The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983)
Cast: Kenny Bee, Jing-kuo Yen, Meifeng Chen
Directors: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Watching 1983’s rural semi-musical The Green, Green Grass of Home, one wouldn’t immediately recognize it as an early work of the future Taiwanese cinematic poet of memory, Hou Hsiao-hsien. Where are the intricately staged long takes, concerns about national history and identity, or brazen disregard for conventional notions of time and narrative? Yet as a transitional work between a journeyman career in the commercial cinema and being recognized as a personal auteur, the movie becomes interesting if still problematic. It follows Hou’s first two features Cute Girl and Cheerful Wind, also romantic comedies starring Cantopop star Kenny Bee, and introduces themes and elements that would recur in stronger, more original form later on.
…as a transitional work between a journeyman career in the commercial cinema and being recognized as a personal auteur, the movie becomes interesting if still problematic.
The Green, Green Grass of Home begins and ends with images of a railway, not only a “civilizing” influence like in an American Western but also simply a convenient mode of travel for entering a new milieu. On such a fateful ride, Bee arrives as a substitute teacher from the city starting a life in the country, an audience surrogate walking into a myriad of stories already taking place in the village. Filmed with the long lens and CinemaScope framing common to its era of Taiwanese commercial filmmaking, the movie touches on a wide range of domestic and communal issues within a gently comic framework. Schoolkids build friendships and enmities in the classroom and during recess; field trips turn into object lessons on civic pride; life extends outside the schoolhouse to entangle the teachers’ and students’ private worlds. The morality on display is summed up in platitudes about the environment and friendship; at best it approaches the didactic purity of Abbas Kiarostami’s early educational shorts aimed at children, but at worst it feels as preachy as an after-school special.
Through one lens, Green, Green Grass is merely a typical commercial product of its era, showcasing a pop star and pitched at the level of a mainstream Chinese consumer.
Through one lens, Green, Green Grass is merely a typical commercial product of its era, showcasing a pop star and pitched at the level of a mainstream Chinese consumer. The adult characters often appear more childish than their younger counterparts. The lead actor, for instance, plays a jumble of personality types: a newcomer fish-out-of-water, naive for a Taipei city boy and with some overly traditional notions of love and romance who ends up delivering a conservation lesson to the closer-to-nature village children and their parents. His tepid and tentative romance with a mostly dialogue-free Chen Meifeng and the sudden, disruptive arrival of a tempestuous ex-girlfriend from the city are equally unbelievable, and both situations get unsatisfactorily, artificially resolved. Especially in comparison to the richly complex roles for Shu Qi and Annie Shizuka Inoh that Hou would provide later in his career, such short thrift for two potentially interesting female characters is regrettable. Luckily the film gradually shifts from the broad comedy of the adult world to the ironically more sophisticated portrait of school-age life in the village.
The kids’ loose, naturalistic performances are the film’s most conventionally entertaining aspects, as well as where the director’s interests seem to lie. For the first time engaging in a playful, improvisational mode, Hou captures the heartfelt and burgeoning masculine interplay within the main circle of boys, gesturing towards his next few films that spring more directly from his own childhood experiences and echoing the humanity of Yasujirô Ozu’s child-centric comedies. The emotional toil of growing up, of discovering one’s lineage, and of finding a way to interact with the world and carve a place in it, are warmly and ingratiatingly depicted in occasional long takes, giving the non-professional performers (as opposed to the seasoned but more vaudevillian adults) room to truly act out their roles. Youthful freedom bucks against the compromises and constraints imposed by either well-meaning or hopelessly jaded adults. Although the few important schoolgirls get as little characterization as the older women, they’re still better integrated into the social fabric and included in the schoolyard proceedings, even if only as potential brides such as in one silly fantasy moment. Hou seems to do what he can by the time of the concluding school play, an amusingly child-like recapitulation of the plot, to merge the film’s kid and adult sensibilities into a coherent whole, but the care and detail of the former greatly overwhelms the generic contours of the latter.
One could argue that the ending’s many open-ended narrative strands indicate nothing more than lazy plotting, but their sheer profusion and emotional tenors point to a purposeful acknowledgment of irresolution. Just as Bee and his new bride ride the train to an unknown new phase of their life together, the children race behind and are that much closer to the confidence and responsibility of young adulthood, having been imbued with community pride at protecting a natural resource and among themselves made up for ill-founded past hostilities. But the next school year will inevitably bring new opportunities for both spite and growth, and antipathy towards the moral and parental failures of the grown-up world have barely been sublimated. Life goes on, in other words, symbolized by the bookend scenes of railroad cars that will become major motifs later in Hou’s career. While paling in comparison to his rigorous, mature works, The Green, Green Grass of Home remains a slight and diverting prelude to the masterpieces to come.
While paling in comparison to his rigorous, mature works, The Green, Green Grass of Home remains a slight and diverting prelude to the masterpieces to come.