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)

Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Li Hsing, 1974)

Regarded as the “father of Taiwanese cinema”, Li Hsing was one of many who migrated from the Mainland during the Chinese civil war in 1949. Originally working as an actor, Li shifted into directing with the boom in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in late ‘50s though he himself did not speak it, moving then into documentaries and finally self-financing the Mandarin language indie film Our Neighbors in 1963 becoming known for a particular brand of “healthy realism”. Despite this, however, the later part of the decade saw him enter into a long association with publishing phenomenon and romance writer Chiung Yao for a series of mainstream melodramas starring popular idols of the day. 

Chiung Yao’s novels are known for their depiction of relationships which are often in some way taboo as in Outside the Window the film adaptation of which launched the career of Brigitte Lin as a schoolgirl in love with her teacher. Li’s adaptation of Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Hǎi’ōu Fēi Chǔ) by contrast erects barriers between the two lovers which are largely psychological as they struggle to overcome their pride, stubbornness, and fear of intimacy to embrace their love but also ambivalently engages with the changing nature of patriarchal society at once insisting its feisty heroine be softened in order to become a “good wife” while allowing her the agency her society denies her only by going abroad. 

The hero, technically, is melancholy journalist Muhuai (Alan Tang Kwong-Wing) who encounters the heroine Yushang (Chen Chen) for the first time on a boat in Hong Kong where he saves her from committing suicide she later tells him, giving her name as “Seagull”, because she has just murdered her cheating husband by hitting him over the head with a wine bottle. Seagull disappears on him just as he’s trying to get through to the mistress to get her to check if the husband is really dead but he meets her again in Singapore where she gives her name as Ye Xin. Working as a nightclub singer she agrees to show him around the island, telling him that she’s originally from Manila and is supporting a troubled family. This time she doesn’t disappear but arrives too late to see off his plane at the airport. Disappointed that all his letters come back no such address, Muhuai is despondent and then extremely confused to meet the mysterious woman yet again as Yushang, a uni friend of his younger sister Mufeng (Tang Mei-Fang). 

Figuring out that all three women really are one and that Yushang is her “true” identity, Muhuai is extremely annoyed and decides to have his revenge by dating her until she falls in love with him and then ringing her to come out at 3am to tell her he was just having a bit of fun and never really loved her at all. The cause of all the drama is, at root, Muhuai’s male pride in that he resents being “deceived” by Yushang on their first two meetings during which she was essentially engaging in reckless role play as a break from her “boring” existence as a member of the new super rich elite (she can travel so freely because her father is a wealthy businessman who operates all over the world). Yushang, meanwhile, is being pushed towards an arranged marriage with her father’s business associate Shiche (Patrick Tse Yin) while attending college and falling in love with Muhuai. Each feeling spurned, their romance eventually turns dark with Yushang rebound marrying Shiche who turns out to be an abusive gold-digger. 

The barrier between herself and Muhuai then seems insurmountable. Believing she’s made her bed, Yushang quells her fiery, independent nature to conform to the image of the “good wife”, later literally beaten into submission by the cruel and manipulative Shiche. While it could be said that she’s being punished for her betrayal of love, it’s patriarchal social codes which eventually leave her trapped. Though her outwardly conventional mother had always been on her side, cautioning her to follow her heart rather than marry Shiche out of prideful self-destruction, she too thinks that her daughter should “be more like a woman, not a child. Feminine and tender”. When Yushang goes to her parents to suggest a divorce they reject the idea out of hand, refusing to believe that Shiche is really abusive, assuming that she is simply failing to adapt to married life in a refusal to accept her husband’s authority and is possibly realising she made a mistake while continuing to think of Muhuai. Yushang’s father eventually signals he may support her desire for a divorce if the marriage is unsalvageable but not if she’s merely leaving her husband for another man. 

Muhuai meanwhile has sunk into a depression, drowning his sorrows in drink and consumed by his sense of romantic impotence in having failed to fight for love while intensely resenting Yushang for making him feel this way. The barrier he has to overcome is male pride, getting over the literal inauthenticity of his relationships with the first two incarnations to realise that Yushang really is the one he loves no matter who else she might have been at various times in her life including Shiche’s wife. While the multi-country setting perhaps reflects a new globalising Taiwan as well as a rise in economic prosperity, Yushang’s globetrotting exploits are also an attempt to escape the patriarchal constrains of contemporary Taiwanese society, her “boring” life of continual ease and emotional emptiness where everyone is forever telling her that she has to be less, quieter, and above all obedient most particularly to men. 

Even so, the film too uncomfortably insists that Yushang’s feisty independence is “childish” and unfeminine while implying that her abusive relationship with Shiche turns her into a real woman capable of fulfilling her natural role as a housewife. Only by going abroad can she finally free herself of his control, and largely because he simply gets a better offer chasing an American oil heiress. It’s a minor irony that while Yushang’s problem is apparently her manly impulsivity both of her suitors are examples of male failure, Shiche in his laziness as a man who only wants to live off a rich woman rather than support himself, and Muhuai in his romantic diffidence too insecure to admit his love for Yushang. Nevertheless, Chiung Yao and Li Hsing are careful to leave the door open for love, refusing the possibility that it’s ever too late to fulfil one’s romantic destiny as the lovers each concede a movement towards the centre in finally finding the courage to open themselves to emotional authenticity. 


Where the Seagull Flies streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)