With his 1994 debut, the Taiwanese writer-director Wu Nien-jen looks back at his memories of paternal love as if through squinted eyes. The opening shot of A Borrowed Life is unabashedly nostalgic: the outline of a man polishing his shoes, almost imperceptible behind a gauze of soft focus. Subsequent scenes string together glimpses of father Sega (Tsai Chennan) slicking his hair back for a night on the town, joking with his friends on a hillside as the wind ruffles their shirts, and emerging from a dark tunnel after a day’s work in the coal mines. Wu takes us to the edge of childhood sentimentality, but it’s precisely this urge to identify with romantic notions of the father that makes the film’s increasingly worldweary three hours such a compelling and precarious balancing act.
Much of what we learn about Sega comes from the distant, often obstructed vantage point of Wu's on-screen surrogate, Wen Jian, and the portrait that begins to cohere is one of reluctant parenthood. When economic hardship causes mass exodus from his village, Sega falls into a gambling habit, leaving his wife to shoulder much of the family's domestic and financial burdens. Asked to hold his crying newborn, he proves positively allergic to the task and gives up in self-loathing frustration. And yet the film neither passes judgment on Sega's choices nor tries to pass off his irritability as endearing caricature.
Instead we see a failed patriarch doomed to stand on the sidelines of his own life, and a young boy who, understanding this, bears witness from his own painful remove. Complicating our sympathies is the nuanced interplay between Wen Jian's limited purview and the dramas of the grown-up world that leak in at the periphery—a thwarted romance, a miner's death, an estranged uncle’s conscription into the army. Visually and structurally, the film mimics this duality, as the expansive 165-minute running time and the hilly vistas of northern Taiwan butt up against the constriction of provincial life signaled through Wu’s threshold shots and repetitious scenery.
Listed among Martin Scorsese’s 10 favorite films of the Nineties, A Borrowed Life has nevertheless remained largely unseen. This neglect is surprising not only because of Wu’s celebrity throughout the Chinesespeaking world as a screenwriter (for Hou Hsiaohsien, Edward Yang, and Ann Hui among others), television star, and literary figure, but also because the film’s occasionally ironic handling of Taiwan’s post-1949 malaise so openly invites historical consideration. An early scene finds colonial residue in the tradition of a Taiwanese-speaking benshi narrating a Japanese melodrama in a local movie theater. Later on, Sega, defiant in the face of the cultural and linguistic changes imposed by the KMT, is ridiculed by his young daughter when he suggests she draw the Japanese flag for homework instead of the Republic of China’s.
The film’s obscurity may be due in part to its lack of aesthetic idiosyncrasy or blatant thematic sweep, a sense of modesty that makes the word “masterpiece” (however warranted) feel overstated. Wu’s tenure as creative supervisor at the Central Motion Picture Corporation was instrumental in launching the New Taiwanese Cinema, and in both mood and scope, his work has more in common with the smallscale omnibus films that inaugurated that movement than with the sprawling, coldly modern structures Yang and Hou were developing around the same time.
A Borrowed Life is not just an uncommonly intimate chronicle of the lives of bensheng ren—the ethnic Chinese whose ancestors migrated to the island before the KMT’s arrival, and a group to which Wu belongs, unlike every other canonical Taiwanese filmmaker. It is also one of Taiwanese cinema’s most clear-eyed explorations of family dynamics—a distinction it shares with Yang’s Yi Yi, which introduced Wu to Western audiences in the role of yet another discontented father figure. Where popular Taiwanese melodramas like 1965’s Beautiful Duckling or 1983’s Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing routinely depict the values of filial piety in crisis, redeeming them in a last-act affirmation of the parent-child bond, A Borrowed Life never falls back on these formulaic reassurances.
Given all that goes unsaid between father and child in their years under the same roof (and the language barrier that later prevents Sega from communicating with his grandson), Wu questions how knowable a family ultimately is, even to those who belong to it. The unspoken anxiety permeating his recollections is that his profound attachment to his father might unravel under scrutiny, proving as inexplicable and illusory as Sega’s stubborn identification with a Japan he never visited. Few films have so vividly re-created the sensation of having known another human being for one’s entire life, while simultaneously evoking the suspicion that all along one has loved a stranger.
A Borrowed Life will screen in 35mm February 18–28th as part of the 2013 Film Comment Selects.