Execution in Autumn (秋決, Li Hsing, 1972)

“We all have to die, but we must die in peace and honour” the hero of Li Hsing’s tale of spiritual redemption Execution in Autumn (秋決, Qiū Jué) finally realises, resigning himself to the cruelty of his fate. Partly an advocation for “responsible” childrearing, Li’s philosophical tale is also one of growing enlightenment as the boorish, entitled hero is cajoled towards a sense of social responsibility through the ministrations firstly of his cellmates and then of a good woman who finally learns to see the good in him if through a gentle process of emotional excavation. 

As the opening voiceover explains, at this time it was thought somehow offensive to conduct an execution during the seasons of life and rebirth and so they were relegated to the autumn amid its ominous mists. As we first meet Pei Gang (Ou Wei), however, he’s on the run, trying to make a break for it in refusing to accept the judgement which has been passed on him. The sole heir of a wealthy family, he has been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two men and a woman who claimed he was the father of her child (as for what became of the baby, no further mention is made). His grandmother (Fuh Bih-Huei) vows to get him out of jail, pulling every trick in the book and bribing a local official to engineer a good outcome at the upcoming retrial. But in an ironic indication of his buried goodness, Pei Gang refuses to lie to the court and freely admits his crime claiming he was “overcome with rage” believing the woman and her cousins intended to blackmail him but was otherwise in sound mind when he murdered her because he was “sick of being duped” and wanted to vindicate his family honour by taking vengeance on those who’d wronged him. 

Unable to save her grandson, Gang’s grandmother blames herself realising that her failure to discipline him in childhood has led to his immense sense of entitlement and conviction that the rules do not apply to him. Grandma promised that whatever sort of trouble he got into, she would get him out which is obviously a promise she wouldn’t be able to keep but also somewhat irresponsible. For these reasons, Gang regards his treatment as extremely unfair, unable to understand why any of this is happening to him or to accept that this is one fix grandma won’t be able to smooth over even with her money and the power of her name.  

The lesson would seem to be that you have to be cruel to be kind, a message later confirmed by Gang’s conflicted jailor (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who we learn had a son of his own he wrongly indulged which led to him becoming a wayward lad like Gang drowning in a river in the middle of a fist fight. Learning that his grandmother has passed away, Gang once again rails against his fate offering proclamations of hate which are really of love while blaming his grandmother for never having beaten him when he was a child recognising her problematic love for him, mixed as it was with his importance to her as the heir, but also his own abuse of her indulgence. Bad parenting may be the cause of Gang’s amorality, but he is not and never was blameless. He had a free choice to become a better person but did not take it, engaging in persistent boundary pushing even as an adult culminating in the murder of three people mostly out of spite. 

At first Gang can’t bear the mention of the word death, caught between the earthy philosophies of the street thief in the cell to him and the Confucianist scholar opposite serving a one year term as a proxy for his elderly, debt-laden father. Slowly he begins to come around the scholar’s way of thinking, coming to accept death as an inevitability of life as certain as the seasons. His second lessons begin on realising he cannot escape his sentence, his grandmother has given up on him and enacted her back up plan to ensure the family line continues by marrying him to his adopted “sister” Lian (Tang Pao-Yun). Other signs of his buried goodness manifest themselves in his initial reluctance to go along with the plan, not only resenting being used as a stud but unwilling to make Lian an instant widow. “I don’t want you to hate me the rest of your life” he adds in a moment of vulnerability, trying to convince his new bride to find someone more able to give her a happy life stretching further than the next autumn. 

Gang’s tragedy is, in a sense, that as he approaches his execution he experiences true happiness and is genuinely reformed but only by accepting the necessity of his death can he fully redeem himself. Though he tried to escape, he refuses to leave even when the jailor offers to let him go fearing both for the jailor’s fate and for that of his wife and child if he were to become a fugitive. Nevertheless he cannot prevent their victimhood, knowing that just as grandma and Lian had done he must sacrifice himself in order to protect his family accepting not just his moral and social responsibility but the filial. Taking place mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, Li’s melancholy existential drama uses the rhythm of the seasons as a metaphor for life but also as a kind of ticking clock accelerating Gang’s remaining time as he lives out his glory days and twilight years in the span of months awaiting his execution as the first leaves fall. It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that they are each victims of a cruel and oppressive social system taken to authoritarian extremes though Li may have intended the opposite in reminding parents, literal and figural, that the moral education of their children through physical discipline is their primary duty. Nevertheless, Gang’s spiritual awakening and subsequent redemption prove profoundly moving even in their concurrent tragedy. 


