Chen Pinghao, MA, Department of English, National Central University
A Time to Live, and a Time to Die (1985) is director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s cinematographic autobiography, telling his story as a Taiwanese person born to a waisheng family who grew up in a military dependents’ village in Fengshan, Kaohsiung. 1
The beginning of the film, narrated off-screen by Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself, tells of how his parents, a civil servant and a schoolteacher from Mei County in Guangdong, fled China after eight years of anti-Japanese resistance. Arriving in Taiwan, the family moved into a house that had been left empty when its previous, Japanese, occupants themselves fled.
Hou’s voiceover narration is full of emotion. At first we see the empty house. Then, as Hou looks back and invokes times past, suddenly it is as if he has raised the dead – we see images of his father sitting at a table reading and writing, and female relatives bustling around doing housework. Memories, stories, the dead – all are now phantoms, only responding to the ritual and mechanics of the narrative. The English title A Time to Live, and a Time to Die also implies that everything from Hou’s childhood has passed away and his recollections are inevitably haunted by apparitions. 2
The film’s three death scenes portray Hou’s own growing up and serve as a metaphor for Taiwanese waishengren. His father unexpectedly passes away during a nocturnal power cut. The portrayal of his father’s absence, which is an important motif in many of Hou’s films, explains his childhood sense of loss. One night years later, in a scene which suggests that life and death are two sides of the same coin, his mother coughs up blood and the son has a wet dream. Not long after, his mother dies of throat cancer, which also recalls another of Hou’s important films, A City of Sadness (1989), in which the character of the deaf-mute photographer stands for Taiwanese people’s lack of a voice. The deaths of his parents are a metaphor for another important topic in modern Taiwanese history: benshengren were made orphans in the 228 Massacre and waishengren were deprived of their homeland. 3
In the film, Hou’s grandmother tries again and again to “walk back home to China” but repeatedly loses her way. Her death represents the impossibility of returning to the ancestral homeland. She dies alone on a Japanese tatami and it is only days later that her corpse is discovered by her grandchildren. The children of this generation are all busy cramming for university entrance exams, falling in love, or otherwise preparing for their futures. They have lived in Taiwan all their lives and everything they care about is in Taiwan – they have already become Taiwanese.
Hou’s parents spoke Hakka, but he learned Hoklo (Taiwanese) in his youth, singing Taiwanese songs and getting into scraps in temple squares – scenes which would later find their way into his internationally acclaimed Taiwan Story Trilogy (A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women). All of these works subtly point to the complex and multi-faceted history that served as a backdrop to Hou’s childhood and enable the director to reflect on important aspects of Taiwanese history.
1Waisheng (literally “other province”) is used to refer to Chinese people who came to Taiwan in the late 1940s and early 1950s and their descendants. By contrast, bensheng indicates people whose families have lived in Taiwan for generations, often several hundred years. Military dependents’ villages are communities which were built in Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s and whose original purpose was to (provisionally) house waisheng soldiers and their families.
2The Chinese title is童年往事: literally, “the past events of childhood.”
3Waishengren and benshengren are the corresponding nouns for waisheng and bensheng. Ren means “person.”
|Related Literary Themes：||Writings from Military Dependents’ Villages|