Every son kills his father, but echoes of the past prove hard to escape in Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Father to Son (范保德, Van Pao-te). Legacies national and personal conspire to frustrate the dreams of the young while the old are left with nothing more than enduring mystery after a lifetime of disappointment. Faint notions of mortality send an old man on a quest to understand himself by making peace with his long absent father and taking his own son along for the ride, but perhaps there really are no answers to the questions you most want to ask, or to put it another way perhaps it’s better to answer them yourself.
60-year-old Van Pao-te (Michael Jq Huang) is feeling his age. He’s taking longer in the bathroom and he’s no longer as agile as he was. A handyman with a hardware store, Van is also something of an “inventor” and has several patents in his name but cannot escape the feeling of being unfulfilled, as if something in his life has always been missing. A twinge fixing a pipe for a doctor friend provokes a fuller examination as a result of which Van is told he may have a serious pancreatic illness and is advised to see a specialist in Taipei, but Van hates doctors and so he puts the decision off. Meanwhile, he goes to the city on other business. Honoured for his contribution to Taiwan’s intellectual economy thanks to his inventions, Van is also presented with an unexpected opportunity to do business with a Japanese company. Rather than deal with his medical problem, Van visits an old friend for an address he was first offered 30 years ago and decides to look for his long lost father who abandoned the family when Van was 10 in order to try his luck in the burgeoning Japanese post-war economy.
History repeats itself eerily. Van dreams of the night his father left in anger and resolves never to become the kind of man that he was but finds himself falling into his father’s footsteps. His own son, Ta-Chi (Fu Meng-Po), is a man much like him – which is to say, he is torn between duty to family and a desire to follow his dreams. Ta-Chi works in the hardware store, but his talent is for coding and he’s already a mildly successful app builder. Van thinks he should go to the city and make something of himself, but is worried that he won’t because he can’t leave his ageing parents behind alone.
Meanwhile, trouble is brewing because the beautiful niece of the woman who runs the dry cleaners has just blown in from Taipei to cover the shop while her aunt goes to the city for cancer treatment. A splash of excitement in this tiny town, she has created quite a stir among Ta-Chi and his friends which is exactly the same thing that happened thirty year’s previously when the current hotel owner first arrived in town. At select moments we also get voice over narration from Kuo Yu-Chin (Aria Wang) who, as she tells a friend, caused some “trouble” back in 1987 only to leave and then return again later. She and Van seem to share a painful history and mutual resentment over a future that never was. Yu-Chin wonders if the stories of the past that you want to hear are hidden in the future or if it’s the other way round, but if their background music choices are to be believed there seems to be a part of them always stuck in 1987 and waiting for an excuse to leave.
Like his father, Van considered leaving his family to chase a dream but he couldn’t do it. As Ta-Chi later puts it, he wasn’t “heartless” enough. Van learns enough about his father’s later life to confirm what he suspected, that his dad was no good and best forgotten, but that only leaves him with a lingering sense of resentment and inferiority in wondering if he wasted his life sticking around his hometown to make a point about a man who never gave him a second thought. He doesn’t want the same thing for his son, but hasn’t figured out the best way to push him out of the nest without breaking his heart.
While Van is caught in a web of existential confusion attempting to break free once and for all from the destructive memory of his father, Taiwan too finds itself pulled between conflicting colonial echoes while striving to embrace an identity all of its own. Hsiao paints a melancholy picture of inescapable tragedies and generational miscommunications, eventually advancing that a father’s love for his son is often buried in silent sacrifice, but does so with warmth and sympathy, resigned to the cruel ironies of time.
Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)