A Summer at Grandpa's

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Play Time Is Over
Leo Goldsmith on A Summer at Grandpa's

Observation—and particularly learning how to observe—is a theme of Hou Hsiao-hsien's cinema, right up to his most recent film, Flight of the Red Balloon. From the child's (and our own) patient attention to the balloon's movements in the film's first scene to a brief lecture on Félix Vallotton's 1899 painting The Ball at the Musée d’Orsay at its close, Hou offers talking points for a discussion of what we see and how we make sense of it, often from a limited perspective (or that of a child), in much that same way he has done since the early 1980s. Overt narration, psychologically revealing close-ups, and expository dialogue are all but eschewed in this style, and at the end of Flight, when a teacher delivers her lesson in art appreciation, calling her students' attention to light, color, depth of field, and perspective, we might just as well be hearing a lesson in the appreciation of the film we're watching. As Simon spies the wandering balloon through the museum's skylight, his classmates comment upon the painting's possible meanings, the spatial and thematic relationships between the people and objects within it, and the particular mood ("a little bit happy, a little bit sad") that it evokes. But of course it is real life, as disorganized and banal, happy and sad as it may be, that Hou most wants us to scrutinize, to piece together with the curiosity and innocence of a child.

In this way, so much of the plot and meaning of Hou's films comes not through exposition but inference, a tendency that yields a certain kind of obliquity—mundane but puzzling, low-key but sometimes frustrating—in each of his films since 1983's The Boys from Fengkuei. With that film, Hou's now characteristic style began to take shape, relating the titular boys' passage from country to city with an episodic structure and a hands-off realism in its performances that are now his trademarks. But it is in many ways his subsequent film, A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), that fully crystallizes this inferential narrative mode. Like Flight of the Red Balloon, it follows events in the lives of the story's adult characters from a child's limited point of view, demanding that the spectator alone make sense of what's onscreen, just as the young protagonist does. The child's slow education becomes an allegory for the process of gradual understanding in which the viewer engages.

Despite the fact that children figure centrally in only a handful of Hou's films, his experience with them, as actors and as characters, played an important role in the early figuration of his style. It was while working with a child actor during the production of The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983) that he first allowed his actors to improvise their dialogue, a practice he continues today. This method has enabled Hou to coax more naturalistic performances out of professional and nonprofessionals alike, and it has subsequently had far-reaching effects on Hou's filmmaking as a whole, demanding longer takes to allow for cohesion in the actors' work. And it is this practice, among others, that aligned Hou's style (however inadvertently) with a kind of international neorealist movement and defined it in opposition to his commercial contemporaries in the moribund, constrictive Taiwanese film industry of the early and mid-1980s, which mandated short-takes and tight shooting schedules as a means of conserving expensive film stock. (For a more extensive look at Hou's early career, see James Udden’s article "Taiwanese Popular Cinema and the Strange Apprenticeship of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” from Modern Chinese Literature and Culture.

In A Summer at Grandpa's, Hou uses the techniques he developed in his earlier work with young actors to create an entire narrative following two child protagonists as they learn about the complexities and problems of adulthood. Based on the childhood experience of Hou's frequent collaborator, Chu T'ien-wen, the film follows Tung-tung and his sister, Ting-ting, as they are sent to the country home of their mother’s father while their mother lies ill in hospital. (Curiously, A Summer at Grandpa's resembles no film so much as Hayao Miyazaki's anime classic, My Neighbor Totoro, made only four years later. Japanese critics and audiences were among the first to recognize Hou's work, as early as the mid-1980s.) Shot in a summer palette of greens and blues, and everywhere evoking the gentleness of nostalgic pastoralism, Hou's film subtly demonstrates how the violence, desire, and strife of living, thinly veiled by the conventions of adult society, are nonetheless impressed on the protagonists.

