For many young people, the time period immediately after their high school graduation is a crucial phase in which their lives could take many different paths depending on the decisions they make. This is especially true for those who don’t go to college and either go to work, are drafted into the military or hang out with friends before adult responsibilities consume their lives. Falling into the latter category is 1983’s The Boys of Fengkuei (The original Taiwanese title Feng gui lai de ren roughly translates as All the Youthful Days), an evocative coming-of-age drama from internationally renowned director Hsiao-Hsien Hou.
Set in the seaside village of Fengkuei, which is on Penghu Island, just off the west coast of Taiwan, the film charts the day to day misadventures of Ah-Ching (Dose Niu), a high school dropout, and his pals Ah-Jung and Kyo-tzu as they make mischief and party to the annoyance of their families and villagers. Fengkuei is clearly an economically depressed village with little to no work opportunities for young people. Even if there were, Ah-Ching and his pals have no discernible job skills and aren’t ready to give up their freedom for a dead-end factory job or follow the examples set by their traditional minded parents.
The true protagonist of The Boys of Fengkuei is Ah-Ching and he is frustrated and haunted by his family situation which requires him to help his mother take care of his handicapped father (He suffered a permanent head injury from playing baseball and now sits smiling into the distance, incapable of speech or simple tasks like feeding himself).
The aimlessness of the boys and their rebellious nature eventually lead them into volatile situations involving a local delinquent gang and attracts the attention of the local police. Realizing their days are numbered before they wind up in jail or in the military, the trio flee to the nearby port city of Kaohsiung where Ah-Jung has a sister (Director Hsiao-Hsien makes a cameo appearance in this sequence as a card playing gambler).
Life in a major port town proves to be no better than their stifling village but at least it seems exciting and new in the beginning. The boys manage to get an apartment through the help of Chin-ho (Tou Chung-hua), a friend of Ah-Jung’s sister. Hsiao-hsing (Hsiu-ling Lin), Chin-ho’s live-in girlfriend, soon becomes an object of desire for Ah-Ching but he is too reticent to express his feelings and mostly becomes an observer to Chin-ho and Hsiao-hsing’s turbulent relationship.
Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s film is not plot heavy and is mainly anecdotal in nature but the overall effect has a cumulative emotional power. Everything in the movie feels real and organic. Nothing seems contrived or irrelevant even if the lives of Ah-Ching and his friends seem devoid of purpose or direction. If anything, The Boys of Fengkuei feels like an Italian neorealism drama transplanted to Taiwan (comparisons to Fellini’s I Vitelloni  have been noted by various reviewers). In fact, the trio sneak into a movie theater at one point which is showing Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and complain to each other because the movie is in black and white and there are no explicit sex scenes.
This scene will later contrast ironically with an experience in the city after a shady street vendor sells the boys tickets to a private porno movie. The theater venue turns out to be a deserted room in an unfinished high rise building and the boys realize their naivete has marked them as suckers. The so-called screen is actually a windowless opening that looks out over the city through a cinemascope-like frame, leaving the boys to imagine their lives in the bustling world below.
Hsiao-hsien Hou aficionados and film critics often point to The Boys of Fengkuei as the film that first established some of the director’s stylistic trademarks and even Hou himself considers it his true starting point as a director. If you have seen some of Hsiao-hsien’s later work you will notice some of his visual trademarks such as static compositions in the manner of a Yasujiro Ozu film where action can be taking place in the foreground, middle ground or background or all at the same time, creating a sense of life being lived in real time.
Hou also employs a sparse but effective use of flashbacks to show how scenes from Ah-Ching’s childhood connect and resonate with his current emotional state. Equally noteworthy is the director’s use of musical cues from famous classical composers like Bach and Vivaldi to score brief non-dialogue scenes that show the boys involved in some insignificant activity or simple pleasure. It might seem like the music is bringing a level of profundity to the scene and perhaps it is since the boys are at a pivotal point in their lives and constantly aware of how soon everything will change. They can’t fight the future so they might as well play pool, get drunk or play pranks on each other. Their last stand before they have to go their separate ways is to sell pirated music cassettes on the streets of Kaohsiung.
The film builds to a bittersweet ending in which Hsiao-hsing departs for a new life in Taipei with Ah-Ching escorting her to the bus. Throughout their friendship, he is never able to reveal his true feelings for her. In fact, keeping his thoughts locked inside his head without being able to articulate them is part of his problem. Only in the final scene of The Boys from Fengkuei, when Kuo-tzu announces he is being drafted, does Ah-Ching finally spring into action. He climbs up on a crate on a crowded city street and begins hawking the bootleg tapes his two friends are selling, except that he turns the carny pitch into a sarcastic, non-conformist rant. He has finally found his voice, even if he can’t stop time from bringing inevitable change.
Hsiao-hsien is considered one of the most important directors in the first wave of the New Taiwanese Cinema from 1982-1980, a movement which favored personal, often autobiographical works about national identity and life over popular genre filmmaking. Among his most acclaimed works are A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), A City of Sadness (1989), the first film in Hou’s ‘Taiwan History’ trilogy, Dust in the Wind (1986) and The Assassin (2015), which won Hou the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Most of Hsiao-hsien’s earlier work was unavailable for viewing in the U.S. until recent years when Eureka! Masters of Cinema in the U.K. released a PAL Blu-ray 3-film set entitled Early Hsiao-Hsien: Three Films 1980-1983. It includes new digital restorations of Cute Girl (1980), The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) and The Boys from Fengkuei and is available from online sellers in the U.K. (You will need an all-region Blu-ray player to view them).
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