This almost-three-hour helming debut from Wu Nien-Jen, who scripted such Hou Hsiao-Hsien epics as “A City of Sadness” and “The Puppetmaster” taxes the viewer’s interest with obscure Taiwanese history, and hands out sparse, if tasty , dividends in return. A healthy trim and some well-placed explanations could still change that ratio, resulting in specialized fest and arthouse playoffs for this father-son saga.
Those who know that Tokyo once controlled and developed the northern tip of Taiwan will be better equipped to understand the generational conflict between Sega (Tsai Chen-Nan), whose mining-town peers hold none-too-secret affections for Japanese language and culture, and his son, Wen-Jian (played by three young thesps, including twentysomething Fu Jun), raised in postwar, anti-Japan fervor. Bulk of the autobiopic outlines the son’s mixed memories of his difficult old man, who worked like a dog, but often went off boozing and gambling.
Best scenes are hazy, child’s-eye recreations of the 1950s, as when dad dumps his tyke at a theater featuring a corny Japanese movie with a live Mandarin translator who makes running comments on the plot and the crowd. By the middle section, when Sega’s job is threatened and the town starts falling apart, the problems get too monotonous to sustain serious interest, although Wu’s eye for poignant detail remains visually rewarding. The final third, in which Wen-Jian, now a married Tapei writer, watches helplessly as his uncommunicative father slowly dies of black-lung disease, is needlessly gruelling.
Wu could have stuck to the early stuff, with a quick death-bed coda, or switched the focus to female members of the family. Instead, the patriarchal pas-de-deux is played out well beyond audience endurance. Leisurely pace is not the real problem, since protracted scenes often pay off emotionally.
Especially sweet is the restriction of incidental music to period radio tunes , singalongs, and section bookends. The pic’s form, though, is ultimately impenetrable, with boundless room given to repetitive business while crucial facts and potentially fascinating characters get short shrift. What this “Life” needs is a borrowed knife.