May 19, 2016
In Our Time – Taiwan, 1982
For the first hour, In Our Time fascinates and moves like few other films. And then it doesn’t, getting bogged down in intentionally vague conversations about a competitive event and even vaguer notions of nationalistic pride on a college campus. It’s as if the makers of the film knew that if people talked normally and actually were clear with each other, the audience would release a collective grain of incredulity. After all, when a film spends fifteen minutes keeping something hidden, the secret had better be worth the wait. Here, it is a bit of a letdown. The film then compounds this mistake by closing with a segment whose tone is so utterly inconsistent with what has come before it that it leaves a rather sour aftertaste for some time after the film’s final credits and may lesson the viewer’s overall experience.
In Our Time is a meditation on the stages of life and the influence that changing times can have upon our perceptions of culture, individuality, and identity. There are four segments, each directed by someone who was relatively new to Taiwanese cinema in 1982. None of the segments have any direct connection, and as a result, the film is the equivalent of a stack of unfinished novels, some that made me long for more and others that I couldn’t put away fast enough. The first segment, directed by Te-Chen Tao, takes place in Taiwan in the 1950s, and in it we see a picture of a family struggling to cope with their new reality. Their method of doing so involves seeing no faults in one son and no virtues in the other. The segment is powerful, shedding light on the impact of bullying and favoritism, yet also allowing viewers to see the hope that someone different can inspire. It is easily my favorite of the four segments.
In the second segment, directed by Edward Yang, the young girl from the previous segment, Hsiao-fa, has become a teenager and is pulled, as teenagers are wont to be, by the forces of individuality and sudden interest in the opposite sex. I enjoyed this segment quite a lot and admired the skills of its lead actress, who conveys a great deal with just subtle turns of the head and slight variations in her facial expression. Yang relies too heavily on flashbacks, however, often unnecessarily employing them to remind viewers of events they just saw five minutes earlier. His use of slow motion and close-ups are more effective, though, especially in a scene that focuses on Hsiao-fa’s impressions of the young college student who rents an apartment from her mother. We understand exactly what Hsiao-fa is seeing and exactly what it means that she fixates on it.
It is in the film’s third segments that I began to lose interest, although thankfully not entirely. This segment, directed by Yi-Chen Ko, fast forwards to the 1970s and focuses on a reticent, socially awkward college student (Kuo-Hsiu Li) who yearns for the opportunity to prove himself and who if he had his way would be a poet. I liked this segment’s focus on individual dreams and concepts of filial piety, and it is clear that the characters are still being torn between forging their own path in life and following the road laid out for them by their families. I was also moved by the lead character’s attempts to prove himself. Can he talk to the girl? Can he be heroic? I suspect we’ve all had thoughts like these.
The final piece, directed by Yi Chang, moves viewers into the bustling eighties, yet has very little to say about the time period itself. It opts instead to be a comic exploration of a young, modern married couple on the morning of the wife’s first day at a new job. The segment more closely resembles a slapstick short from the 1920s than a serious reminiscence upon the changes that were taking place in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and it is easily the least consequential of all of the segments.
The film stays away from any overt mention of the politics of these years. The only real mention of China occurs in the first segment, when the family is given a radio and the father is frustrated that he cannot get Chinese radio stations on it. Nothing is said about Chang Kai-shek or martial law, yet its existence can still be felt in the nationalistic undertones of the film’s third segment. Instead, the film focuses on more personal issues – on family and how lasting their impact on their children can be, on education and the results of a test-based approach to learning, and on individuality and the changing nature of culture. Viewers of Taiwanese films will not be surprised to learn that many of the film’s themes are expressed indirectly and often non-verbally. This is not a film in which characters blurt out, “Times are changing, Mom!” Rather, we hear the discordance in the film’s soundtrack, through its early frequent cuts between jazz and classical music, as if society were being pulled toward modernization and then tugged back to the safe and the familiar. The use of the Beatles’ music in the second segment demonstrates just which side won that war. We can also see this conflict in the fashions people wear in the film, for as time goes by, they become less traditional and more Western. In the third segment, we see for the first time a woman with a tattoo, just another sign of society’s ever changing nature.
The film’s directors employ many of the techniques common among films from the first wave of New Taiwanese cinema, which Wikipedia lists as being from 1982, the year In Our Times was released, to 1990. Its characters are, for the most part, realistic, and as the film moves forward, it does so without much of a resolution in sight. In fact, the film leaves viewers with many more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it closes with an image of a society that is advancing and somewhat hopeful, while at the same time resorting to tried and true notions of rules and procedures in the hope that they will enable society to remain orderly and stable. It’s an interesting end to an occasionally delightful film. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Taiwan from Central Motion Pictures)
*In Our Time is in Taiwanese and Mandarin with English subtitles. The subtitles have occasional inaccuracies.