10 May 2002 | jandesimpson
The reality of childhood
A boy and his little sister are taken by their young uncle to spend their summer holiday at the country house of their grandparents. They leave behind their father and a seriously ill mother who is hospitalised and awaiting an operation. This comparatively early work by the great Taiwanese director Hou Xiaoxian has an idyllic look that is utterly deceptive. Hou is too complex an artist to merely capitalise on the charms of children and landscape. Indeed, although bathed almost throughout in bright sunshine, the film has a hard edge with never a hint of sentimentality. Hou always makes his audience work hard at making connections leading to understanding. Here he goes one step further by placing his young protagonists in an insecure world that strains their limited resources of comprehension and understanding. The small girl understands little so spends her time clinging to a single toy, more often than not a pink model of an electric fan. Between them the children have to cope with barely understood encounters such as a mentally retarded girl who has been seduced by a lecherous birdcatcher and two youths who have mugged and robbed a truck driver. Even the children themselves are no angels. The girl, irked by being left out of the group of boys' swimming games, reacts by throwing their clothes in the river, while earlier, the boys tease a tortoise by driving a remotely controlled toy car at it. Even the eponymous Grandpa is not the nice old buffer that the title might convey. He is a country doctor and something of a tetchy martinet. Although not overtly unkind, he is obviously put out by anything that upsets his routine even to the extent of angrily attacking his son's moped with a bar of wood when he learns he has got his girlfriend pregnant. Make no mistake, the charm of childhood as depicted in a film like "The Railway Children" or even the wonderment of seeing things through innocent eyes - the marvellous "Pather Panchali" - are not part of this equation. Even what seems at first sight to be an idyllic river valley is scarred by an ugly road flyover. In his completely unsentimental depiction of childhood Hou has given us a work of piercing observation and integrity.