In the film's prelude, we watch what appears to be documentary footage of a young girl delivering something like a valedictorian speech, earnestly but ritualistically declaring the joys of her school and the wistfulness she feels in leaving it. This seemingly unrelated sequence offhandedly foreshadows the film’s theme of innocence rapidly dwindling with the vicissitudes of life, and soon we see brother and sister whisked away from the complications of the city by their young uncle, Chang-ming, and his girlfriend, Pi-yun. These guardians, themselves only in their young twenties, irresponsibly leave their charges stranded on a train headed into the countryside, but Tung-tung and Ting-ting calmly endure without trouble, soon befriending local children of the village and making their way fortuitously to Grandpa's house.

Immediately, Hou suggests a contrast between city and country, emblematized in the competition between Tung-tung's radio-controlled car and the turtle that belongs to the local boys he meets. First and foremost in Tung-tung's journey to the countryside is the suggestion, reinforced in later films like A Time to Live and a Time to Die and The Puppetmaster, of a new generation's connection to its elders, both in terms of the native rural traditions of the island itself and its pre-1949 roots on the mainland. As June Yip notes, in her book Envisioning Taiwan, this theme of the contrast between urban and the rural spaces positions Hou's early work in line with the hsiang-t'u (literally "the soil") movement in Taiwanese literature of the Sixties and Seventies, and therefore at odds with then-popular trends in commercial filmmaking: the escapist romance and fantasy in Hollywood and Hong Kong filmmaking, and the more propagandist dictates of mainstream Taiwanese filmmaking, which sought to reconstruct the master narrative of the island as the Republic of China. But Hou's approach to this dualism of past and future, country and city, is far from simplistic, and the film dovetails neatly with The Boys from Fengkuei, which follows an opposite trajectory, from a small fishing village to the port city of Kaohsiung. His "country" films do not simply evoke bucolic nostalgia; they are about the intersection of the rural and the urban (or the past and the future) in modern Taiwanese life. In both The Boys from Fengkuei and A Summer at Grandpa's, the dichotomies of past/future or of country/city are not quite opposed or contentious, rather they are in dialogue, and this dialogue is part of a broader debate about Taiwan's modernization (and, in Hou's later work, its globalization).

Thus, while the city is associated with the mother's illness at the film's outset, the country holds its own hazards, both contemporary and timeless: violent crime, mental illness, pregnancy, family quarrels. Tung-tung and a pack of his friends follow the local birdcatcher through the fields around the village, and it is their interest in his wicker bird-trap—and not his molestation of a mentally ill young woman named Han-tzu—that initially commands their attention. Tung-tung plays billiards (another Hou staple of the period) with his uncle, but Chang-ming is interested in flirting with Pi-yun, whom we later learn has become pregnant. Tung-tung and his friends witness a brutal roadside robbery committed by thugs who later turn out to be Chang-ming's friends. Again and again, we learn about the often serious problems of the adult characters through Hou's style of indirect narration, focalized through Tung-tung's innocent perspective.

It is only when Chang-ming is ignominiously expelled from Grandpa's house for impregnating Pi-yun out of wedlock that Tung-tung starts to become an active participant in the narrative, and not simply an underprivileged observer or eavesdropper into an adult world. Unlike his sister Ting-ting, who is still too young to fully comprehend the problems around her (she innocently mimics her mother's hospital stay by pretending to administer an injection to her stuffed rabbits buttock using a parsnip for a syringe), Tung-tung is eventually forced to grapple with complex issues. With Chang-ming ostracized, Tung-tung becomes his uncle's only link to the rest of the family and the only relative to attend Chang-ming's rushed wedding to Pi-yun.

During the ceremony, echoing the platitudes about youth and education evinced by the young student in the film's prologue, the officiator extols the interconnected virtues of family, matrimony, and the nation: “Family is the foundation of our society . . . Our ancestors told us the order of the world starts from the order of a family." Tung-tung may be too young to note the irony of this statement in the face of his own family's dissolution, but though still a child, he is beginning to learn to communicate his feelings and interpretations in the letters he writes to his parents, even if they sometimes overwhelm him. “So many things happen each day that I can't keep track,” he tells them. “I'll tell you later if they come back to my mind.” As spectators, we are often similarly overwhelmed, but Hou's film places demands on our powers of observation, insisting that we, like Tung-tung, attend to the minutiae, ironies, and deeper meanings it offers us.