Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Summer at Grandpa’s (1984)

by on August 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Aug 10 at 4:00 and Tue Aug 16 at 6:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


A summer series in August is hardly most original programming idea, yet MoMA’s “Hot and Humid: Summer Films from the Archives” has been a surprising, eclectic selection of films worth catching on the big screen (particularly today’s leisurely, long-take selection from the Taiwanese master of leisurely long-takes).


Geoff Andrew
for Time Out (London):

Young Tung-Tung and his little sister spend the vacation with their grandparents while mother lies sick in hospital. It’s an eventful stay, but Hou never opts for melodrama, and at first his quietly amused observation of events seems to border on the inconsequential. Not so, however. What makes the film so affecting is its unflinching honesty. As boy and girl take time off from playing games to become barely comprehending witnesses to the adult world, the film examines, with precision and wit, both the innocence and the unthinking cruelty of childhood. But life among the grown-ups is no better, and the children are confronted with violence, crime, sexual passion, and the presence of death. It’s a clear-eyed movie, never sentimental, always intelligent and revealing.



Leo Goldsmith for Reverse Shot:

So much of the plot and meaning of Hou’s films comes not through exposition but inference, a tendency that yields a certain kind of obliquity—mundane but puzzling, low-key but sometimes frustrating—in each of his films since 1983’s The Boys from Fengkuei. With that film, Hou’s now characteristic style began to take shape, relating the titular boys’ passage from country to city with an episodic structure and a hands-off realism in its performances that are now his trademarks. But it is in many ways his subsequent film, A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), that fully crystallizes this inferential narrative mode. Like Flight of the Red Balloon, it follows events in the lives of the story’s adult characters from a child’s limited point of view, demanding that the spectator alone make sense of what’s onscreen, just as the young protagonist does. The child’s slow education becomes an allegory for the process of gradual understanding in which the viewer engages.


In A Summer at Grandpa’s, Hou uses the techniques he developed in his earlier work with young actors to create an entire narrative following two child protagonists as they learn about the complexities and problems of adulthood. Based on the childhood experience of Hou’s frequent collaborator, Chu T’ien-wen, the film follows Tung-tung and his sister, Ting-ting, as they are sent to the country home of their mother’s father while their mother lies ill in hospital. (Curiously, A Summer at Grandpa’s resembles no film so much as Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic, My Neighbor Totoro, made only four years later. Japanese critics and audiences were among the first to recognize Hou’s work, as early as the mid-1980s.) Shot in a summer palette of greens and blues, and everywhere evoking the gentleness of nostalgic pastoralism, Hou’s film subtly demonstrates how the violence, desire, and strife of living, thinly veiled by the conventions of adult society, are nonetheless impressed on the protagonists.



Pat Graham for the Chicago Reader:

Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (A Time to Live and a Time to Die) emerged as a major new talent of the 80s, and this lyrical childhood remembrance shows you why. A young boy and his sister spend a summer at their grandparents’ house in the country while their mother recuperates from an illness; they while away the hours climbing trees, swimming in a stream, searching for missing cattle, and coming to uneasy grips with the enigmatic and sometimes threatening realities of adult life. The fine, unsentimental attention to childhood incident, as well as the vignettish formal structure, recalls the work of Japan’s Hiroshi Shimizu, a child-genre specialist of the 30s and 40s whose Four Seasons of Children this film closely resembles, though Hou’s social concerns run deeper, and his spare, contemplative styling—the precise formal center around which a world accumulates—sets him squarely among the modernists. A remarkably assured effort.


Srikanth Srinivasan, on his blogThe Seventh Art:

A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) is a tale of transition – from the chaotic life in the city to la dolce vita of the countryside, from the ennui of scientific modernity to the fascination with nature’s antiquity and from the blissful ignorance of childhood to the mercurial moods of pre-adolescence – and, fittingly, begins with the graduation ceremony of one of the two child protagonists of the film, who are to spend their titular summer at their grandfather’s house while their mother is to undergo a critical surgery in the city. Surely, it is not only the mother who is going to be going through a life-altering phase. The kids come across a host of alien characters and situations, including a pair of robbers and a mentally-challenged woman, that are so intricately woven into the narrative that even the adult viewer finds it increasingly difficult to locate his/her moral footing with respect to the film. A Summer at Grandpa’s is starkly redolent of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in the way it filters the political and moral complexities of the world though the eyes of children to paint an unsettling portrait of a society that is far from being the paradise it appears to be on the surface. Hou observes, with equal intrigue, both the carefree indulgence of the children in social games (including a hilarious turtle race) and the stark reality that interrupts these activities, as if trying to remind them that the best part of their lives is over.



James Udden, in No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsine:

In A Summer at Grandpa’s, Hou already seems more self-aware than in The Boys from Fengkuei. Boys is based primarily on his own experience. Now this story is based on Chu Tian-wen’s childhood memories of a summer in exactly the same location. The film serves as further evidence of Chu’s impact on Hou. One Taiwanese scholar notes that Chu’s narration is somewhat “disorderly” since it is “essay-like,” with unexpected complications, obstacles and difficulties. “Essay-like” seems a particularly apt description here: the structure of A Summer at Grandpa’s overall seems almost like a series of memorable incidents that would fill a “What I Did Last Summer” essay on the first day of a composition class. Only there is nothing child-like about this cinematic “essay” no matter how vividly it captures the feelings of childhood. rather, it reflects the adult transformations of such memories by expert and talented hands, showing not childhood “as id really is,” but how it lingers in one’s memories as an adult, colored by the subtle nuances of time and experience. These transformations make what could have been a simple children’s story into a deeper and more sophisticated work, once again with multiple hidden layers of feeling.


