Reviews and notes
1987 Berlin, Hong Kong, Sydney, Toronto, London
Dust in the Wind
has been called ‘the perfect Hou film and the perfect New [Taiwanese] Cinema film’ by Hou expert James Udden, and it remains one of the director's most beloved and admired works. A miracle of humane observation and formal perfection – the film's train sequences have been justly celebrated – Dust
is a quiet heartbreaker about a young man and woman who quit high school and leave their hillside mining village for Taipei. (The film proved popular enough to transform this mountainside community into a pilgrimage site for Taiwanese tourists nostalgic for the past.) Instead of a better life, the two young lovers drift in the inhospitable city – she as a seamstress, he as a delivery boy – and their relationship is further tested when he goes off to do his compulsory military service. Measured and melancholic, Dust in the Wind
‘consolidates Hou Hsiao-hsien's reputation as Taiwan's leading humanist director’ (Alan Stanbrook).
- TIFF Cinematheque.
For a moment, it's possible to take the first image of Dust in the Wind
for that of some bright celestial body, swinging in space. Then it becomes apparent that it is the semicircle of light at the end of a tunnel, with a train curving towards it. Flashing into the open, then through a quick succession of tunnels and open lush countryside, the train is carrying Ah Wan and Ah Huen home from what seems to have been an unhappy day at school; walking up the steep streets of their hillside village, with clouds gathering in the dusk above the surrounding mountains, they see a flapping sheet being pinned up in one of the streets: "They're going to show a movie". In a few deft shots, of placidly insistent duration, carefully framed in depth but seeming to lead the eye nowhere in particular (just as those tunnels lead in a graceful parabola of no specifiable direction), Hou Hsiao-Hsien creates a palpable mood of loneliness and isolation. Timeless and self-sufficient as this kind of community, a mining town, might seem to be - one wonders what images of the world will reach it on that screen - there's a vulnerability, even a ghostliness, here that could be the fate of locked-in communities in locked-in islands like Taiwan.
The theme, in other words, might be that no people are an island, least of all those who live on an island. Dust in the Wind revolves round Ah Wan and Ah Huen - the couple who seem destined for each other, though destiny decides otherwise - and their circle of family, friends and acquaintances as they shuttle back and forth between their country village and Taipei. That circle is expanded at the end, however, most elusively and vulnerably, with an unsettling sense of ghostly visitation, when a boat carrying a family from Mainland China is washed up on Quemoy, Taiwan's further island outpost, where Ah Wan and other young national servicemen keep vigil. The soldiers take the family in, ply them with food (first having to overcome their fear that it is poisoned), help to repair their boat, and then see them on their way with gifts of their own personal possessions (including a transistor radio playing a pop song that drifts back to the island). "It was", says Ah Wan, "as if we were celebrating a marriage".
The food and the gifts are a trail that can be traced back through the film. They constitute the most obvious, and perhaps most fragile, chains of affection, of connectedness, and hope for the future. When Ah Wan announces that he is giving up his formal education to work in Taipei, his father is far from delighted ("If you want to be a cow, there'll always be a plough for you"); later, however, he sends his son, who is also taking night-school classes in Taipei, the gift of an expensive Timex watch. Anxiously, Ah Wan writes to his sister to find out how much this is costing a month (the Timex, advertised as 100% waterproof, he keeps in a glass of water as if this were its natural habitat), and remembers how his father lent him his own watch, which was too big, through his junior schooling. "For three generations, there has been no future in study for this family", Ah Wan's father tells him towards the end, expressing dissatisfaction not with education itself but with Taiwan's peculiar historical circumstances which have frustrated it (he recalls his own experience when even learning the language was made difficult because it had been 'infected' by Japanese). Similarly, when Ah Wan is about to leave for the army, his boss reflects on the different significance national service had for his generation, when only four out of the thirty conscripts from his street returned.
The cross-generational portrait of Taiwan sketched here will be drawn in full by City of Sadness
. But Dust in the Wind
also works it out fascinatingly at a microcosmic level, in terms of how this one small community sustains and supports itself at the most basic level, and the forces working to destabilise it. Which brings up the theme of food, of health and sickness, of the enclosed community and the outside influences which might or might not be 'infections'. Grandfather (who spends most of his time tending a stubborn potato patch) is first seen trying to coax one of the younger members of the family to eat with a dish bought in Taipei, something eaten in restaurants by Westerners. The child, evidently, is in his mother's bad books because of his habit of sneaking MSG from the kitchen, an expensive as well as unhealthy taste (a bit of family comedy 'magnified' in the worry of the Mainland Chinese about being poisoned by their hosts). In Taipei, one of Ah Wan's duties is to deliver a lunch pail to his boss' son at school, and when he loses this in a scuffle one day the boy is brought back from school apparently having fainted from hunger.
Ah Wan subsequently suffers his own collapse from bronchitis, while sheltering for the night in a police station where he watches a TV programme on mining. In the onset of his delirium, this leads into a kind of flashback to his father's accident in a mine, from which he is seen returning from hospital at the beginning of the film. Ah Wan's illness in Taipei, for which he refuses to see a doctor, immediately precedes a long monologue from grandfather, in which he rambles over the family history (Ah Wan's father was apparently adopted), and over mysterious maladies whose cure could only be entrusted to a shaman. The bonds of the past, as fierce and fast as they seem, thus have their own fragility, their makeshift and magic quality, which Dust in the Wind
rhymes with the mundane magic of the present (all the trains toing and froing, the emphasis on signals which signify everything and nothing). The quiet order and harmony established by Hou's formalism, dovetailed with his characters' naturalistic disorder, the kids making do and scraping by, has its echoes in Bresson or early Olmi. His own keynote, though, the signal to his central theme, may be the adolescent love of Ah Wan and Ah Huen, whose understatement seems its strength, until Ah Huen, plumping for a postman (of "more stature" than Ah Wan, according to her mother), indicates that there are no links here so strong, certainly no 'marriage', as to be taken for granted.
- Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin, April 1990.
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