Restored Version 2020 - European Premiere
Execution in Autumn
t.l. Esecuzione in autunno
秋決 (Qiu Jue)
Taiwan, 1972, 99’, Mandarin
Directed by: Lee Hsing
Script: Chang Yung-hsiang
Photography (color): Lai Cheng-ying
Editing: Chen Hung-min
Production Design: Chou Chih-liang
Music: Saito Ichiro
Sound: Huang Chin-chih
Producer: Hu Cheng-ting
Production Company: Ta Chung Motion Picture Co.
Cast: Ou Wei, Tang Pao-yun, Ko Hsiang-ting, Fu Pi-hui
Date of First Release in Territory: February 14th, 1972
In May this year, Taiwanese master Lee Hsing turned the grand old age of 91. Born in Shanghai in 1930 before moving to Taiwan in 1948, Lee Hsing has been called “the godfather of Taiwanese cinema.” Besides Execution in Autumn (1972), his masterpieces include Beautiful Duckling (1964), starring the same actors as were seen in Execution (Tang Pao-yun, Ko Hsiang-ting and Ou Wei), and written by the same great screenwriter, Chang Yung-hsiang. Set in rural Taiwan, the film laid the foundations of a school called “Healthy Realism,” which combined the lessons of Western realism with the neo-Confucian ideals advocated by the nationalist government in Taiwan.
Lee Hsing was a passionate advocate of Confucian values. The splendid Execution in Autumn, which we present in a version restored by the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute in 2021, is a manifesto of these values. This period drama paints a psychological picture and is a moral reflection on guilt and redemption, in which we can find the themes (to use a Western reference) of Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man. Since his childhood, Pei Gang (Ou Wen) has been spoiled by his rich grandmother who raised him after the death of his parents. Unable to control himself, in a fit of rage, Gang kills a pregnant woman – who indicated him as the father of her unborn child – and her cousins; for this he is sentenced to death, and will be beheaded in autumn, the traditional season for executions. His grandmother tries to save him, but this proves to be a task beyond her means. So she makes him marry the young Lian (Tang Pao-yun), an orphan raised within the family, in prison, so that the Pei line does not die out.
The opening shows a man and a boy being carried off to execution with their necks clasped in the jia (cangue), while a woman and two children, in mourning clothes, weep in the background. Next we see a man (Pei Gang) fleeing with chains on his feet, being chased through a forest and being stopped by an old man (the head jailer) skilled in martial arts; then we see him being harassed in prison. Used to numerous wuxia films, we are immediately convinced that we are witnessing a classic scenario of the injustice of power. But in a stunning reversal of our expectations, we see Gang’s misdeeds in flashback, and so realise that the sentence is just.
The principles underpinning the film are championed by a Confucian intellectual who went to prison voluntarily in his father’s place (both in him and in Lian when she agrees to marry Gang, the concept of obligation is paramount). Acceptance in all senses (philosophical and moral) is the principle that Gang must strive for – also through his relationship with Lian – in his evolution. It is important to note that in Gang’s character these new pangs of conscience do not spring, moralistically, from nowhere, but rather are a positive development of some negative and infantile traits present from the very start (witness at the trial his refusal to lie, which there is a sign of pride, but on an absolute level is also a glimmer of honesty). Its process of evolution is dialectical.
This process is not painless. At first Gang is terrified at the mere mention of death, and even his moral growth does not erase his regret. “It is too late. Summer has never flown by so fast. Now autumn is upon us!” The seasons are central to the film: both in the concept of the seasonal cycle as an eternal cycle of death and rebirth and as symbols of the passing of time which, as execution approaches, has something fatal about it. The film highlights the contradiction whereby the punishment falls to a “new” Gang, who now accepts it, but his acceptance is triggered by the very looming prospect of punishment.
As for Lee’s beautiful direction, it will suffice to mention (in the scene in which Gang’s outburst of anger turns into painful self-criticism when he thrashes himself with his chains) the marvellous frame-within-a-frame that divides the characters – from left to right, Lian, Gang and the stricken jailer – into partitions isolated from each other: expressing a sense of guilt, repentance and tragedy, but also a sense of irreparability, whereby the characters can endure the same grief as Gang, but are separated because each bears their own responsibility.
Lee Hsing was born in Shanghai in 1930 and moved to Taiwan in 1948, where he entered the film industry under the guidance of Tang Shao-hua. He made his debut with the two-part comedy-journey film Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Roads in Taiwan (1959, co-directed with Fang Zhen and Tien Feng); in 2011 the film was screened at FEFF as part of Asia Laughs! Lee’s name is linked to the genre of “Healthy Realism” (Beautiful Duckling, 1964; My Silent Wife, 1965). He won seven Golden Horse Awards for Best Film during his career, and was nominated for Best Director three times, including once for Execution in Autumn.
1964 – Beautiful Duckling
1964 – Oyster Girl
1965 – My Silent Wife
1972 – Execution in Autumn
1978 – He Never Gives Up
1979 – The Story of a Small Town
1979 – Good Morning, Taipei
1986 – The Heroic Pioneers