The history of Taiwan in the 20th Century is a tumultuous one, marked by Japanese occupation and a contentious relationship with mainland China. Such a dramatic backdrop seems an unlikely breeding ground for films that are distinguished by their studied introspection, formal precision, and empathetic humanism, but thus are the contradictions of Taiwan, and the New Taiwanese Cinema of the 1980s. We revisit the Taiwanese New Wave with three significant early works by master filmmaking Hou Hsiao-hsien, which survey a rapidly changing Taiwanese society. All three films screened on 35mm prints courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

A Time to Live, a Time to Die

This deeply autobiographical film was inspired by Hou’s childhood, as his family migrated to Taiwan, fleeing the Chinese Civil War. A Time to Live and a Time to Die chronicles a childhood and adolescence in rural Taiwan, and the struggle to adapt to a new society and its expectations and rituals, while also learning about life and death. Hou observes the passing of the years with an unhurried realism, finding profound meaning in the small gestures of everyday life.

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Dust in the Wind

Hou continued to mine an autobiographical vein in his next film, set in an impoverished village. Dust in the Wind charts the development of a high school romance, interrupted by years of forced military service. Hou continues to develop the stately long take visuals and elliptical storytelling that would become his directorial hallmarks, in this keenly-felt story of loneliness and regret.

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A City of Sadness

Hou’s early career is capped by this masterpiece, A City of Sadness. Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (best known for his later collaborations with Wong Kar-wai) bears mute witness as his family becomes embroiled in street level crime, anti-government uprisings, and the resultant Kuomintang crackdowns in the years after the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Set in back-room gambling parlours and hospital hallways, Hou’s visuals have rarely been more beautiful, as he ambitiously evokes the epic sweep of history.

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Yi Yi: A One and a Two

Following our Hou Hsiao Hsien season, we now celebrate the end of the Cinémathèque year with the final film from another major artist of the Taiwanese New Wave, the sadly missed Edward Yang. Like A City of Sadness, Yi Yi is filmmaking on an epic scale, interweaving the stories of several generations of a Taiwanese family living in present-day Taiwan. Over the course of three hours, Yang touches on the thrill of new love, the shock of sudden ailment, the tensions between modernity and tradition, and the rituals that bind families together. A life affirming film delivered with good humour and grace, and spanning the full range of human emotion, Yi Yi is tinged with the sadness of Yang’s premature death.

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