Criterion Prediction #150: A Summer at Grandpa’s, by Alexander Miller
Title: A Summer at Grandpa’s
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Wong Kai-Gwong, Nai-Chu Ting, Lee Suk-Ching, Lin Hsiu-Ling
Synopsis: Two young siblings, Ting-Ting and Tung-Tung, experience rural life while staying at their grandparents’ house in the country while their mother is in the hospital.
Critique: The atmospheric tenor of the Taiwanese New Wave is remarkable in that there’s such a considerable degree of contrast and consistency among the films and filmmakers within the movement. While Edward Yang, Tsai Ming Liang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien are their own artists with traits and merits that make their films singular, they share a unifying aesthetic tether, the narratives are built on moments rather than conventional structure, the structural urgency stems from cultural and political undercurrents rather than traditional dramatic/thematic foundations. In A Summer at Grandpa’s Hou Hsiao-hsien takes the coming of age model and with relative ease contorts a potent but leisurely realized narrative from the point of view of two children, who spend their summer vacation at their grandparents house while their mother is in the hospital. Throughout, Hou rounds out the film by lending ample amounts of time to the activities of the kids with the same level of attention that a child would invest. An afternoon swim with neighborhood kids, racing pet turtles, and palling around become the film’s most dominant sequences while the escapist tendencies of childhood are periodically shaken with the uneasy parallel of the adult world. But things like violence, prejudice, and mental illness are presented with the bewildering otherness that feels organic in realizing the impression they’ll have on our young protagonists. Acts of malice (a man hurls a rock at the head of a sleeping adversary) and mental illness (a developmentally disabled woman is a subject of interest to the community) are impactful but not entirely comprehensible.
A Summer at Grandpa’s is a simply rendered and unforgettable realization of growing up in a sad and beautiful world that perfectly captures the youthful capacity and sense of understanding of a child’s point of view.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Interest in the director’s earlier work has received more attention recently with a Masters of Cinema release that contains The Green, Green Grass of Home, The Boys from Fengkuei, and Cute Girl in their first worldwide releases.
However, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s has been barely released; a second-rate YesAsia DVD is the only “official” way to see the film on home video. Rumors have swirled that Criterion would release some of the director’s earlier works. Let’s hope that means they’ll either pluck from the previously mentioned titles on the Masters of Cinema set (along with Daughter of the Nile, also available thanks to the MOC collection) or surprise us with something further off the radar like A Summer at Grandpa’s.