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When a well known businessman goes missing, owing $100m to Taipei's underworld, two hoods decide to follow his son, the leader of a youth gang. A small group of trendy foreigners gets caught up in the action.
Based on a true story, primarily on a conflict between two youth gangs, a 14-year-old boy's girlfriend conflicts with the head of one gang for an unclear reason, until finally the conflict comes to a violent climax.
'Growing Up', coming out of the context of the Taiwanese 'New Wave', was directed by Chen Kunhou (also spelled Chen Gwen-Ho), and was written by Hou Hsiao Hsien. This alone makes it worth tracking down for students or fans of Taiwanese film, and it does repay viewing, though in a typically Taiwanese understated manner, in which there is more going on under the surface than is immediately apparent.
The story focuses upon a boy called Xiao Bin, or Young Bin. The Chinese title of the film is indeed 'The Story of Xiao Bin', which casts light upon the beginning of the story, for the child, an illegitimate son, was initially Xiao Lin. He only became Xiao Lin when his mother entered a marriage of convenience with a mainlander who was much older than her, and all alone in Taiwan. Without overstating or overdetermining motives or reasoning, his life with his mother and new father is followed as he progresses through primary and high school. Along the way, there is the addition of younger brothers, truancy and assorted adolescent problems, young romance, and family problems. Continuity during gaps in the story is preserved by a woman narrator, who had appeared then as his classmate and neighbour.
Beneath this rather simple story there lie a number of questions regarding the psychology of the characters and the intricacies of their relationships. Occasional outbursts of anger, frustration and violence provide more obvious signposts into such motivations, but as in life itself, even oneself is often not entirely aware of the reasons for much of one's own actions. The audience is left to tease much of this out, and cast back onto their own insights into humanity. This vagueness may have been frustrating had the characters been flat and unconvincing, but they felt so entirely authentic that one could say that they were either superbly acted, or that they were not acted at all, that they were indeed who they were, without the involvement of artistry.
Coming out of the context of the Taiwanese New Wave, this film is located in a specific place and time, touching upon issues pertinent to the context, for instance, the relationship between Mainlanders and Native Taiwanese, as encapsulated by the marriage of convenience. American music is also present, though not to the same extent as in 'A Brighter Summer's Day', by Edward Yang. But like the motivations and attitudes of the characters themselves, these are present as nuances and subsurface details rather than as topics for didactic exposition.
Wonderfully understated, superbly acted and a pristine example of directorial restraint, I would not hesitate to recommend this work to anyone interested in Taiwanese film, and even to those who are unfamiliar with it. The involvement of Hou Hsiao Hsien makes it of immediate interest to his legion of fans. On the other hand, it would be quite accessible to those viewers unfamiliar with the details of Taiwanese history and merely looking for a human-interest story. It is entertaining, often humorous, and moving. In sum, 'Growing Up' is well worth seeing.
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