Execution in Autumn screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Tu Chun-Hsun, 1970)

“A young girl like you has to be careful” a well-meaning palanquin driver warns our heroine, little knowing that into the heart of danger is exactly where she means to go. Tu Chun-Hsun’s Taiwanese wuxia A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Lóngchéng Shí Rì) stars relative newcomer Hsu Feng immediately before her breakout role in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen as a noble Han Chinese revolutionary resisting Manchu oppression in the Song Dynasty bravely venturing into Dragon City currently in lockdown under the increasingly paranoid rule of its new magistrate, Lord Pu (Shih Chun). 

In 1131, “Jade Dragonfly” Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng) leaves the mountain stronghold for Dragon City in order to rendezvous with Chen, a fellow revolutionary in possession of a plan book essential for the coming battle against the oppressive Manchu regime. As the palanquin drivers inform her, however, Chen, along with 80 members of his family, was executed for treason two days previously on orders of the new governor. The city is in a state of paranoid chaos that leaves the drivers unwilling to approach. Nevertheless, Yen-Chih is undaunted knowing she must get her hands on the book before it falls into the hands of the authorities. 

Tu conjures a world of tension and intrigue perfectly capturing the anxieties of Yen-chih’s undercover existence, painfully aware of each and every sound and always on the look out for trouble or betrayal as she wanders the paranoid city. Shortly before she arrives, a group of local men is brought in for questioning on the mere suspicion of visiting Chen’s grave, tainted by association and sent off to be tortured, bearing out the bearers’ assertion that Pu is a dangerously paranoid authoritarian intent on stamping out any and all dissent. If there’s a parallel to the White Terror here is it in implication only, but it’s presence is perhaps felt in the innate dangers of the world in which Yen-Chih now finds herself. In any case, she is perhaps in some instances protected by her appearance, written off as a genteel young woman in need of protection rather than a fearsome revolutionary able to leap tall walls in a single bound and endure days of torture never wavering in her mission. 

Meanwhile, Pu’s Manchu guards are universally corrupt. Yen-Chih makes a nervous entry into the city alarmed by a sudden cry of “freeze” only to realise the soldiers haven’t even noticed her, they are too busy gambling. Later they make a point of carting off her collaborator, tipped off by an obsequious informant hoping for advancement, and then ransacking his pharmacy, burning all his goods in the central square (which considering what they are might not be the best move), careful to pocket any valuables first. In such an atmosphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that Yen-Chih succeeds in finding unexpected allies, radicalising a young thief brought in, ironically, on suspicion of killing a spy she herself killed while they are both in prison. 

The Manchu regime and most particularly Pu’s deputy are indeed corrupt and oppressive, but as expected not quite everything is as we first assumed it to be. The ground constantly shifting beneath her feet, Yen-Chih chases the book but eventually discovers that she has been under a misapprehension as to its keepers and not only that, she’s also in the middle of someone else’s complicated revenge plot. The resolution though not exactly unexpected paves the way towards a surprisingly empathetic finale in which Yen-Chih is moved to discover the the extent to which a comrade has undertaken their duty, protecting her in facilitating her mission and allowing her to return to their shared cause with new hope while they remain behind alone in the increasingly destabilised environment of Dragon City the forces of Manchu for the moment seemingly turned against themselves. 

Breathtakingly tense, Tu’s anxious, low angle camera captures the sense of a city locked down by fear and paranoia while lending a ghostly air to the abandoned Chen estate where Yen-chih encounters its creepy butler before an intense showdown with Pu’s guards once again tipped off by their duplicitous informant. Boasting an extremely accomplished and charismatic performance from Hsu Feng as the intense swordswoman revolutionary and genuinely exciting choreography, A City Called Dragon is a forgotten gem of the ’70s Taiwanese wuxia boom.


A City Called Dragon streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)