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A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985)

Tóngnián wangshì (original title)
| Biography, Drama | 1988 (USA)
The semi-autobiographical film on director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's childhood and adolescence, when he was growing up in Taiwan, living through the deaths of his father, mother and grandmother.


Hsiao-Hsien Hou
8 wins & 5 nominations. See more awards »


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Credited cast:
Chia-bao Chang Chia-bao Chang
Neng Chang Neng Chang
Chih-Chen Chen Chih-Chen Chen
Han-wen Chen Han-wen Chen
Shu-Fang Chen Shu-Fang Chen
Bao-te Chiang Bao-te Chiang
Tung-hung Chou Tung-hung Chou
Ai Hsiao
Shu-Fen Hsin Shu-Fen Hsin ... Hsiao's love interest
Hsiang-Ping Hu Hsiang-Ping Hu
Tung-lai Kao Tung-lai Kao
Chung-Wen Lin Chung-Wen Lin
Kuo-bao Liu Kuo-bao Liu
Cheng-ye Lo Cheng-ye Lo
Shun-lin Lo Shun-lin Lo


This depiction of childhood and adolescence draws heavily from the filmmaker's own boyhood. Like many of their compatriots, Hou's family moved from the mainland to Taiwan in 1948 and was unable ever to return. The film focuses on the widening generation gap in a family cut off from its cultural heritage. Written by International Film Circuit <ifcplanet@aol.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Biography | Drama


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Official Sites:

International Film Circuit




Mandarin | Hakka

Release Date:

1988 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

A Time to Live and a Time to Die See more »

Filming Locations:


Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


(Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente) |

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider. See more »

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User Reviews

Not of any real worth; MAJOR SPOILERS, but I'm confident that everything I ruin is so predictable as to be unruinable
21 September 2001 | by zetesSee all my reviews

It's not that I despise this sort of realism, either. This is just an example of the most generic type of realism. It's a dime a dozen. It has no point whatsoever, really. The most effect I got out of it was watching it as a character study of Ah-Ha, the main character. He is the only character, besides Grandma, whom I'll discuss later on, whose name I could remember by the film's end, although there was a rift in my recognition of him after a long period of time was skipped and a new actor began to play him. There may even have been two skips in time; I'm not sure. My major criticism of this film I must state right here and now: to only be able to proceed in one's narrative by killing characters off is a sign of very poor authorship and a general lack of imagination. Many other films and novels have faced this problem, too. The most famous one, in my opinion, is Gone with the Wind, whose second half is little more than a series of pointless deaths, so much so that, to me, it became very laughable. Another good example is Zhang Yimou's To Live. The most important example, though, is Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and World of Apu. If you're worried that I might ruin those films for you, go ahead and skip down a bit. These three films seemed to have influenced Hou Hsiao-hsien's film greatly. In fact, the grandmother character seems to me to have been directly taken from Pather Panchali. In that film, an old aunt would wonder about and get lost and such. She was played mostly for humor, as is the grandmother in this film, but that aunt had pathos. Grandma here just seems silly. Okay, here's how predictable A Time to Live, a Time to Die is: within the first five minutes, in the opening narrative, the father's death is clearly foreshadowed. The title of the film, which is pretty generic in the first place, announces this film's subject and even its structure, for the most part. More than halfway through the film, the mother of the main family discovers a growth on her tongue - count her dead, my brain said. Half an hour later, we were at her funeral. To top it off, Grandma dies. Its her death that, for me, hammered the final nail in the coffin. Her death is so morbid that it becomes almost funny. Nearer the end of her life, she cannot move off her mat. She ends up defecating and urinating all over the floor (apparently with great force - the sh*t stains are something like half a foot from her anus, which, I assume, is still covered in some fashion; she must have been eating some extraordinarily spicy General Tso's Chicken or something). The teenagers who are taking care of her only discover her death is by the ants which have begun to devour her. And when the morticians begin to move her, well, let me put it this way: have you ever seen a frog that has been out of water for too long, dead with it's legs sticking straight up in the air? When the morticians move Grandma, her arms are stiff, so when she is moved, her arms, legs and all are so stiff that she is stuck in that position. Yes, I know that that's what would have happened, but it simply looks hilarious. Also, the side on which she lay was totally rotting away. I think the point is supposed to be that, with all the tragedy that they've experienced in their lives, these children just don't want to accept their grandmother's death, who was always so kind to them. Or maybe they didn't want even her shell to be taken away. But, during this moment which is supposed to be touching, it simply turns out to be foul. Grandma does happen to be the most entertaining and interesting character after Ah-Ha, so she really deserves more dignity than Hsiao-hsien is giving her. Compare the similar death in Pather Panchali, the only film in the Apu Trilogy whose tragedies I can accept; after that they just get repetitive as Hell. As for this film's first two deaths, we don't get to know the characters enough to care. You might think, and, yes, Hsiao-hsien must have been thinking, that just because these are the parents of Ah-Ha, the main character with whom we should be identifying (and are, for the most part), we should feel pain. Nope. That's not how it works. Even if they are the parents of a character with whom we identify, the screenwriter is required to build a touching and realistic relationship between the parents and the child. There was no such pathos involved in the situation. Pathetically, although not "pathetic" in the sense that I had any pathos, but rather in a sad and embarrassing manner, Hsiao-hsien tries to make us care about the father's death by having the mother cry profusely, knowing that people will be more likely cry if someone else is crying. This is no less dishonest than a laugh track. And I don't think anyone in the theater where I saw the film was falling for it. I've been hearing so much about Hou Hsiao-hsien in the past year that I was truly disappointed in this film. However, I'm not going to give up on him. There's a free program featuring many of his films at my university this semester, and I plan to take in every one I can. My rating for this particular film is 5/10.

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