In the Dust in the Wind, Hou Hsiao-Hsien presents the inevitable difficulties that characterize life and shows the reality bearing both sorrows and happy moments. The film focuses on the difficulties and dilemmas of maturing and negotiating the adult life in the village and in the city. The time of youth is seen as the period when people experience the most significant challenges in decision making about their future. In addition, the film underscores the beauty that surrounds life but somehow stays beyond one’s reach. Hsiao-Hsien creates a scenario which replicates the difficulties which overwhelm people when taking a course that one cannot change, and not allowing them to enjoy the goods that the world offers. Life is a complex process that comprises of unfathomable beauty and joy as well as explicit pain and hardships; surpasses the control of individuals and limits their ability to enjoy and appreciate the beauty.
To depict the concept of the complexity of life, Hsiao-Hsien reproduces in the film the reality of existence. The main characters Ah-Yuan and Ah-Yun come from a mining village in Northeast Taiwan. The residents struggle to earn enough to support their families, making it the dream of every young person to go and work in the city of Taipei once they grow up. The difficult economic situation of the villagers forces the two young people to depart for Taipei in search of employment after junior high instead of studying further. When they leave the countryside for the urban area, they expect a utopian environment in the city, one which will alleviate their poverty and financial crisis. However, contrary to the expectations, Hsiao-Hsien presents life in the city as equally difficult for the young people.
Regardless of their efforts, they young people cannot afford a quality life. Once in Taipei, they find menial jobs, which they do during the day, and attend night classes. Life in Taipei seems hard and dangerous, as evidenced from the friends Ah-Yuan and Ah-Yun make, as one lost his arm to a machine and the other was injured by his boss. On top of that, the loneliness of living away from their families overwhelms the young people. They face life among strangers and away from their parents and the people they know, which makes the challenges even more compelling. Life is equally challenging in the village and in Taipei, and whatever efforts the young people employ nothing seems to help them achieve the desirable results.
To further his concept, Hsiao-Hsien displays the countryside topography to reflect beauty, calmness, and peace, while the urban Taipei demonstrates hustle, struggle, and difficulties. In such a way, the director portrays life as complex in both surroundings where human beings face similar challenges. The film opens with a long distance shot which shows which develops into a beautiful light as the train emerges from a tunnel. Hsiao-Hsien also presents the view of the mountains and the serene and relaxing terrain surrounding the rail tracks. On the contrary, in Taipei, one can see the noisy, busy life without peace or quietness. The need to work during the day and study at night in a noisy, crowded environment paints a rather formidable picture. The city has no appealing sites for the eyes, and it gives the impression of constant pressure. These two settings represent the wholesome human life. That is, each one represents one aspect of human life, the noisy strenuous city for the difficulties and the serene countryside for the peace and joy.
Besides, Hsiao-Hsien implies that human beings do not have control over their life. He presents numerous scenes to depict the one’s helplessness when it comes to their future. To capture the idea, the director uses symbols such as the tunnels that the train passes through as they symbolize the eternal movement and unstoppable force of nature. The passengers on the train would enjoy a continuous site of the beautiful countryside, but they inevitably have to pass through the tunnels and experience the darkness inside. The tunnels, therefore, represent the recurring difficulties which characterize one’s life. That is, when a person overcomes one difficulty, others would follow.
The decision to move from the village to the urban area depicts the hard decisions which people make for nothing. When the couple moves to the city, they bear dreams and expectations of making their lives better. However, such dreams rarely come true, as evident in the case of Ah-Yun and Ah-Yuan. Instead of securing high-paying jobs, they find the ones that barely help the couple survive. Worse still, Ah-Yuan’s loses the motorcycle with which he delivers the goods, which becomes a turn for the worst in his already depressing situation. Also, opposite to their expectations, their relationship experiences a strain once they go to Taipei. At the beginning, the young couple expects their lives and relationship to progress positively as they live in the city with new opportunities, however, in the end, their efforts do not bring about their expectations.
