21.4.2020

‘In Our Time’ — an ode to the 80s.

It was difficult for me to find a specific “thread” of a motif or formal cinematic device that all the directors used in In Our Time other than the portrayal of different time periods of a person’s life. But for that precise reason, I think it further supports the “auteur theory” and how each director’s artistic vision took their share of this larger pie in their own direction while working with similar material about Taiwan during the 80s. Although if we consider that the socio-cultural context of Taiwan formed a majority of the narrative in this film, this argument could be taken in another direction. Especially because the films were just a general attitude or disposition of the 80s, or an ode to that time period of rapid development and change.

For the essay, I chose to zoom in on the very first vignette, which is the one I found most powerful, so I did a deeper reading of it. The most concrete artistic element I found associated with this segment is perhaps the use of visual symbols — all the mise-en-scene served a coherent purpose in addition to their aesthetic value. But first, I think it’s worth talking briefly about the use of music, too.

The first and immediately noticeable feature of the film is its use of non-diegetic music. The timing of when the music comes up usually overlaps with when the main character boy was alone, or using his creative mind — perhaps an indication of his inner passion, desires, and aspirations that are repressed or held back because of the lack of approval from those close to him. The background music gets gradually more and more intense throughout the film until the little girl takes the boy’s hands and they go on an evening adventure to recover his dinosaur toy. This is the first time someone fully understands him and is let into his world, and does what he desires, and also “coincidentally” the only instance of lyrical music plays in the background, the peak of narrative tension. Most of the time it seemed almost overwhelming whenever the music would come up, pulling me out of the narrative world immediately, and perhaps that was the point — to create a somber, pensive atmosphere for the viewers to engage with the content presented before them. Usually, they’re spaced out well enough for the viewers to immediately reflect on what’s happening, and I used this time to come up with a related theory:

This short episode is about societal change, and specifically the drawbacks of Westernization. As a film portraying the attitude of the 80s, perhaps it’s commentary was that Westernization was something that everyone desired, but didn’t bring society the envisioned changes to the lives of the people.

The first symbol of the West is the radio. It’s to show off how desirable or addicting new Western technology can be, yet it didn’t bring the family more unity, rather it caused conflict. It also didn’t add much to enrich the lives of the characters’ families. Listening to soccer commentary made the father more grumpy, and distant from his family. Even touching the radio caused conflict and threatened violence.

The second is perhaps an extended metaphor for the West, and that is the Auntie’s family. She wears western clothes and shows off her Western possessions. She tells the kids to draw whatever they desire, rather than giving specific instructions, which is I suppose a very traditional and stereotypical view of what Western education is like and what many parents tried to imitate. What resulted was the little brother’s horrendous, black-crayons scribbles which, needless to say, are far from pleasing. Even more obviously, the doll, or a “洋娃娃” in Chinese, directly translates to “foreigner’s doll.” The girl who plays with the doll doesn’t exactly have a likable personality, either.

But even more importantly, the little girl represents a generalization of “Western romance,” and how it’s impersonal and detached. The entire progression of the story is a traditional hero’s journey — a misunderstood underdog who finally finds reason and an accomplice to struggle against authority, recovering his thrown away dinosaur. The setup leads us to believe that as the two families separated at the very end of the film, the girl will hold eye contact until the boy becomes out of sight. The boy looks over his shoulder again and again to find that eye contact, yet the girl stands there stroking her “foreigner’s doll,” never once looking up, shattering the entire romance plot. This hero’s journey never led to any change, and the boy plummets back to his original “stasis.” The only reason the girl showed affection in the first place could still be genuine, that’s not necessarily excluded immediately. But her primary purpose was to inspire the boy to draw again, so she could take credit for the artwork and receive praise from her mother and her guests. To her, it was merely a “commercial” (!!) exchange of goods between the two, and no feelings were involved.

I think thematically, this first vignette was the most literal with symbolism and metaphors. The role it plays in the larger film is it sets the tone for the three vignettes to come — a story of struggle, not necessarily met with closure, as with many things in real life.

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