Dir. Li Xing, Taiwan, 1971
Sight Unseen is an ongoing Reverse Shot series for which writers must view and write an essay on a movie playing theatrically for which they have no prior knowledge whatsoever—only a title and, if necessary, a running time. With Sight Unseen, we hope to cast away the usual presumptions and prior knowledge we have about a film before seeing it.
Like most American cinephiles, I harbor a knowledge of Taiwanese cinema that doesn’t travel much further than the earliest works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, or Edward Yang—all the way back to the (gasp) 1980s. So a repertory series called Taiwan Stories: Classic and Contemporary Film from Taiwan, as ridiculously wide-ranging as that title may be, sounds like a tempting corrective. Yet in any retrospective, each film requires the proximity of those programmed around it to grant it the proper context; by wandering in to just one of the films, randomly selected, one runs the risk of not having the historical understanding needed to make sense of it all. But should this be required to simply enjoy the film at hand? Upon choosing to see Autumn Execution at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, I didn’t know its year or director. The film would have to exist as its own contained universe, outside of any sort of historiographical significance it might have.
Autumn Execution, as it turned out, was a 1971 film directed by Li Xing, a name unfamiliar to me but whom I later learned to be a seminal filmmaker (if not the most important classical Taiwanese director) whose popularity is comparable to that of King Hu. I also discovered, upon looking at the scant English writing afforded it, that this is a beloved film and routinely is named one of the best Chinese-language films ever made. Not knowing the film’s importance (which, for me, might have been impossible for a Western classic at this point) affected my viewing of Autumn Execution, which came across as a smoothly crass entertainment, a male weepie made up of equal parts too-glib melodrama and impressive visceral anguish. It’s a prison drama, romance, and occasional fighting flick—and it would perhaps come across as a wild, anything-goes genre mix-up if it didn’t feel so sedentary, locked as it is into one drab, if impressive, studio-built location.
The film, set during the Han Dynasty, opens with a high-angle shot of a man pacing a small prison cell, like a leopard in a cage. This is Pei, an accused murderer awaiting trial. After he attempts a quickly staunched prison break, the credits begin, accompanied by a luscious orchestral score and detailed with images of misty forests full of leafless branches. As its title suggests, Autumn Execution will be a film that revolves around the changing of the seasons; yet we will see those changes from the very limited viewpoint of prisoner Pei. He is convicted of three cold-blooded killings early on in the film, but because it is winter he must wait to meet his demise at the blade of an axe for almost an entire year (until the following autumn, as that’s when the emperor decreed executions must take place). Thus the structure of Autumn Execution is established; we will get to know Pei, and he will get to know himself, over the course of his last year. Meanwhile, as in any expressive color melodrama, snow falls, leaves grow and then wither and die: human self-knowledge is poignantly tied into the earth’s natural rotation.
What makes Autumn Execution an intensely frustrating but also fascinating experience is just how much we’re meant to identify with its immensely unlikable protagonist. Though he stalks around with the physicality of Toshiro Mifune, Su Han as Pei retains none of that actor’s charisma: as we learn in flashbacks intercut at his trial, he killed two thugs possibly out of self-defense, but also murdered a former lover who was attempting to blackmail him. His motivation: revenge; his method: horrifically slicing her open with a sword, her back turned. This is no wrongly accused sweetheart—not even charming ne’er do well. Nevertheless, his grandmother, who raised him on her own, desperately tries to save his life, mostly through bribes to officials, and largely because he is the family’s only surviving heir. Her final solution: bring a girl into his cell to produce offspring. The result: he finds love, and learns to see the error of his ways in his final months. (But wait: she’s his cousin?!)
For those not into the mushy stuff, there’s also a healthy dose of bloody pummeling: every seeming fifteen minutes or so, Autumn Execution stops in its tracks for some laboriously choreographed set-to between Pei and his sadistic head guard. The guard seems to be torturing Pei out of sick glee, but as it turns out is poignantly punishing him because he sees the image of his own dead son in his eyes (and that makes it…better?). Even more disturbing is the scene in which Pei responds to his grandmother’s death by beating his own bare chest with the length of chain binding his hands until he bleeds, all the while screaming like an agonized polecat that the dearly departed is to blame for his misdeeds: she loved and spoiled him too much, never teaching him right from wrong and hence leaving him in this hopeless scenario. Ultimately, he finds his goodness, aided in no doubt by the eminently dignified stock manacles he’s forced to wear en route to his decapitation, which lock him in a kind of regal praying pose.
With its gloomy, drab prison interiors and the jail’s murky fog-enshrouded exteriors (the film rarely leaves these settings, only occasionally showing us Grandma’s home, which is its own shadowy, wooden compound), Autumn Execution is an at times numbing morality tale. It has all the hallmarks of popular studio cinema: no emotion goes without technical emphasis (in this case deafening music crescendos and chronic zooms into impassioned faces), and no plot turn occurs without being sufficiently reiterated four or five times. Yet by asking us to side with a scoundrel, Li Xing puts us in a particularly, necessarily awkward position, which keeps Autumn Execution fresh, even if it sometimes feels as stale as the dead leaves scattered about its wide frame.