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A Chinese cinema classic that stands the test of time
I have the privilege to catch this classic film at a special screening with the film's director Lee Hsing.
From the opening voice-over, read in classical Chinese, the period setting and the meaning behind the title of the film "Execution in Autumn" are firmly established. Almost immediately, we're trust into the action of an escaping death row convict, who despite his relentless efforts, are overwhelmed and caught by his jailers. The head jailer is especially harsh as he meted out his punishment towards the condemned man. Pei Gang (played by Ou Wei) was earlier sentenced by the magistrate to death for committing 3 cruel murders,even though he claimed that the killings were acts of self defense. We learnt that Pei Gang was in fact a spoiled brat and a bully. He also had a doting grandmother who promised that she'll get him out of any trouble, including death row. Pei will not be executed until next Autumn, which gave him about one year's time. When all efforts to get him out seem to fail, what will his next course of action be? The central theme of the story is not so much about his escape, but rather the transformation of this man from evil to good, from running away and blaming others into accepting responsibility for his actions and eventually, accepting his fate...
Lee Hsing is known as one of the four best directors of Chinese cinema at that time, with the other three being Lee Han Hsiang, King Hu and Bai Jing Rui. The recognition and friendship of the four directors are forever sealed when they made the anthology film, "Joy Anger Sadness Happiness" in 1970, with each director helming a short film concerning one of the 4 universal human emotions. While Lee Han Hsiang is usually famous for his extravagant period pieces, Lee Hsing is more well known for his realistic social drama, such as "Oyster Girl", "Good Morning Taipei", "End of the Alley" and his contemporary literary adaptations. "Execution in Autumn" is one of his rare foray into period setting, yet it is also widely recognized as of his best film, if not his very best.
The technical aspects from the cinematography to the editing are top notch, even compared to this day. The authentic period set is also a remarkable feat in production design, especially the jail cell and its compound, which is built in CMCP largest studio, considered to be one of Asia's largest in its day.
The editing helps to pace the story and mood, and even the dialogue is kept to what's necessary for character development and story. According to Lee Hsing, this is an original screenplay, inspired by the old Chinese folklore about the condemned criminal who bit off his mother's nipple in spite, blaming her for not being strict with him, hence he grew up to be a condemned criminal. The essence of this folklore is the basis for "Execution in Autumn", as the mother's role is performed by the granny, although an extra dimension is added when the transformation and redemption of the condemned man is portrayed in the film.
The director Lee Hsing, now 82 years old, watched the whole film and even stayed behind for a post-screening Q&A session. It's remarkable that he still possess vivid memory on the making of this film, which dates back to more than 30 years ago. The anecdotes that he shared with the audience, from the selection of the male lead, to the efforts in building the realistic set and creating the four seasons that highlight the passing of time, is a Masterclass in film making.
Being a student and fan of Chinese cinema, one can't help but admired the efforts of the visionary artists behind the making of this classic. In 2005, "Execution in Autumn" was being selected into the 100 best Chinese films of the past century. With its timeless lessons about morals and life, the top-notch technical aspects and execution, I have no doubt that it will continue to stand the test of time and draw in new fans of Chinese cinema.
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