Even in the midst of war, life goes on. How to ensure it keeps doing so becomes a major preoccupation for one peasant farmer, confused as to how he’s supposed to fulfil his obligation to his ancestors if the Japanese insist on taking his sons. Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Dōng Qù Dōng Yòu Lái) takes a more stoical view of life under the occupation than you’d usually find in Mainland wartime drama, but then its themes are perhaps a little grander as it adopts the perspective of its most oppressed protagonist – the silent Kun (Yan Bingyan) whose bodily destiny is dictated by the men around her while her mild resistance is offered only through small acts of humanistic kindness.
Set in 1944 in the puppet state of Manchuria, Winter After Winter situates itself largely within a single farmhouse where ageing peasant Lao Si (Gao Qiang) is trying to fob off the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) who has come for his three sons. Though Lao Si of course does not want his children to go, his concern is more that his oldest son (Dong Lianhai) is impotent and has been unable to impregnate his daughter-in-law Kun so if all the boys are taken now the family line will die. To stop this happening, he tries to force his other two sons to have sex with Kun while he keeps Nakamura busy in the kitchen. His middle son (Yuan Liguo) flees in disgust, running off to join the guerrillas fighting the Japanese while the youngest, shy and inarticulate, tries his best but doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing and is eventually dragged away mid-act, bound for a Japanese forced labour camp.
In some ways, the atmosphere in Lao Si’s village is not as oppressive as one might expect. Now the men have gone, the other villagers are largely left alone with a minimal military presence in the town while they each figure out schemes for keeping the Japanese at bay. The main problem is that once winter sets in there is very little food and the Japanese are intent on keeping most of it for themselves while using their magnanimity as a bargaining chip. Regular searches are made of homes suspected of hoarding rice, while the residents are made to vomit to prove they’ve eaten nothing they weren’t supposed to. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander Nakamura is otherwise shown to be a fair and compassionate man if only largely when dealing with his countrymen – doting over his bedridden wife and little daughter, or making sure to ask a female assistant if she’s warm enough when they sit down to watch a film. Dealing with the Chinese, however, he remains rigid and unforgiving if not actually cruel or abusive. He presses Lao Si for the service owed to him by his absent sons, only reluctantly relenting when told that Kun is unable to work because she has become pregnant but expecting Lao Si to come up with a solution on his own.
Kun’s eventual pregnancy is a problem in itself. Unbeknownst to anyone, the youngest brother manages to escape and begins hiding in the family’s cellar where Kun finds him, keeping the secret and supplying him with food. The pair eventually bond and comfort each other through sex during which Kun conceives a child, but as no one can know of his return, Lao Si arranges to have her marry the “idiot” son (Young Fan) of the local teacher who he assumes is an innocent and will not bother his daughter-in-law with unwanted sexual contact (something that didn’t really bother him when he was keeping it all in the family).
Throughout it all Kun remains stoically silent, never complaining or resisting but simply existing as the right to decide is taken from her by the feckless menfolk who swap and share her with nary a word of kindness. Apparently “adopted” by Lao Si and brought up as a daughter until force married to the oldest son, Kun is made to feel beholden to her father-in-law who behaves as if she owes him her life. Lao Si, meanwhile, blames her for his misfortune – for not being attractive enough to enflame the desire of his oldest son and for sending the middle one running, denying him the heir he so longs for to fulfil his filial duties.
All Kun can do to resist is to rebel against the austerity of her surroundings with kindness. She fulfils her daughterly duties to Lao Si without complaint, tenderly looks after the boys, and finally even offers her own precious food to a Japanese soldier on the run only to pay dearly for it when he brutally betrays her. In the end, all Lao Si’s scheming comes to nothing, defeated by time and circumstance, but it’s Kun who finally makes a positive decision for the future as she perhaps finds him an “heir” even if not the kind he wanted in extending a hand to a crying child signalling an end to conflict and the advent of compassion in the willingness to move forward together without blame or rancour.
Clip (English / simplified Chinese subtitles)