Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: The Boys From Fengkuei

The Boys From Fengkuei (1983, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Even before he became the world reknowned and admired director he is today, Hou Hsiao-hsien was making intimate films that invited viewers to peek into the daily lives of ordinary people. Rather than being mundane, Hou capitalizes on the roller coaster of emotions that many of us can experience on any given day, caused by a great variety of events and encounters. Translated to film, it makes for a very realistic and often emotionally satisfying movie watching experience.

A case in point would have to be his 1983 effort, The Boys From Fengkuei. Spanning a few months in the lives of three close teenage boys, the film details their experiences as friends, hooligans, employees in a factory and loiterers. As the title suggests, this tight group of 3 are from the town of Fengkuei and seem to spend much of their days hanging around not doing much. Boys will be boys after all and eventually they get into some trouble with some rivals (and the law). They don't have a lot of money and are clearly aimlessly waisting the spare time away.

One of them has a family member living in a city not too far who can maybe hook them up with an apartment to live as they look for a job in any kind of factory that might accept them. The plan's execution starts out nicely, as the family member does indeed set them up in a relatively cozy place where all three can stay. What's more, they do in fact find a job at a factory in town. They soon make friends with their next door neighbours, a young couple not much older than them.

To go into any more details of the plot would be spoiling the film. As I stated above, what Hou often does well as a director is take what might appear on paper as potentially mundane and boring sequences and weave them together to create an interesting chapter in the lives of whomever his films is about. The Boys From Fengkuei isn't much of an exception to that trend, even though it is one of his earliest works. I guess you could say the trend began with this film. The three buddies are often quite fun to see roam around and find stupid or funny things to do. The banter between them is pretty good and it's clear that even though they might tease and slap one another around often, the teases and slaps are mostly affectionate. Well, there is one brief moment during which two of them really get annoyed with each other, but for the most part they stick together closely.

The young lady from the couple next door made for an intriguing character. Her partner is often away (usually at work), so she gets to spend a lot of time with the three boys. One could be forgiven for guessing that she would create a split in the camp, with one or several of the lads taking a particular liking to her, thus creating conflict amongst each other. While one of them clearly does begin to feel an attractiveness towards the girl, Hou retreats from falling into any cliché romance episodes. The main weapon against that lies in the fact that the girl truly does love her partner, and therefore wouldn't return any deep feelings towards any of the to begin with, which kind of makes the crush one of them has on her all the more sad and strangely satisfying. It's these small, naturalistic sensibilities that Hou brings to the film that gives it some life.

While I think the director has made better films with slightly more interesting characters later in his career (Flight of the Red Balloon being a great example), I still liked Boys From Fengkuei for all the small quirks and details it allocates its central group of teenage boys. They are in a transitional phase of their lives, meandering between immaturity, with scuffles in the sreets, getting piss drunk at night, and simply acting like clowns in front of others, and slowly but surely finding their ways into adulthood (first jobs, attractiveness to the opposite sex and enlistment into the army). With maybe the exception of the army enlistment part, us men of all gone through this phase in our lives, and although we may not have come from lower middle class families in Taiwan, there are more than enough similarities between what these three lads go through in the film and what you and I probably did as well in our youth. For that reason alone I consider The Boys From Fengkuei a good film. There is one dramatic event that occurs late in the film however, and I won't deny that perhaps I wasn't completely sold on it (or at least on how it fit into the movie), but what's one misstep in an overall good film?

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien would go of course to create any more films that were loved by movie buffs around the world, but it was interesting to see this earlier work of his and discover the similarities it has with some of his later material.

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