Sunday, May 29, 2011

In Private

A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985)/ Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Hou-Hsien Hsiao’s 1985 breakthrough A Time to Live, and a Time To Die, is an immensely fascinating film, because while it is about a period in the life of a Taiwanese rural family, it is rather unwilling to give out specific details about what the family members are upto. As a result, most of the primary action takes place in quarters strictly concealed from the audience view: a lot of people die but no one is shown dying, a lot of people move away but no one is shown leaving, the lead’s first sexual encounter is only suggested at, and a lot of the gang-wars in the film are carried out in private. Whenever, infact, violence breaks out, the characters participating in its conduct run and disappear into the far background of the screen by the way of the narrow bylanes that run between houses. Consequently, you never ‘see’ violence – but you are always aware of its repercussions. This approach towards the portrayal of violence, as a perfectly palpable and ubiquitous emotion, but never visible, or even tangible, has since become typical of Hou’s films. This approach that treats violence as a perfectly sanctimonious act that must only be described in mythical terms, and never be allowed to assume a concrete nature is completely opposite to the American, and therefore, the Hollywood way of dealing with it. The American approach is to ‘show’ violence, while Hou’s is to suggest it. 

Hou’s treatment of violence in the film spreads out to all other ‘action’ as well – his film is not interested in ‘showing’ the cause as much as it is in showing the effect. People die, yes, but more important that the precise event of their death is the immediate influence of it on the family members that remain – an approach that is generally traceable to the neo-realists, who were the first professors of a reaction shot over a shot, and specifically to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, where incidents are not as essential as the telling of how they shaped up those that were affected by them. As a result, even if Hou does follow the life of a family for years, he is not a voyeur, because his camera (at a now legendary observational distance) is patient enough to let the family detail its own truth, rather than attempting, through intrusion, an excavation of another one.

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