Inviting immediate comparisons with Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “A Summer at Grandpa’s” (1984), “A Time in Quchi” finds Taiwanese auteur Chang Tso-chi attaining a new level of subtlety with his lucid, unsentimental observations of a boy’s coming of age during his country vacation. Putting aside the gangsters, invalids and outcasts that have populated his dark, troubled oeuvre until now, Chang touches on profound themes of loss and separation, evoking delicate feelings in poetic fashion; he also evinces a fresh, offbeat sense of humor that makes this his most accessible work to date. A charmed fest life awaits, but commercial potential is slight.
Three decades since the first installment of Hou’s coming-of-age trilogy (followed by “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” and “Dust in the Wind”), post-Taiwan New Wave helmer Chang pays homage to those films and their back-to-nature aesthetics. Yet “A Time in Quchi” is no mere retread of old tropes; it carefully avoids a consciously retro look or any other stylistic affectations.
Following a prologue that invokes the motif of its Chinese title, “Summer Homework,” the yarn unfolds via diary entries written by 10-year-old Guan Xiaobao (Yang Liang-yu), nicknamed Bao, recounting what he did during his vacation. Needing some space as they work out the terms of their divorce, Bao’s parents bundle him off with his younger sister, Seaweed (Lin Ya-ruo), to stay with their grandfather (Guan Guan, aka Kuan Yun-loong) in Quchi, an outlying rural community not far from Taipei.
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Grandma passed away a year ago, but Grandpa’s loneliness is carefully hidden beneath his jovial air and feigned peevishness. Eccentric is too conventional a term to describe the old codger, who spends hours painting faces on stones, and even orders Bao to greet one of them as a stand-in for Grandma at the dinner table. The symbolic meaning of his handicraft emerges over the course of the film, revealing the old man’s romantic soul and Zen wisdom.
The first half of the film is punctuated with voiceover excerpts from Bao’s holiday assignment, in which he covers up his discontent with fake, upbeat rhetoric. As he befriends local brats Ming-chuan (Hsieh Ming-chuan), Steamed Bun (Wu Bing-jun), and class beauty Bear (Gao Shui-lian) at the village school, he falls in love with his surroundings and the diary entries begin to pour from his heart. Nothing overtly dramatic happens — the tykes climb trees, catch crickets and rehearse a play — but the rigorously pared-down script and near-invisible camera capture each child’s individuality and myriad moods; what fascinates them becomes just as engrossing to audiences. Here and there, urban-vs.-rural stereotypes are slyly subverted, as when an aboriginal schoolgirl kicks Bao’s ass in a beatboxing match.
At around the 75-minute mark, unforeseen events occur, including a violent typhoon, forcing Bao to cross the threshold into adulthood. Although “A Time in Quchi” is lighter in tone than Chang’s previous works, the fatalistic strain running through those films is also apparent here, turning the story into a meditation on transience. From the implied impact of Grandma’s death on Grandpa to the embittered breakup of his parents’ marriage, or even the rare glimpse of a peacock’s tail, Bao’s experiences teach him that everything comes and goes as abruptly as that typhoon. This truth is expressed in a quietly crushing scene when, instead of comforting Bao at a sad moment, Grandpa advises him to “get used to loneliness.”
The city/country divide that concerned Hou’s generation of artists has intensified beyond recognition, and Chang explores the demise of urban families, epitomized by how Bao is neglected by his parents; he’s lavished with fancy toys, but his sneakers are worn through.
The helmer’s hand is almost imperceptible in the lovely ensemble acting of the young cast, culled from elementary schools all over Taiwan. Bao and Seaweed’s barbed altercations provide the film’s most animated moments, aided by Yang and Lin’s ability to play siblings convincingly; Lin is especially memorable as a puckish little terror. As aboriginal Bear, Gao maintains a noble poise that shines through the poverty and squalor around her.
All tech credits are just right. While human activity is recorded with candid, docu-style realism, idyllic images of the landscapes inspire a Wordsworthian awe of nature. Chang’s works, notably “Zhong Zi” (1996) and “Darkness and Light” (1999), are defined by complex contrasts of light and darkness; here, the play on light is less studied, although the film takes on darker hues in the second half.