Effects come naturally to Hou Hsiao-hsien, he puts his camera on a locomotive lumbering out of a tunnel and gets an expanding iris -- a connection to the cradle of the medium, noted by the young sweethearts (Wang Jingwen, Xin Shufen) as they mosey through their tiny mining backwater and spot a vast sheet billowing by the tracks, "They are going to show a movie." The couple leaves for Taipei, the girl becomes a seamstress' helper and the boy takes to fumbling his lunch deliveries, they meet after work at a local theater where a wuxia epic is projected on the screen (cf. The World of Apu). The dislocation grows more painful in the big city than at home and, after a nod to De Sica, the characters are separated: Xin is left at the platform, Wang gets suddenly punched by loneliness by the shores while an oceanographer surveys the outline across the pond, virtually a Hokusai still-life. The long takes of A Time to Live and a Time to Die are outdone in their unstressed acuity -- Wang and Xin are having dinner at a buddy's studio, she presents him with a wristwatch which is passed around by their friends, he eats sulkily before abruptly leaving the table (the ensuing close-up of the watch resting on the bottom of a cup of water caps it). Even more remarkably, Hou achieves, like late Mizoguchi, the long-take feel in edited sequences. One passage, magically unbroken in rhythm, opens with the grandfather (Li Tianlu) on the doorsteps fashioning a wooden crutch, his hammering becomes one of many quotidian noises heard as Hou cuts to inside the house for an exchange between Wang and his mother, the next shot finds the boy and the old man waiting at the station with the crutch until the train pulls in and his father hobbles out. Illness brings the couple together, yet Wang is soon drafted for military duty and Xin marries someone else in his absence, emotion is an inescapable part of life's transience. A hundred such tragic severities reveal themselves furtively by Hou, whose touch is nevertheless as light and wry as the aged yarn-spinner who gives his departing grandson a firecracker send-off and, luminously, pauses to breath in the vanishing lushness of rural Taiwan.
--- Fernando F. Croce