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A Summer at Grandpaís (Hou Hsiao-hsien) 1984

   

    Hou Hsiao-hsienís easygoing but heartfelt tale A Summer at Grandpaís is astutely told from a childlike point of view without falling into any of the pitfalls that hamper most movies with young protagonists. Following Ting-Ting and Tung-Tung, a preteen brother and sister who must leave Taipei to live with their grandparents in the country one summer after their mother takes ill, the film has mature themes present, but in presenting them it never sacrifices the innocence that the children possess. Talk about topics like abortion and armed robbery is frequent, but itís the scenes where the children interact with each other that seem the most exciting, perhaps because so few films take delight in something as simple as watching children at play. When mature themes do arise, itís usually through snippets of overheard dialogue that the children only partly comprehend. Ting-Ting writes letters back home to his ailing parents that express his frustration that the motivations of the adults donít make more sense, but Hou doesnít leave the audience in the dark. His camera lingers after then children leave, giving us information that the children arenít privy to. Instead of using his technique to distance his audience from the action, as he often opts to in his later films, the directorís tone here is inclusive and warm. There are hints at the panning, master-shot dominated style that would later come to define Houís distinctive work, but mostly his direction is more conventional in Grandpaís. Houís relative invisibility serves the story, however, allowing the mood, pretty scenery, and accomplished naturalistic performances to take center stage.

   

    Although Hou never feels it necessary to burden Grandpaís with melodramatic affectation, he still manages to convey the sense of confused hurt that Ting-Ting and Tung-Tung feel. His attention to the nuances in their behavior, such as the way that the boys rebuff Tung-Tung, adding to her loneliness, tells the audience much about the hurt that the kids feel and their inability to articulate it. What most centers the filmís point of view as a childlike one, however, is the way that the moods that come and go are rather superficial, even if theyíre felt intensely. These kids are sometimes depressed, but they arenít really introspective. Their most ardent attention is focused on whatever is happening the moment. When things go wrong for them, everything is awful, but when the ordeal is over, their tone perks up. Lessons are learned, but not every event in the film is a paradigm-altering one. Including that youthful lack of an emotional attention span is perceptive and makes the kids much more believable than they would be if Hou had chosen to give them a more conventional, adult character arc. Few filmmakers seem as adept as Hou is here at showing both the complexities of being a child stuck in an adult world and the childhood pleasures of being able to totally isolate oneself from that world with blithe insularity.

   

    Perhaps itís because their stories are being told in such close proximity to a childís point of view, but some of the adults in A Summer at Grandpaís seem to act with the same sort of short-temperedness and poor judgment that is usually associated with kids. Hou points out that parental concerns donít stop once a child reaches adulthood in a subplot that deals with Ting-Tingís irresponsible uncle. Heís shown sneaking around behind his fatherís back, acting without considering consequence, and talking to Ting-Ting more casually than any other adult character. His tendency toward rash behavior, especially when contrasted with Grandpaís tendency toward the opposite, suggests that maturity isnít something that automatically arrives with adulthood, but instead something that is present in some adult actions, but not others. That Grandpa himself even lapses into a petulant fit or two is indicative of Houís fundamentally humane unwillingness to present any unassailable model for behavior. The introduction of Tung-Tungís makeshift maternal figure, a wandering retarded woman, only further explores this belief that childlike moments exist in all adults, and itís that theme that most ably justifies the filmís point of view in a film intended for adult audiences. A Summer at Grandpaís sees the moments where Ting-Ting steps up to adult understanding as actions that are just as thoughtfully considered as the ones where the adults resolve their problems, and similarly suggests that their lapses of maturity are equitable.

 

* * * * 

11-21-02 

Jeremy Heilman