's class, in uniforms and in rows, facing down a long shot and holding in their fidgets (while schoolmates run past on the very edge of the frame), waiting for the click of their class photo.
This single, simple edit is astonishing in its breadth, and seems to me to be one of those glimmers of pure clarity when a movie nods as if to say: Yes. Of course. This is why we're here, you and I, because this is what we can do.
Hou moves from an idle afternoon, defined by elusive sense memory and then, literally, evaporating, to the official record of a year of childhood—the picture meant, somehow, to fix all these disposable impressions in time, like stamps in an album, impossibly evocative. In a movie captivated by the ephemeral—the way Ah-ha hops over his fence into his yard; games of marbles and baseball; gang disputes over obscure fights; a walk picking guavas with granny; the way certain locations, like the house and the courtyard and the gate and the tree across the road, change over time—the cut from a couple of stamps drying out on a fogged-up window, to school picture day, puts the fleeting and the impressionistic next to the collective and definitive, exposing the inner workings of remembering and describing the good fight against forgetting that all movies fight—and maybe this one especially. When the camera's shutter finally opens and shuts on Ah-ha's class, Hou inserts a white-bordered, sepia-faded class photo. But the students are standing in front of trees, not their school—it isn't the photo his cast was posing for. Is it Hou's own?