Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review - The Boys from Fengkuei

June 12, 2014

The Boys from Fengkuei – Taiwan, 1983

There is sometimes timeless about Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 1983 film The Boys from Fengkuei (a.k.a. All the Youthful Days). The film is about four restless Taiwanese youths trying to find their place in the world and not entirely succeeding at it, yet the tale the film weaves could have taken place in any country at any time in history, for when have there not been young men who opted out of the social contract that the majority of their peers accepted? The central characters in Hou’s film are young men whose mornings are spent in pool halls and morning markets instead of school and who are more concerned about their small circle of friends than they are about their futures. These kinds of characters have been the focus of films since the beginnings of cinema itself, yet The Boys from Fengkuei avoids the trappings of many other films in its genre. There are no gunfights, no rising up the ranks of the criminal world, no great love affair to warm a criminal’s hardened heart. Instead, we get a much more realistic film, one focusing on human frailties and the pursuit of life’s eternal intangibles – hope, understanding, belonging, and love.

The young boys begin the film on Penghu, an island to the west of central Taiwan. In a series of vignettes, we see the four of them go about their everyday routine – billiards, watching movies they didn’t pay for, hanging out in markets, and getting into fights in which they are often the aggressors and have an unfair advantage. One of these incidents puts a man in the hospital, and the four flee to a small rundown home near the sea. There, they pass the time by playing jokes on each other, making fools of themselves in front of a young woman, and talking about the future. In one respect, the four of them are like other young people in rural settings – They too envision themselves moving to the city and getting high-paying jobs. To them, the city also holds the promise of a new beginning and a better life. They are just too young to know that this isn’t always the case.

The Boys from Fengkuei was made at a time when many newer and younger Taiwanese directors were striving to produce films that demonstrated a sense of realism. Therefore, many movies from this time are about everyday people in extremely plausible situations, perhaps on the assumption that, like Italian and Japanese moviegoers, Taiwanese audiences were also eager to see themselves sincerely portrayed on the silver screen. The Boys from Fengkuei is a good example of one of these films. The film does not have a plot in a strict sense of the word, and it avoids the clichéd, predictable elements of its foreign counterparts. Therefore, it is not striving to produce the kind of happy ending or reaffirmation of traditional values that many of its predecessors had. Like the protagonists in Hou’s Dust in the Wind, Three Times, and Flowers of Shanghai, the main characters in The Boys from Fengkuei get endings that ring true for people in their situation, even if they are not the ones audiences necessarily wish for them.

Eventually, three of the young boys find their way to Kaohsiung, a city that in 1983 was developing, but not fully developed, and it is this city that completes their maturation. The film is primarily concerned with Ching-Tzu (Doze Niu), who, more than any one else, takes advantage of the opportunities that his new surroundings afford him. Along his journey, he meets a young lady named Hsiao-Hsing (Lin Hsiao-Ling), who is in a relationship that is nearing its inevitable end. He falls in love for the first time; she thinks of him as a friend. Things like this happen in the real world. Ching-Tzu finds a job, but it is far from glamorous and offers very little chance of advancement. Things like this happen, too. And unlike earlier Taiwanese films (and more recent ones) in which characters who had to choose between family and individual happiness almost always chose family, The Boys of Fengkuei seems intent on breaking stereotypes of family unity and everlasting bonds. In one sad and frustrating scene, we watch as Ching-Tzu returns home only to find that his family sees him as the same troubled boy, one incapable of making sensible decisions or staying out of trouble. In a way, Hou’s film is reminiscent of those of Yasujiro Ozu, which often depicted the dissolution of families rather than holding them up in their much more idealized form. Here, Ching’s only means of making it is to break from tradition and set out on his own.

The Boys of Fengkuei remains an important and fascinating film. It has strong characters that we pull for, and a cast that is a joy to watch. And the film ends in a way that perhaps only the most skillful and thought-provoking of directors could think of ending it. It cuts away from its lead characters and focuses on a series of older market vendors, many of them with hunched backs and hats covering their faces to block out the sun. All of them look as if life has utterly exhausted them. It is as if Hou is forcing us to wonder: Is this what awaits the boys from Fengkuei? (on DVD in Asia)

3 and a half stars

*The Boys from Fengkuei is in Taiwanese and Mandarin with English subtitles. The subtitles (not from the disc pictured above) are less than perfect.

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