Review: Mortality Confronted in ‘Father to Son’

The slipperiness of Hsiao Ya-chuan’s style in his 2018 feature Father to Son is a natural continuation of his genre-blurring filmography. Two of his previous films, also playing at TWFF 2020, Taipei Exchanges (2010) and Mirror Image (2001), duck and weave through rules and conventions to present narratives and abstract ideas that resonate with familial angst, personal trauma, and broader political strife in Taiwan. In Father to Son, the ideas developed in those previous films coalesce into a shimmering and mutating new kind of film: one that somehow melds sickly smooth dolly pans, Tarantino-esque black and white flashbacks, and hyper-detailed naturalistic close ups while deftly avoiding destabilizing our viewing experience. We find ourselves relaxing as we adjust and adapt, moving in parallel with the complex film to engage once again with some of Hsiao’s rich subject matter. This time we patiently await the imminent death of Van Pao-Te (Chung-Kun Huang), a father and son, diagnosed with a terminal pancreatic illness. 

The film channels Akira Kurosawa’s  quiet masterpiece Ikiru (1952), where a man with a deadly stomach ulcer grimly accepts his fate and slowly moves toward death. Hsiao however, is interested in the contradiction between the hushed, solemn inner journey of a man on his way to death, and the epic, fable-like proportions of living in a mortal world and facing your mortality. And so at the centre of this larger-than-life tale is Pao-Te, who is unquestionably less-than-life in his demeanour. The pain of our protagonist is dismissed by his gruff stoicism, and the occasional philosophical ruminations that play in voiceover, from a series of different characters, seem at odds with the relative quietude with which our hero contemplates his life or death conundrum.

The sudden imposition of a deadline to at once hash out a legacy and to bring closure to painful loose ends is put upon Pao-Te, stalling his modest career as an inventor. Simulated here is the strange clash embedded in life’s final stages: the staggering unpredictable chaos of a race to find meaning, positioned against the terrible tedium of actually seeking it out. It would, of course, be simpler to smile and enjoy routine, as Pao-Te does in the film’s opening, like some Jarmuschian figure of both satire and worship, holstering his wrench on his belt as he goes to fix the pipes at the local hospital. It is at this repair job however, that the sudden pain in his abdomen sends him to emergency healthcare and in turn finally gives way to a sudden pressure to figure things out before his time is up.

What follows is a rewarding, if at times confounding tale of paternal love, politics, and temptation. Hsiao is characteristically unconcerned by plot and structure, and the film is more impressionistic as a result, pulsing through time and space to illustrate the unwanted and messy obligations of being made aware of one’s mortality. The film interweaves a series of narratives, all of which weigh, in some way or another, on the battered but quiet psyche of the dying Pao-Te. 

Pao-Te’s son, Van Ta-Chi (Meng-Po Fu), begs his father to seek pleasure and fulfilment, and also treatment for his illness. Instead Pao-Te begins his murky quest to find relief in the mystery of his own estranged father, possibly still alive and living in Tokyo. Meanwhile, a local district election consumes the edgelands of the film, with Pao-Te’s relatives, lovers, and old friends distracted by politics. Scattering the priorities of the characters even further, one plotline follows a young man, who shares the name Van, arriving in Pao-Te’s hometown having travelled from Hong Kong. His presence carries with him an unexplored connection to the election, Pao-Te, and fatherhood. Each of these threads play like echoes or ripples, just out of Pao-Te’s reach. They all generate a need to make amends, but all are too late. There’s no time.

These pieces never quite come together to intersect at some linear point. They are not framed by a narrative that anthologises them into unity. Instead, they push and press on one another, asking us, the viewer, to glean their meaning and connection to the begrudging nihilism of our main character. Our failure in never truly relating the meaning of these figures and events to Pao-Te again echoes the futility of a time sensitive quest for closure. Just as Pao-Te goes through the motions of trying to reconcile with his past, his father, and his son, we must drudge through the process of detecting greater meaning ourselves. 

Hsiao asks us to wonder, if the fixation on a greater point – a specific tonic for our regrets and woes – is not the source of pain itself. Is Pao-Te’s act of accepting his behaviours as selfish, or selfless, or worst of all, unmotivated by anything, more damaging than any of these traits in isolation? It’s unclear. But the film is optimistic, showing us that even though Pao-Te’s quest failed to resolve his existential anxiety, the drive and purpose he found in undertaking such a personal journey brought comfort and peace to those around him. His newfound and final obsession with meaning reassures his son and fellow compatriots of the existence of his emotions. To die in pain – in a state of incomplete anguish – at least meant that he felt something.

And so this cloudy sensation of something lingers for us. We arrive at the film’s end unsure how to string it into something cohesive for our own satisfaction. But the feeling of something missing brings us closer to the experience of Van Pao-Te’s self-grief. Hsiao’s film is a challenging experience. The stream-of-consciousness style lends itself to a sophisticated and rich portrait of a man confronted not by his death, but the sudden need to account for his life. The deficiency of time and introspection to determine purpose and meaning in existence is laid bare, leaving us to contemplate how else we might nourish ourselves on comfort and emotion before our own demise. 

Father to Son is available to stream from as part of the 2020 Taiwan Film Festival from 9 – 30 July.

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Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.

Zach Karpinellison

Zach Karpinellison is lucky enough to put films on screen almost every day as projectionist for Golden Age Cinema and Bar. He writes reviews and criticism and gets very angry about Netflix pretending to be woke. Every Monday night he co-hosts a radio show called Send Moods for SURG FM and his super specific content can be found @karpinellison.