Beginning with Yasujirō Ozu, there is a long tradition of examining parental relations in Asian cinema, and Ya-chuan Hsiao’s Father to Son is no exception. Produced by the acclaimed Hou Hsiao-hsien, the drama masterfully develops themes such as impeding death and intergenerational tension. In the past, the interest in shaping a fatherly figure living under harsh societal conditions took shape in the works of the Taiwanese New Wave directors, whom attempted to reconcile with an actual or symbolic father. Unlike Tsai Ming-liang, whose approach in The River inclines towards extreme alienation in a divided family, Hsiao imagines a moving story about a father’s quest for identity. Furthermore, and similarly to Edward Yang’s preoccupation with displacement and the conditioning of history upon the individual, the narrative background related to the secession period from Mainland China provides empathy and warmth.
Father to Son follows a multi-linear narrative, with its central one focusing on 60-year-old Van Pao-Te, an amateur inventor and owner of a hardware shop, who finds out he is suffering from a life-threatening disease. Instead of fighting to survive, Van embarks on a trip to Japan with his son in search of the father who abandoned him in his youth. Organized by chapters, the plot mixes the past with the present and intertwines three generations of memories. The stories take place between the family-owned workshop, a laundromat and an old hotel — places that seem to be connected by the protagonist’s hidden past. There’s a sense of camaraderie between Van and his son, with the two communicating through walkie-talkies in a workshop or leaving playful recorded messages for one another. However, the display of affection is scarce, as the father keeps his son at a distance and manifests his care through imposing advice.
The film opens with bold, greenish hues as Van Pao-Te leaves home in the middle of the night — an image that is repeated and reshaped throughout, mirroring the protagonist’s past and marked by the abandonment of his father when he was only 10 years old. The flashback visuals are shot in striking black and white with beautiful smoky shadows and contours, yet the distinction between the past and the present isn’t that simplistic. The transition between colour and monochromatic images isn’t smooth or meant to mark flashbacks, but the strong contrast feels appropriate. As the story unfolds, viewers learn that Mei, the laundromat owner, is also sick, and that she left her unexperienced niece from Taipei, Nico, to take care of the business. The girl is obviously the centre of attention for Van and his friend, a plot that seems to be reflected in the past by the younger version of the protagonist, and a younger Kuo Yu-Chin, the present owner of the hostel.
As a starting point for the intrigue, the journey to Japan is developed at a rather slow pace, with the director giving priority to poetic interludes and constantly changing the perspective. Moreover, the stories blend so indistinguishably that one maybe can’t recognize the changing point of views as the narrative oscillates between diegetic and alternating non-diegetic female and male voice-overs that sometimes spread over images corresponding to the present. Although the narrative paths are intermingled, the work is rather atmospheric, based on the replication of the intergenerational pairs and the dilemma of whether the “stories from the past hide in the future” or how “stories from the future hide in the past.” Whatever the case, Van Pao-Te does everything in his power not to repeat the mistakes of his father.
Furthermore, the backdrop of Taiwan’s complicated history contributes to understanding the conflicted parenting approaches and the reasoning behind the cold-hearted behaviour. In the Taiwanese society, the family ethics revolve around a patriarchal figure, who is supposed to be sacrificial. After years of repression, the Cold War found Taiwan in a delicate position as a post-colonial society that didn’t have a coherent identity. In this context, the father is expected to be a provider, a concept that receives more importance than displays of affection or personal desires. The film’s cinematography supports this belief in a scene when Van has his first pancreas crisis on a ladder, filmed from below in a crooked position, as if an idol has fallen off the pedestal. However, unlike fellow Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, who dealt with the dissolution of the family and a shift from the father’s dominance in Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Hsiao brings tenderness and repressed feelings to the surface.
While some might find the intricate stories hard to follow, Father to Son’s strength lies in its ambiguity. The apple is bound to fall close to the tree, for better and for worse, and the film relies on the emotional awakening in the face of death. Although charged with drama, the film’s aesthetic is remarkably uncluttered, with each impressive painting-like image reminding of Wong Kar-wai’s cinematography. In one of the few scenes showing affection and physical contact, with the son washing the back of his vulnerable father in the same sauna where he enjoyed his youth and freedom, the narrative reaches a heartbreaking climax. As expressed throughout the film, repressing one’s own feelings isn’t only a self-defence mechanism, but a subtle parenting technique. The father’s strength lies in knowing when to “protect the heart by pretending to have no heart,” and the moment when he chooses to do so is devastating.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.