December 11, 2014
A Summer at Grandpa’s – Taiwan, 1984
Ah, a cinematic trip to Grandfather’s house. What else could be better for young children? After all, what kid wouldn’t want to spend their summer vacation frolicking in the countryside far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and its never-ending barrage of illumination, clamor, and technology? The answer to this rhetorical question is of course most children, but the grandparents in these movies have nothing to fear. By time the credits start rolling, the child in question will no doubt utter those predictable sentiments, “This was the best summer of my life!” Such a remarkable turnaround is often accompanied by a second epiphany, “My grandparents aren’t that bad after all.” This is the script that most films with set-ups similar to that of Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s A Summer at Grandpa’s follow, yet Hou is not content to stick with the formula.
A Summer at Grandpa’s is about two young children, Tung-Tung (Chi-Kuang Wang) and Ting-Ting (Shu-chen Li), who are sent to spend some time with their grandparents in southern Taiwan. The script for films of this sort calls for these two youngsters to be deviants, but here they are simply regular kids coping with complex emotions and occasion bouts of insensitivity. In the film’s opening scene, we watch as their mother dispenses a series of instructions for them, and instead of rolling their eyes or protesting, they listen intently and nod to show that they understand and will try to comply. Curiously, the instructions continue for some time, and the scene becomes slightly uncomfortable to watch. There is a reason for this – the children’s mother is in the hospital and clearly afraid that she may be speaking to her children face to face for the last time. The children cannot know this of course, but the tone of their mother’s voice seems to relate to them the gravity of the moment if not the reasons behind it.
And so off to the countryside the children go. They are escorted by their somewhat immature uncle, who doesn’t seem to grasp the severity of his sister’s condition and whose own immaturity causes him nothing but trouble later on. He is the kind of likeable character who somehow always finds a way to make a bad situation unintentionally worse; however, Hou has a degree of empathy for the character, as if he understands the code that he lives by and the unfortunate thought process that precedes the actions he takes.
As one would expect, the countryside is outwardly beautiful, with its lush, green landscapes, stunning views of nature, and idyllic country life, and for a moment, Hou lulls us into a false sense of security, into an outdated and stereotypical way of thinking about secluded areas such as this. It helps that the children make friends almost immediately and that they feel no sense of danger after a mix-up at a train station. In fact, what takes place reinforces the notion that the countryside is an area replete with security and community.
Over the course of the summer, however, the siblings will have to cope with the specter of death; the existence of violence, greed, and sexual assault; and the fear and irrationality that can come when one’s future security seems uncertain. Not all of these things are obvious to the two children, but there is no doubt that they affect their interactions with the adults around them. The film has lighter moments of course. One particularly memorable one involves a trip to the river and a minor act of revenge that brought a smile to my face. I also admired the way the film often explains a character through the children’s limited viewpoints and then shatters these notions completely. Childhood can be like that.
It is not always easy to balance scenes that draw on the innocence of childhood with ones with more serious content, and many films have faltered as a result of a director’s inability to find the right balance. Hou, for the most part, succeeds. He does this partly by presenting events from two points of view. First, Hou presents things from the children’s perspective. We see their joy and hear their wonderful interactions, while also observing their reactions when society’s darker elements come into view. In one frightening moment, we watch as a group of children come across a crime in progress, and we see the shock and fear on their faces. Clearly, they are not used to seeing such things. Simultaneously, Hou allows us to see events through the eyes of the adults, most often the grandparents, who provide the film’s somewhat imperfect moral compass. These characters are not always right, and in several key moments, their words only add to other people’s hurt and pain; however, they deliver the kind of messages that their two grandchildren will reflect back on in time and understand the importance of. It is a reminder that the right message can be delivered by people who make their fair share of mistakes.
A Summer at Grandpa’s is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It is a film filled with memorable moments and realistic, sympathetic characters. It is of course not these characters’ entire story, but that is acceptable. We see enough of their lives for us to feel confident that they are on their way to the next stage of their lives somewhat wiser and much more prepared for whatever life has in store for them. In truth, this is one of my favorite kinds of films, and A Summer at Grandpa’s is one of the favorites of Mr. Hou’s many splendid creations. (on DVD in Region 3)
*A Summer at Grandpa’s is in Taiwanese and Mandarin with English subtitles.