Now this was a surprise. A new release from Eureka, Execution in Autumn is directed by Lee Hsing (who only passed away last year, at age 91), often known as “the Godfather of Taiwanese Cinema.” Certainly a deep cut, but this is exactly the kind of work boutique labels like Eureka should dig up when all the greatest hits have been covered. Once again, this release finds Eureka on the cutting edge of releasing Asian cinema in the west. The mighty Criterion Collection has only just got a couple of Johnnie To films as its deepest cuts, and here’s Eureka with something like Execution in Autumn just in time for the film’s 50th anniversary, too.
The film is also very good, which isn’t surprising as it’s also Hsing’s favourite of his own works. Its plot is simple but powerful. Wei Pang (played here intensely by Ou Wei, who I hadn’t identified in a lead role before) is in trouble for murder. Why? He’s been spoiled by his grandmother since birth, which has led to a short temper, an attitude of entitlement and his murder of a bunch of men because of both. With his grandmother running out of ways to get Wei Pang out of jail before his execution, she turns to Lien (Tang Bao-yun), an orphan she adopted who is now a grown woman, with a plan to marry Lien to Wei Pang and have her bear his child to continue to the family line after he passes. Wei Pang is scheduled for an autumn execution, which gives the characters a running clock. As the film progresses, Wei Pang and Lien reveal deep layers to their characters, and Execution in Autumn becomes a treatise on what it really means to be human and also what it means to be a man. The film takes its time, but it uses that to foster deep investment in the narrative outcome and the characters, which makes the ending all the more powerful and memorable.
The extras are limited but also feel substantial relative to the film’s obscurity. We’ve gotten the new English subtitles, which can often breathe important new life into a film and especially one that deals in such weighty topics as this. Two other special features are included as well, including a simple but shocking look at the restoration process (which shows why the film scrubs up so well in Eureka’s 2K process) as well as a 45-minute piece by esteemed Asian film critic Tony Rayns. A giant in his field, Rayns delivers a presentation on Taiwan cinema before the famed Taiwanese New Wave (and Execution in Autumn’s place in that pre-wave period). Eureka also presents the film in its typical Masters of Cinema branding, with a styled, numbered slip case. It’s a fine addition to the collection of any fan of Asian cinema.