The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in Hsiao Ya-chuan’s tale of generational distance.
“If people are in charge of their own death, they become very, very brave.”
This is the line Hou (Lung Shao-hua) says to Van Pao-te (Huang Chung-kun) as they are driven home after a big night out. Both are turning 60, but while Hou seems to be living his best, wildest life now, Van is not. Having been diagnosed with a threatening illness, he is facing his own mortality, and several things are plaguing his mind: most glaringly is the mystery of his own father, who vanished out of existence fifty years ago, leaving Van and his mother alone.
Ignoring his doctor’s advice to go to Taipei and get treatment, Van – a hardware store owner and part-time inventor – uses a business trip to Japan to investigate the matter further. He brings with him his son, Ta-Chi (Fu Meng-po), and as he starts to learn more about his father’s true life, begins to consider his own: where he’s been, and where he’s going, and how it might be affecting his own son.
Endurance and patience are two of the biggest aspects to Father to Son, which also looks at the generational divide among Taiwanese families, and the relationship between fathers and sons. These all form the basis to Van’s entire character. He’s always taken life blow by blow, as evidenced by his mantra: “it is what it is”. His stubborn stoicism, a typical trait of Asian Baby Boomers is equally a great strength and a terrible fault. It’s what makes him a strong – if somewhat distant – family man, but also the reason he refuses to see a doctor. The illness means little to him, except that he might die without knowing the truth about his own father.
Writer-director Hsiao Ya-chuan intersperses flashbacks sporadically and infrequently enough that they don’t become a storytelling crutch; instead the sparse usage of this technique allows them to play pivotal roles in Van’s journey. Moments are unfolded to him as they are to us, and with him we learn how his history has shaped who he is now, and the way he is treating is own family. A final shot, which shows the events immediately following his decision to leave his family, details the reason why he turned back in a rather beautiful fashion. The flashbacks appear to Van more as dream sequences, but linger for far longer, and actually mean something.
The themes of abandonment and returning are quite prevalent in the drama. Hotel owner Kuo Yu-Chin (Aria Wang) almost bookends the movie with a story about how she fled and returned to the small town, Every major character in the town is connected, through business, elections or history and they can’t seem to leave – but this isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing. Hsiao imbues all the story with lots of humanity – both the cheerful and tragic moments, and that will probably be your biggest takeaway from this.
Ultimately, Hsiao is more interested in building story through atmosphere and emotion over plot structure. This means that the movie ends up feeling a lot vaguer than one might expect, with long stretches of time devoted to moments which seem almost unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, all of them build nicely towards a highly detailed, complete portrait of the characters on the screen. There are not a tonne of films where you end up knowing the leads as closely as you do here, This means that you’re more willing to forgive the narrative if it means a satisfying character beat.
Technically, this movie is beautifully done – the work of an expert craftsman at the peak of his game. While the subject matters aren’t particularly thrilling (Laundromats, hotels, restaurants), they’re usually filmed in a way that emphasises the emotion of the scene over anything else, and this allows scenes to pop viscerally where they might otherwise bore: the flashbacks are told in a starkly different, almost noir-style black and white which seem to hint that it’s more of a history imagined by Van than reality. And then there’s the score, which knows exactly what it’s doing, never quite taking over any particular moment, but coming in just when it’s needed.
Father to Son is a very good film in many ways, but strangely I never felt 100% satisfied with it. Parts of the ending feel rushed, and some character decisions or big plot revelations don’t really make a tonne of sense. It’s still not clear even by the end just who exactly this new character from Hong Kong is, or why any of the election stuff should really matter. This does play into the emotion-over-coherence stuff I mentioned before, but it still leaves you wanting a little bit more. it’s a shame, as Father to Son is otherwise extremely enjoyable. But that is often the case with real life, and in the lives of these people: sometimes, things don’t end the way you want.
Verdict: It never quite reaches the heights it should, but Father to Son is nevertheless a very affecting personal drama.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: One bar brawl/10
Inter-relationships: Too many to count
Election results: Did any of that actually matter?
Father to Son (2018)
Also known as: Egy fiú meg az apja
Director: Hsiao Ya-chuan
Writer: Hsiao Ya-chuan
Huang Chung-Kun – Fan Pao-Te
Aria Wang – Kuo Yu-Chin
Fu Meng-Po – Fan Ta-Chi
Lung Shao-hua – Hou
Kaiser Chuang – Young Fan Pao-Te
Jag Huang – Fan Pao-Te’s Father
Samuel Ku – Newman (as Samuel K)
Wen Chen-Ling – Young Kuo Yu-Chin
Daniel Chen – Di
Teddy Chen – Nico
Kiyo Hasegawa – Asai Eiko
Tammy Darshana Lai – Mei-Yueh
Liu Ka-Shiang – Chien Cheng-Min
Lu Hsueh-Feng – Chuang Su-Ju