Art cinema is similar to popular film in being fond of trilogies. Long before Star Wars, there was Ingmar Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy, and ever since critics have been prone to dividing director's outputs in sets of threes. The difference is that the films are often not linked by a continuation of story, as in popular film, but rather by a continuation of theme. Hou Hsaio-Hsien has (at least) two separate trilogies in his output: the "Coming of Age" films Summer at Grandpa's (1984), A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), and Dust in the Wind (1986) and the "Taiwanese history" films City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1994), and Good Men, Good Women (1995). The historical films are generally considered the greater achievements, but if the first of the coming of age films is any indication, they are fine achievements that should not overlooked.
Summer at Grandpa's is based on the childhood memoir of co-writer Chu Tien-Wen. The story focuses on a pre-adolescent boy and his younger sister, who at the beginning of the film are sent from Taipei to a small town in the country when their mother falls ill. Not surprisingly, the story concludes when they return to the city. There is thus a very standard feel to the coming-of-age story presented. Even the idiosyncratic nature of Hou's style blends very naturally with the material. This is partly because Hou's approach here is less rigorous than in the later films. There are many of the Hou signatures on display: the use of long takes, long lenses, and shots of frames within the frame. The difference is that their deployment is less systematic than in a film like City of Sadness, especially in the outdoor scenes in nature, and as a result the film feels less distanced and more immediate, relatively speaking of course.
However, it is important not to take this familiarity for granted and ignore the subtlety on display here. The vague outline of the plot would suggest a tale in which the young city boy learns from the wisdom of the older patriarchal figure of the grandfather. Hou and his screenwriter handle the material more complexly. The key to this is the younger sister and her attachment to a outcast, mentally challenged woman in the village. The way in which this subplot plays out calls into question the authority of the grandfather, who is also a dominant presence as the village doctor. None of this is the least bit heavy-handed, but still refreshingly challenges the kind of gender norms we expect to find. And even though the boy's farewell to his friends is the last scene we see, the goodbye I remember most is the young girl's unanswered call to the woman who effectively became her substitute mother.
Hou has often expressed an admiration for the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, even making a whole film as a tribute, Cafe Lumiere (2003). This is the most Ozu-like of his films that I have seen, both in the greater classicism of the style and in the great doubled ending reminiscent of Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). In his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998), Robin Wood has a great essay challenging the perceived conservatism of Ozu, arguing that he can also be read as a progressive or even radical filmmaker. I think a similar argument can be made for this film, an argument even more convincing given the overt political stance of Hou's later work.