A founding film for the Taiwanese New Wave, In Our Time (1982, orig. Guang yin de gu shi) is a stroke of luck, as four fresh faces, not yet distinguished but distinguishable, find a dialogue here that is rare in anthology films. Touching on childhood, adolescence, and two different stages of adulthood, the film consists of four vignettes, each corresponding to a different stage of life, each marking a directing debut. An anthropological mosaic, In Our Time encompasses the pathos and isolation, the deep affects of the early days, as well as the dénouement of growing up, the challenges of adulthood, and comedy as a means of coping when escapism is no longer viable.
Te-chen Tao’s Little Dragon Head establishes the mute youth of the 1950s as it finds companionship in a toy dinosaur. A warm recollection of the early days, despite the distance and the various hardships it entailed, be it the (perceived) injustice toward the older sibling or the sometimes cruel and arbitrary punishment inflicted by young parents as a result of their own caprices and insecurities. Radio, television, and record player act as double agents here. While the children get neglected because of them, they secretly partake in a shared attachment to the ubiquitous tunes the new technologies emit. These melodies pervade their dreams and provide the score to their triumphs and to their quiet resistance. They rest on top of every image, and, in looking back, emerge victorious over the ennui, and stuffy climate of the upbringing itself. Pop music, and natural sound (of the leaves rustling, the wind blowing) – two aural extremes – leave their massive imprint on what is as much a soundtrack “of our time” as it is a heightened visual representation. Little Dragon Head lays bare the inner workings of retrospection – the selective nature of memory, the warped scale by which objects and events are measured, the synaesthesia – and finds a potent language to convey them; it would remain the only directorial effort of Tao’s.
Edward Yang’s Expectations picks up on the threads laid out by the staff leader, following the everyday life of a young girl living with her mother and older sister, enjoying the company of a friend – a younger boy smitten by her – , and romantically fantacising about an older tenant living with the family. Yang, first and foremost, presents an exercise in indirect lighting and the imaginary. The dark corners of (in)voluntary retreat as allocated space for marginality shown in Little Dragon Head have become streets in twilight, places to be alone in with one’s thoughts and feelings. Sitting at the desk but not working – that has not changed. Neither has observing one’s elders. The subject of fantasies has evolved, though, as the object of desire vied for in the sibling rivalry shifts from mere attention or parental understanding to ways and opportunities of channeling early sexual feelings. The surreal dreams of the child make way for the daydreams of the adolescent. The titular expectations cannot be met, yet. The tacit imperative of having to wait, and the accompanying disappointment, stand at the heart of Yang’s piece. Other developments take precedence: Discovering your own body in front of the mirror, practicing empathy with younger peers taken by you in the same way you are taken with your elders, and recognising the continuity that lies within that fact. an intrinsic desire to improve for the means of courtship. Today’s learning to ride a bike prefigures tomorrow’s push-up exercises.
Despite a notable shift in subject, style, and tone, The Jumping Frog, I-Chen Ko’s contribution, acknowledges the connective tissue established in the first two stories. The teenage angst merely yields to a young adult awkwardness. Fatty, the protagonist, is somewhat at ease with himself, he knows his strengths and weaknesses, the latter of which manifest as romantic insecurities and sexual inexperience. In true The Graduate (1967) fashion, he has to deal with the forces of innuendo: a sexual opportunity that boasts significantly greater maturity may offer a formative experience but for the moment is too overwhelming a proposition. Instead, he carves out his own infatuation, bordering on obsession, with a student on campus. All the while, he grapples with the expectations of his father and the burden that comes with a family business. The solution to his problems, however, is not projected onto romantic fulfillment. It is rather athleticism of the good old Olympic kind that promises catharsis, citing the formula of sports films and lending from their playbook. But while the ointment of sweet victory may originate from vain intentions, initially – impressing your crush –, it is quickly rendered a deeply personal quest for recognition and a place of one’s own in the world.
The aforementioned shift from the the first two vignettes to the latter two has been described in various ways, a lot of them insinuating that Ko’s and Chang’s segments represent lighter, perhaps even slighter counterparts to the poetic density and gravitas of Tao’s and Yang’s contributions. However, these shifts should instead be taken seriously as formal choices. They mark the next steps in the arc of life stages, from the egocentric head space of a child, with its own semiotics, rendered through the selective filter of memory, to slowly reach a more prosaic, presentist state of adulthood, that does not internalize the external but rather moves with it, that is defined by it and is able to more consciously accept or reject it. A more sovereign state of being-in-the-world that is less vulnerable to intensity of emotion and more shaped by the trial-and-error ways of decisive action. Even more, a greater capacity for understanding the absurd nature of the process of growing up and the, at times, comical metaphors in its wake.
Thus, after splinters, dreams, and the busy, scatterbrained days of university, we reach: a single day in the work life of two young people who just moved in together in Say Your Name by Yi Chang. What starts out with fairly serious talk about the strain that the move puts on both partners, or the financial conditions of the new life together, quickly devolves into a quotidian slapstick nightmare. The male protagonist finds himself locked out of his apartment, thus, figuratively deprived of one of the chief laurels of his adult life up to that. As recognition by one’s peers once again is highlighted as a central desideratum of adult life, the conceit, on paper, should lead to disaster. But while the protagonist is exposed to arguably the biggest and most directly incurred amount of ridicule and embarrassment in the entirety of In Our Time, the unpleasantness in Say Your Name is met with the inverse of personal concern. As such, comedic escalation proves deescalating, made entirely possible by the new stakes, that is, the relative absence of stakes. A job and an address to an apartment exist, a partner exists. Things that can be (and are, in fact) pointed to for comfort and as basis for demands: for help, for access to the workplace, for the claim to one’s newspaper. One challenging day will not topple the pillars of the everyday life one has found themselves in. The challenges of modernity are but a satyr play if only because there is solace to be found in that thought. Passions turn into anecdotes for future parents neglecting their children while enjoying a new record and watching the ball game. But one is not quite there, yet, so what’s the worry?
As intricate and complex as the film itself may be, its historical significance can be pinpointed with ease. In Our Time marked a radical departure for the the Taiwanese Central Motion Picture Corporation. With Hong Kong’s filmmakers on the rise, the CMPC looked for internal renovations to remain competitive. Mostly trading in melodrama, kung-fu, and historical pictures with a mass appeal up to that point, the anthology format of In Our Time provided them with an efficient way of letting an entire ensemble of new talent get its feet wet. The modernisation of its major national production company inevitably ushered in a new era – a New Wave, as it were – for Taiwan’s film industry, soon featuring work by the likes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien joining the continuing efforts of Edward Yang, with names like Tsai Ming-Liang and Ang Lee as an Even Newer Wave on the horizon. While constituting a diverse line-up of individual artists, they would share the concern of observing a society in a period of upheaval, devoting themselves to a poetic realism chronicling modern life in Taiwan, often by way of biographically structured narrative and a particular focal point on life stages associated with coming of age (Hou Hsiao-Hsien devoted an entire trilogy to it). By this token, In Our Time is not built on but verily is itself the poetological foundation, infinitely rich to this day, for one of the most prolific chapters in the history of East Asian cinema.