Ta-nien, a young man from Taipei, arrives at a rural school to replace the teacher who leaves for Indonesia due to labor issues. It is comprehensive but demanding, funny but responsible. A model teacher. Of his pupils excel three, only due to a narrative need; for him they are all equally important. The three musketeers – that’s how the boys are known – are clear about what they want to be when they grow up: farmer, soldier and teacher. One will produce the wealth of the homeland, another will defend it from its enemies, the last one will be in charge of transmitting the values of the first two to the new generations. They are the future of the Taiwanese state, which will be healthy, harmonious and anti-communist. One day, the teacher’s girlfriend arrives in town on board a BMW, made up and dressed according to fashion. It comes from the big city. She is frivolous, selfish and a friend of the foreigner. All she wants is for her boyfriend to return with her and forget her mission. Luckily there is another girl, small-town, honest and alien to cosmetics and dresses expensive and flashy. Ta-nien knows how to choose. But not all is so easy. There is a problem that must be resolved urgently: the river can become dangerous and pollute. The fault lies with two men who fish with the help of electricity and poison. Both behave very badly, but they do it for different reasons. The first one is sad and does not know what he is doing, that’s why we have to reconcile him with his son and educate him. The second is evil and that’s it, that’s why you have to put it in a hole and protect the people from its disastrous influence. Then, once everything is solved, the boys sing a song in the end of the year act. A song on the green grass, on the fish that stops and listens to how the clear water sings, on the rain and the wind. The name of the film is Green, Green Grass of Home and was directed by a man named Hou Hsiao-sien.
The Boys from Fengkuei, A Summer at Grandpa’s and A Time to Live, a Time to Die make up a trilogy of memory, to which Dust in the Wind may perhaps add. They all precede to City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women, the trilogy of History that would make Hou known worldwide, and to which Flowers of Shanghai can be added. The second group is quite famous but the first group has been a little neglected, probably due to the surprising succession of great films that Hou made since the eyes of the West discovered him after his consecration in Venice at the end of the eighties. It is not that his existence is ignored (that place corresponds to his oldest works), but in general the recognition of his merits goes together with his qualification of prologue of what came later.
The Boys from Fengkuei is a small and fundamental film in which one can notice a vocation of bonfire and manifesto. In effect: Hou is burning his previous work here and proposing an address for his future filmography. Its history can be read as a key as the narration of a double detachment. In the first place, that of its protagonist with respect to its pre-adult life groups. Then, the one of its director with respect to the official cinematographic code that until then had respected, and that can be observed in the history of Green, Green Grass of Home already summarized.
In relation to the first, Ah-ching, the central character, finds in his friends a framework of horizontal relationships opposed to the weakened but equally oppressive family verticality, which allows him to establish a first level of separation, linked to the experience of a present light that contradicts the mandate to assume responsibilities both in his personal life and in the home economy. The trip from their small community in the Pescadores Islands to an industrial city (Kaohsiung, in the south of the main island of the Taiwanese state) makes the dichotomy even more remarkable by determining a space for each group. The first moments in Kaohsiung clearly show the closeness of the three friends, which Hou communicates through the register of his surprised, voracious and, above all, equivalent look, as evidenced by his decision not to offer contraplanos of what is seen through windows of collective or department windows, and instead insist on the staging of the act of looking, always with the three young people in the same picture, as to reaffirm their overall experience.