Director: Lee Hsing
Cast: Ou Wei, Chen Hui Lou, Chou Shao Ching, Fu Bi Hui
Plot: A thief Peigang will be executed in autumn. However, he is the only single son for three generation in succession. His grandma tries to save him.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Reel and real life merged when I saw this film at the 3rd Singapore Chinese Film Festival on Sunday 26 April. The timing could not have been more cruelly precise. The events in Execution in Autumn eerily foreshadowed the case of the Bali Nine drug traffickers, particularly that of the now deceased Andrew Chan, who along with seven others were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian government on Wednesday 29 April just after midnight.
Why I use such strong words is because I feel that no one, including the state and the rule of law, should systematically take away the life of a human being, as I learnt, in one of my life's most critical lessons, from Krzysztof Kieslowski's immensely important film A Short Film About Killing (1988).
Execution in Autumn is Taiwanese director Lee Hsing's representative work – an effective tale of life and death, but more importantly, of morality and mortality. It's now considered a treasured Chinese classic. The film is about a murderer from a wealthy family who is sentenced to death, while his determined grandmother pleads for clemency from the prison warden.
Shot with utmost beauty, particularly as the season changes from summer to winter (but according to the 85 year old Lee in a post-screening dialogue, this was done artificially, but to astonishingly realistic effect), and with the art direction and setting evoking a Chinese period piece with a strong Taoist aesthetic, Execution in Autumn is a striking piece of 1970s Chinese cinema, a positive anomaly in Lee's filmography that mainly revolved around "healthy realism" movies tackling themes of community, family, youth and love.
The performance by Ou Wei, who plays the convict on death row, is riveting to watch, with a mix of tenacity and a fierce resignation to his fate. Without an actor of his capability, Lee's film might not have pulled through some of its more melodramatic parts, especially in the last third of the film.
Execution in Autumn is scored by Japanese composer Ichiro Saito (The Life of Oharu, 1952; Ugestu, 1953) – his use of sharp strings to punctuate dramatic moments, and soft percussion that cut through the silence of the cold winter is remarkable, perhaps even influencing Chinese historical television dramas of today. It's hard to find a good quality copy of this title, but if you do, treat it like gold in the sand.
Verdict: An effective tale of life and death, of morality and mortality, with strong direction by Lee Hsing, but perhaps a tad over melodramatic.
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