Loaded with detail and elliptically structured to let viewers make their own connections, Hou's film spans four fateful years of transition in Taiwan, from the defeat of the Japanese colonialists in WWII, when the island was returned to China, to the retreat to Taiwan of Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists at the end of the civil war in 1949. The period is shown from the perspective of a single family: a virtually senile widower, his sons (one missing presumed dead, one a gangster, one a deaf-mute photographer, the fourth a former translator for the Japanese) and their wives. As always with Hou, the human dimension is paramount - this is no history lesson - but it's clear that he is reaching for a sense of Taiwan's identity through the family's affairs. Given the panoramic sweep - which focuses particularly on the underworld and the political underground - Hou turns in a masterpiece of small gestures and massive resonance; once you surrender to its spell, the obscurities vanish.
Cast and crew
Wu Nianzhen, Zhu Tianwen