The young protagonist of Hou Hsiao-hsien 's Dust in the Wind is preternaturally forlorn, and his fate seems constantly thwarted by this chronic melancholy. In the 1970s, Wan and his girlfriend Huen travel back and forth between their impoverished hometown mining village and the urban center of Taipei. Huen finds a job as a tailor’s assistant, but Wan struggles to hold down work and provide for sick family members. He becomes guilt-stricken over the generosity and kindness of his loved ones, adrift between two worlds and plunging headlong into a world of responsibility for which he seems inexplicably but distinctly unprepared.
Hsaio-hsien's narratives have a uniquely cyclical structure of consequence; moments that seem like colorful details rendering vivid slices-of-life retroactively take on unexpected significance. And yet the film is also bifurcated by a passage in the middle that delineates the beginning's relatively straightforward, nostalgic chronicle of fledgling romance from its later, more fraught and elliptical second half. It begins with Wan's motorcycle being stolen while shoe shopping with Huen. In the first of two heartbreaking back-to-back scenes, Wan commands a tearful, pleading Huen to stand watch as he unsuccessfully tried to hot wire another bike. This is not behavior we've seen before, Moments later they stand side-by-side at their home train station, and Wan tells Huen to return without him. We learn she's not only accepted a measure of responsibility for the incident but is helping Wan pay for a new bike. Into the performance of Wang Ching-Wen — who, as Han, gives one of the all-time great one-off youth performances — we read a soul diminished through complex cycle of guilt and shame compounded by others’ seemingly unwavering love and kindness.
In the spirit of the screening context as a retrospective of Mark Lee Ping-Bing’s work, it’s worth mentioning that the film is beautiful. Dust in the Wind is demarcated by a series of train shots shuttling between Tapei and the mountain, which not only function as moments of narrative chaptering and transition, but also as a meta-cinematic gesture referencing early cinema and seemingly heralding the flourishing of the Taiwan New Cinema movement, of which Lee’s images are an indelible part.