With Father to Son, filmmaker Hsiao Ya-chuan has made a film about memory and identity of immense depth, the appreciation for which only increases with subsequent viewings. In the film, individual, family, community, and nation on the one hand and past and present on the other hand continuously, startlingly weave in and out of each other, softly and even ambiguously, carried precisely by memory/remembering and its pliant quality of being individualised, shared, and passed on in the (trans)formation of identity/identities.
The film’s lightness despite its heavy subject owes a great deal to its intimate, micro perspective while hinting at macro contexts, centering on a father-and-son relationship that actually spans three generations. A-Te (Michael JQ Huang), aged sixty, is a handyman and one-time (amateur) inventor who owns/runs a hardware store and also does on-site jobs in his neighbourhood. Early in the film, at an on-site appointment at a hospital, a pain near his abdomen shakes him so badly that his friend at the hospital examines him right away: something about the pancreas, though the film never openly states his actual condition. Then there is A-Te’s absent father, who should be ninety years of age, as A-Te remarks to his son at the dinner table at one point subsequent to the incident at the hospital. A-Te’s complex confrontation with his past, specifically the departure of his father when he was ten years old, as a way to live with/in the present, with his son, enacts the film’s constant tug between temporalities and places. The departure and complete absence of his father in his life has keenly carved out his psyche over the decades, like water sculpting rock over geologic time, and by extension his life choices/actions, particularly those vis-à-vis his own family. Finally, there is A-Te’s son Ta-chi (Fu Meng-po), who is eventually revealed to be thirty years old. Significantly as well as ironically, A-Te travels with Ta-chi to Japan in search of information about his father. During this trip, Ta-chi broaches the subject of A-Te’s own act of leaving his family but not following through with it for whatever reason when he was ten years old, a scene that notably takes place when father and son are soaking in a hot spring in all their stripped vulnerability.
It is no coincidence that these three generations of fathers and sons roughly coincide with major periods of Taiwanese history, namely, Japanese colonialism, Kuomintang rule and martial law in the post-Asia Pacific War period, and post-martial law. Yet such personal-historical alignments are never as clear-cut in the film’s somewhat nonlinear nature as they are mapped out here (the exception would be Ta-chi’s line of “First Japan, then U.S., then China, just following the money” regarding the grandfather he never knew). In fact, the film never explicitly announces its subject/themes, let alone the aforementioned alignments; rather, it sketches them through the accumulation of images and situations that generate a distinct mood regarding the passing of time and one’s relationship to it (wistful, sombre, resigned, amused), which begins with A-Te but becomes shared by other characters.
Indeed, the diffuseness of plot and elaboration of A-Te’s character/life through others are the film’s most absorbing qualities. Hsiao is equally adept in creating a palpable character like A-Te and a palpable world/space in which he has lived and breathed. On this note, arguably what Hsiao has picked up from producer Hou Hsiao-hsien is the thickness of his world-building through a poetic and observational realism, so that places/spaces are just as three-dimensional as the characters who move through or inhabit them. Moroever, weaving between the past and present is one thing; it is another thing to situate one’s past and present among a group of individuals’ respective pasts and presents and have them unexpectedly bump against each other on a structural and visual level via flashbacks (and one dream sequence?) throughout the film, so that which memory belongs to whom is intentionally unclear.
The personal-in-the-collective and vice-versa also greatly structures the arrangement of sequences and choice of imagery. A number of sequences simply devote themselves to mapping out and observing the goings-on in the environment and community of which A-Te is a part, with or without him in the scenes: Mei’s laundry shop; A-Kao’s fruit store; the hotel managed by A-Kao’s wife Kuo Yu-chi; the hospital where A-Te experiences his shot of pain and is tended to by a friend who is a doctor there; and finally A-Te’s own hardware store. Such sequences have been read as messy and lacking focus in other discussions of the film, but they are part and parcel of the film’s world-building and forging of the link between space and self in relation to memory/remembering. The latter also accounts for several instances of parallel movements/situations in the past and present in particular locations.
As it turns out, the most revelatory example of parallel movements/situations involves Ta-chi at thirty and A-Te as a young man at thirty carrying his infant son and speaking to him precisely about…the idea of transformation.
Father to Son is showing on November 10 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.