Zhang Yi has this to say about his own films, “I am most dissatisfied with how I have handled my own images. I would love for my shots to move freely about just like Bernardo Bertolucci’s and bring the audience into the deeper layers of reality, but given the present conditions of production, is this even possible?” Hou, on other hand, apparently had no desire to be a Bertolucci; he did not restrict his camera movements out of necessity, but out of conscious choice. The doctor’s clinic [in Summer at Grandpa’s] played a key role, since the octogenarian doctor still lived there and was still practicing medicine when the film was in production. As a result of these logistical hassles, Hou and his crew had to work around the doctor’s schedule, which always included a long siesta around noon during which time the film crew had to be absolutely quiet. Those imposed siestas, with their resonating stillness and tranquility, profoundly affected Hou. He says he fell in love with that certain atmospheric quality. Thus, for the first time he purposefully kept the camera still on an attempt to capture that feeling on film. As a result, another piece of the aesthetic puzzle fell into place, and a crucial one at that.



J. Hoberman on director Hou, for the Village Voice:

No one ever said it was going to be easy. Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni still live, but for my money, the world’s greatest working narrative moviemaker is a 52-year-old native of Taiwan named Hou Hsiao-hsien.


Set and setting are crucial. Not only is Hou himself a master of camera placement but his films are leisurely and, by Hollywood standards, perversely uninflected. Rarely using close-ups, he frequently shoots an entire scene from a single point of view. Although his characteristic locations—courtyards, kitchens, nightclubs—tend toward the mundane, Hou’s sense of the visual world is exalted. Before they are anything else, these movies are beautiful objects of contemplation.


Hou got his start in the once commercial (now nearly moribund) Taiwanese film industry. These days, his work is most often funded in Japan, where he is frequently compared to the local masters of domestic drama, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. With their casual precision and beatification of the ordinary, Hou’s films do have a Japanese flavor. Taiwan was Japan’s colony for 50 years (time enough for many concepts to lodge in the island’s consciousness), but Hou’s movies are also highly specific. Cold War flashpoint and economic tiger, a temporary country (at once pre- and post-Communist) ruled by exiles, Taiwan has a history that colors virtually all of Hou’s films. Born in China and raised in rural Taiwan, as recalled by his bucolic A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984), Hou pioneered the use of indigenous dialect in his films. But few of his characters are ever truly at home.


Jim Jarmusch supports Hoberman’s bold claims:

Hou Hsiao-hsien is not only the crowning jewel of contemporary Taiwanese cinema, but an international treasure. His films are, for me, among the most inspiring of the past thirty years, and his grace and subtlety as a filmmaker remain unrivaled. Film after film, Hou Hsiao-hsien is able to adeptly balance a historical and cultural overview with the smallest, most quiet and intimate details of individual interactions. His narratives can appear offhand and non-dramatic, and yet the structures of the films themselves are all about storytelling and the beauty of its variations. And Hou’s camera placement is never less than exquisite


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The valedictorian oration at the outset (“We are striding into a new journey…”) is mirrored in the priest’s preamble at the wedding (“The order of the world starts from the order of the family”), Hou Hsiao-hsien reveals both as nothing more than memorized speeches next to the graceful and thorny opening up of a child’s world. The family is an endangered unit, the mother is bedridden, too weak for surgery; the preteen boy (Wang Chi-Kwang) and his little sister (Sun Cheeng-Lee) are sent to spend the summer in the countryside, a welcome change of rhythm (a vast hospital is the most you see of Taipei). A foretaste of Hou’s style is already felt at the train station: The kids’ uncle is late in chaperoning them, the camera pans left with Wang as he and a friend shout goodbyes across opposite platforms, then pans back to find the uncle ready to board and Sun complaining that she has to pee. The boy’s remote-control toy car mounts a pet tortoise as soon as they reach the village, but nature soon trumps technology as the children adapt to the languid new environment. Their grandparents’ house is from the Ozu Catalog, all planar screens, verandas, and dark wood floors; Grandpa (Koo Chuen) is the town doctor, a scowler who banishes the “black sheep” uncle in a long-shot composition that lasts just long enough to establish swaying plants and a rushing train as co-stars. The “mad woman” is seen first from the vantage point of a kid perched on a tree branch, then through a half-open doorway as she’s seduced by the local bird-catcher — the adult world, glimpsed by mistake and half-understood. Hou’s epiphanies, revelatory moments that darken the Eden of childhood, drift like a soft breeze as Wang avoids his uncle’s gaze at the police station or Sun lays by the side of the woman whose miscarriage she’s indirectly responsible for. “Time flies. I’m homesick.” Summer’s over, a little hope goes back the city’s way.

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