A young boy and his sister spend a summer at their grandparents’ house in the country while their mother recuperates from an illness. They while away the hours climbing trees, swimming in a stream, searching for missing cattle, and coming to uneasy grips with the enigmatic and sometimes threatening realities of adult life.
A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) is a tale of transition – from the chaotic life in the city to la dolce vita of the countryside, from the ennui of scientific modernity to the fascination with nature’s antiquity and from the blissful ignorance of childhood to the mercurial moods of pre-adolescence – and, fittingly, begins with the graduation ceremony of one of the two child protagonists of the film, who are to spend their titular summer at their grandfather’s house while their mother is to undergo a critical surgery in the city. Surely, it is not only the mother who is going to be going through a life-altering phase.
The kids come across a host of alien characters and situations, including a pair of robbers and a mentally-challenged woman, that are so intricately woven into the narrative that even the adult viewer finds it increasingly difficult to locate his/her moral footing with respect to the film. A Summer at Grandpa’s is starkly redolent of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in the way it filters the political and moral complexities of the world though the eyes of children to paint an unsettling portrait of a society that is far from being the paradise it appears to be on the surface.
Hou observes, with equal intrigue, both the carefree indulgence of the children in social games (including a hilarious turtle race) and the stark reality that interrupts these activities, as if trying to remind them that the best part of their lives is over.