In Our Time
English Title: In Our Time
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Central Motion Pictures Corporation
Producer(s): Ming Chi
Cinematographer: Chen Chia-mo
Editor: Liao Ching-Song
Runtime: 109 minutes
A portmanteau film in four parts, In Our Time dramatizes everyday stories of Taiwan in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. In part one, ‘Little Dragon Head,’ a grade-school loner is picked on at school and at home, and only finds solace in his dinosaur toys and a girl who becomes his sole friend. In part two, ‘Expectations,’ a girl enters puberty at the same time that her elder sister rebels against their parents, and a tall, handsome college student moves into the family’s guest house. An absent mother, distracted sister, and pre-pubescent male friend are of no help to the younger sister, so she is left to discover sexuality herself while pining for the boy next door. Part three, ‘Leapfrog,’ follows a college student at a crossroads – changing majors, finding jobs, appeasing parents and meeting girls. The only potential release from the stress is a university swimming competition against foreign students. The final section, ‘Say Your Name,’ is a comedy about a young married couple in a new apartment, bickering about work and each other. Their problems are put in perspective when the wife cannot get into the building of her new job, and the husband has locked himself out of the apartment while only wearing boxer briefs and a towel.
Justly considered one of the turning points of Taiwanese cinema and the forerunner of the Taiwan New Cinema movement, In Our Time was enough of a critical and commercial success to get government studio CMPC investing in relatively unknown directors and screenwriters like Wu Nien-jen and Hou Hsiao-hsien. In Our Time is the proper debut of directors Edward Yang, Ko I-cheng, Chang Yi and Tao Te-chen, all of whom would go on to be important film-makers and actors in the internationally-recognized film movement.
In Our Time proves that what the New Taiwanese film-makers did better than anyone else in the history of Chinese-language film is narrating stories of growing up. (Incidentally, Growing Up is the English title of what is considered the first feature-length film of the movement.) For the generation of directors discovering their art in the early 1980s, growing up meant coming of age in a time of relative poverty, improvized living, and rock and roll. Foreshadowing the radios and cover bands of Edward Yang’s landmark A Brighter Summer Day (1991), In Our Time (and the entire Taiwan New Cinema, for that matter) begins with silence, then a close-up of a needle hitting an LP. Santo & Johnny’s instrumental classic ‘Sleep Walk’ fills the soundtrack. The image dissolves to a boy walking on railroad tracks (another signature location of the 1980s Taiwanese film). The dreamy electric guitars complement the loneliness of a boy walking with eyes pointed to the ground. Strolling by garbage and brushing past fences, he almost seems to walk in the slow motion of the song. New Taiwan Cinema begins here, in a daze of American popular culture set against a modern nation still in its infancy.
This impressive display of sound, image, and editing is the work of Tao Te-chen. The rest of the short, entitled ‘Little Dragon Head,’ overlaps timelines, voiceovers and fantasies – a more contemplative version of the impressionistic effects Pai Ching-jui innovated in the 1960s. Music is key throughout, as in a high-school fight scene that uses not a thrilling score, but one teeming with ironic triumph and nostalgia. Of the four directors of In Our Time, Tao would go on to be the least prolific in the following decades. Most successful is the director of part two, Edward Yang. His short, ‘Expectations,’ is the extraordinary debut of a film-maker already in command of visual storytelling. ‘Expectations’ is the most formally beautiful of the four, using shadows to carve out the spaces of a middle-class home, and using soft-lighting to evoke dreamlike tones. Already, Yang is experimenting with doorways, mirrors, and windowpanes that would later become visual signatures in films like Taipei Story (1985) and Yi Yi (2000). More impressive is how the visual style is deployed to depict the coming-of-age of a girl discovering her own sexual desire. In one of the film’s most memorable – and risqué – moments, the girl, Hsiao-fen, gazes at a shirtless college student lifting bricks, the camera fetishistically roaming over his sweaty, toned pecs and arms, capturing the ecstasy of female heterosexual desire. Yang pulls a fast one on her though: through the most efficient editing and framing, we find that the gaze belongs to not just Hsiao-fen, but her sister as well, setting off an important triangle that will proceed to shape her expectations of love.
Parts three and four abandon the dreamy interior states of the first two, in favour of chatty comedy. The result is a second half that largely sags under the dialogue. ‘Leapfrog,’ by Ko I-cheng, curiously channels a college student’s energies (he is always rushing, but has no place to go) into a swimming competition against non-Asian foreigners, a climax that invites allegorical interpretation. ‘Say Your Name,’ by Chang Yi, is a more credible comedy, helped by charming performances by Lee Li-chun and Sylvia Chang, one of the most important figures of Taiwanese film and music.
Author of this review: Brian Hu