The strands of intimate and historical memory twist together in this delicate, haunted drama, from 1986, in which the director Hou Hsiao-hsien conjures his reminiscences of childhood and adolescence in a remote Taiwan village in the nineteen-forties and fifties. There, the young Hsiao-yen lives with his family (including his ailing father and his increasingly loopy grandmother), shadowed by the story of his father’s 1947 departure from mainland China on the eve of the revolution…The older generation’s devastated lives and poignant secrets provide the silently roiling undertones of Hou’s sharply drawn and tender yet nostalgia-free recollections. He depicts the gang violence, family burdens, authoritarian schooling, broken romance, and grinding poverty that proved to be the crucible of his clear-eyed, poetic artistry.
Eric Hynes has a nice, long piece for Reverse Shot:
The subtlest of formalists, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s considerations of film language are so foundational—placement, movement, duration—as to be imperceptible, and so organic to the larger narrative as to seem nonexistent. Some would experiment with film form by actively pushing limits, stroking furiously at camera, lighting, and editing—the showy, copious manipulation intended as a demonstration of capacity. Hou is no less engaged, but like the best of minimalist painting, sculpture, and music, his choices challenge audiences to consider their relation to the art, to acknowledge their own distance from the object before earning intimacy. Yet his projects aren’t theoretically motivated. His films aren’t objects made simply for their effect. They are motivated by where the personal meets the universal, themes of memory, presence, love and loss, themes that the art of film is uniquely adept at expressing. […]
What at first frustrates the viewer—that characters, faces, and motivations are hard to discern—gradually takes on depth of narrative meaning. The father, always viewed from far-off and rarely sharing a frame with his children, is actually gravely ill. Not wanting to infect his children, he deliberately keeps his distance. Neither we nor Hsiao get to know the father before he dies, but his silent sacrifice looms large, transforming our perceptions of his, the camera’s, and Hou’s recollecting remove. Wanting to draw close, he, Hou and we can’t, making physical distance, not intimacy, the true emotional measure.
Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:
Largely filmed in the same places in Taiwan where the events originally happened, this unhurried family chronicle carries an emotional force and a historical significance that may not be immediately apparent. Working in long takes and wide-screen, deep-focus compositions that frame the characters from a discreet distance, Hou allows the locations to seep into our own memories and experience, so that, as in Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs and Tian’s The Blue Kite, we come to know them almost as intimately as touchstones in our own lives. Yet paradoxically, the unseen Chinese mainland carries as much weight as the landscape of Taiwan: Hou’s Christian family left in 1948, and the revolution that followed made it impossible for them to return. Subtly interweaving everyday details with processes and understandings that evolve over years, the film conveys a density of familial detail that we usually encounter only in certain novels, and a sense of the tragic within hailing distance of Ozu. This was the first film by Hou I ever saw, and it provides an excellent introduction to his work as a whole.
Nick Schager at his blog, Lessons of Darkness:
The Time to Live and the Time to Die is the first film I’ve seen by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and it strikes me as a near-masterpiece. A challenging, immensely moving semi-autobiographical portrait of two decades in the life of a Chinese family displaced from mainland China to Taiwan in the 1940s and 1950s, the film is, in certain respects, reminiscent of the Italian neorealism movement and the work of Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu. Hou favors long, unbroken takes and unintrusive master shots (i.e. wide shots that capture the entire scene from start to finish) that turn his film’s action — mostly made up of mundane events such as people washing the floor and kids playing in the street — into beautifully naturalistic snapshots of everyday life. Yet while the film shares with its aforementioned cinematic predecessors both a relaxed, fly-on-the-wall immediacy and emphasis on detail and mood over melodramatic action, Hou’s gorgeously sweeping camera and ethereal editing — which blends scenes together with dreamy, almost subconscious grace — are all his own.
Michael Atkinson for The L Magazine:
Deaths accumulate, dreams get dashed, and Hou’s observational style locks into place, crafting more of a place-and-time portrait that a story, but one also subject to uncured time-leaping cuts and details you must hunt for, every man for himself. In Hou, every shot is a real-time habitation experiment, to see how actions and reactions and space will play off each other, and often enough the upshot freezes you—when the world halts on its axis for as long as it takes a girl walk down a sun-dappled street, or when the children discover their neglected grandmother dead, and tend to her rigor-mortised corpse, its folded hands sticking up in the air, in a poignant non-gesture, as she’s rolled over. A cathedral built out of haiku tiles, the movie is rivaled only by Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes as a retrospective auto-biopic that dares to be artful and even chilling in its sentimentality.
Derek Malcolm for The Guardian:
If Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese director, hailed from the west, he would be more widely known as one of the world’s foremost film-makers. Even so, his films have extraordinary currency on the festival circuit and have received top prizes at Venice, Cannes and Berlin, the three major European festivals. They have also been shown in art houses in at least 40 countries. His is a major voice, even if it is often drowned out by the clamour of more commercial talents.
In a way this is Hou’s own fault. After making two or three superbly attractive early films [The Time to Live and the Time to Die and the charming A Summer at Grandpa’s], he became interested not only in the political and social intricacies of Taiwanese history, but in new and complicated narrative forms. This made his work more difficult to penetrate, even for his own countrymen. Despite that, Flowers of Shanghai, the last film of his that was presented at Cannes, was described by the Guardian’s Richard Williams as worth all the rest of the programme put together.