June 2, 2016
Growing Up – Taiwan, 1983
Kun-Hou Chen’s Growing Up begins with a scene that is quietly powerful. In it, we watch as two young ladies walk along the beach, one talkative, the other silent. There is no audio in the scene, and it seems as if the film is trying to say that this moment is for them – it is theirs to use to open up in ways that perhaps they can’t if they know someone is listening. As the scene progresses, tears begin to stream down the quiet one’s face. Soon we see her reach for the hand of the young child who has until then been further up from them, fascinated by a group of elderly people combing the sands in search of either litter or coins. The exact conversation will remain a mystery for the remainder of the film, yet its highlights become clear in the very next scene, when we watch as the quiet one, revealed in the scene to be a single mother named Hsiu-Ying, accepts the wedding proposal of a man named Ta-Shun Bi, who appears more than a bit older than his prospective bride. Most of the time, a moment like this would be joyful; here, it signifies great shame, the casting off of the shamed woman into exile. Hsiu-Ying has only one condition: that her future husband agree to send her son, Chu-Chia, to university.
The film then takes viewers of a ten-year journey, enabling them to see the family’s highs and lows, trials and tribulations, and joys and sorrows. We see the effects of new additions to the family on the bond between mother and son, as well as evidence of the kind of parental permissiveness that can drive child specialists up the wall. At one point, Mr. Bi even says that as long as Chu-Chia’s grades are good, there’s no reason to do anything about his increasingly bad behavior. Rarely have more erroneous sentiments been uttered.
In an odd, yet interesting move, the film is occasionally narrated by Chu-Chia’s neighbor, a female classmate who always seems to be in the right place to see something important. For example, she just happens to see a student steal a few books from a local bookstore, a crime that Chu-Chia is later wrongfully accused of. I suspected the movie was scheming to bring them together, yet as the film progresses, it’s not even clear than the two of them are even that close. Also, unless this character is sitting at her window with binoculars and a listening device for the whole day, she cannot narrate much of what we see in the film. Still, she does provide observations that are both timely and thought-provoking, the most significant of which is her description of Hsiu-Ying as someone who is neither happy nor sad. She seems to be going through the motions of living, like one who has already given up on life and is now only living because to do otherwise would be to admit failure.
As I watched the film, I found myself slightly split about it. On the one hand, I admired the film’s characters and just how realistic they are. There are no moments in which they get into situations that are not perfectly believable, and throughout the film, kids sound like kids, and adults sound like the models of imperfection that they are. The film also has a number of humorous moments, such as the family’s efforts to get the newest of them to cry less. Perhaps only in the ending does the film truly deviate from its realistic tone, for in a film with this much drama, it is a bit of a cop-out – and a bit of propaganda - to present things as all patched up so soon after a tragedy. In addition, the film is somewhat unevenly paced and can occasionally seem to be moving at the speed of molasses.
The most recent edition of Growing Up was released this year by Central Motion Pictures, one of the premiere companies in Taiwan, and while they usually do a commendable job, here their efforts are a bit of a let down. While the picture itself looks beautiful, their subtitles leave a lot to be desired. In addition to the occasional awkward phrasing, the subtitles show signs of utter laziness. It’s as if they simply couldn’t be bothered to proofread. The only other possibility is that they actually thought they was spelled the.
The film was released a year after Taiwan’s “New Wave” officially began, and it’s clear that Chen was still perfecting his craft. Still, despite the film’s occasional starts and stops, I found Growing Up to be rather involving, and I cared whether Chu-Chia turned his life around. I was also deeply invested in Hsiu-Ying, and I kept hoping that some sort of happiness would visit her. Mr. Bi could easily have been portrayed in a negative light, but instead, he is a man who just wants a family to call his own. It is significant that one of his first acts is to enquire about giving Chu-Chia his last name. Other characters come and go with few of them leaving much of a lasting impact. In fact, only Chu-Chia’s aunt left much of an impression on me. However, those who are willing to give the film a change are not likely to be disappointed. The film is deep, involving, emotionally challenging, and somewhat inspiring. It’s also the kind of film you’re likely to think about long after its credits have rolled. In other words, it’s the kind of film I tend to enjoy. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region 3/A.)
*Growing Up is in Mandarin and Min Nan with English subtitles.
*The film is set in Tamsui (formerly known as Danshui), an area in northern Taiwan where the river meets the sea. I have been there many times, and I recognized several of the locations used in the film. It is truly remarkable how different they look in the film – areas that are today lined with bustling restaurants, food stands, and companies offering passage to neighboring Bali Island appear desolate and underdeveloped. To millenials used to its current state, it must be like looking at an alien world.