Moreover, Hsiao-Hsien insinuates that the responsibility before the society presses on humans limiting their ability to actually live and fulfill their desires. The characters do not appreciate the beauty around them as they are pre-occupied with solving problems and trying to reach the standards presented to them by the society. Regardless of the challenges in life, it brings a lot of beauty and joy, which, if people are conscious, they can appreciate and enjoy. To put across this concept, Hsiao-Hsien uses a cinematic technique of framing within the frame. For example, at the beginning of the film, Hsiao-Hsien presents the opening beauty of the countryside and the young couple in the train perusing through their books. In this scene, Ah-Yun tells Ah-Yuan that she has problems with some mathematics concepts and he wonders why she did not ask for his help, as he is excellent in studies. This scenario brings to light the goodness that people miss as they focus on other issues. Ah-Yun and Ah-Yuan do not enjoy the beautiful countryside view and the beautiful sites lying beside the rail tracks. What is more, they miss all of it as they try to run after dreams which can hardly ever come true.
Moving to Taipei represents the difficult actions people are forced to undertake and their limitation to control the outcomes. When Ah-Yuan decides to go to Taipei, his father tells him “if you decide to make yourself a bull, someone will be willing to plow”. This statement underlines Ah-Yuans ability or even an obligation to make some decisions as well as shows his limitation as someone else will decide his fate in the city. This film, being the last piece of a trilogy, furthers the theme of coming of age when young people face extreme problems when trying to make first steps in adult life and taking responsibility for them. Before, Ah-Yuan did not need to make life changing decisions. Nonetheless, as he matures from junior high school, he steps into young adulthood, where he will decide the direction of his life.
The major decisions that human beings make in their social life usually pertain the location of residence, work, and future partner. When Ah-Yuan and Ah-Yun decide to relocate to the urban area, they portray the desire for the young people to embrace the new life, as they explore new opportunities. Also, when Ah-Yuan goes back to the village to get Ah-Yuan to live in the city it displays their thoughts concerning the possibility of marriage. However, Hsiao-Hsien offers sharp contrasts to this isolation of decision making. In Taipei, Ah-Yuan lives with a group of his friends above a movie theater. This residence denies every aspect of privacy and depicts the concept of openness. It is also symbolic of the lives of the young people in Taipei, where they live a simple open life, without much of intimacy and a place to be alone. Regardless of the decisions that human beings make, fate steers them towards a certain end.
The ending of the film sums up the incapacitation of human beings to live as they desire or to control their fate. After working in Taipei, Ah-Yun is forced to serve in the military for three years. Once he leaves, Ah-Yun does not wait for him but marries another man. After the three years of service, Ah-Yuan returns to find A-Yun married and he does not blame her for not waiting or marrying someone else. Instead, he accepts what has happened and returns to the village. It is ironic that Ah-Yun could marry someone else considering the perseverance and tolerance she has shown for Ah-Yuan during their life together. As when the couple lives in Taipei together, Ah-Yuan sees numerous faults in Ah-Yun and tries to avoid her, behaving coldly with her. Regardless of the cold treatment received, Ah-Yun remains gentle, kind, and close to Ah-Yuan. For example, when Ah-Yuan loses his motorcycle, he wanders around town and falls sick with bronchitis, and Ah-Yun nurses him with love and tenderness until he is well again. On the one hand, the way Ah-Yun tolerates A-Yuan’s indifferences makes the marriage with another man seem unreasonable. On the other hand, the gesture of moving on with her life in Ah-Yuan’s absence underscores the inevitability of fate. No matter the efforts Ah-Yun made to maintain the relationship with Ah-Yuan, it is beyond their control. Whatever she does would not make them life partners, because that is not up to her to determine. Therefore, Ah-Yun’s decision to marry another man, and Ah-Yuan’s acceptance of the situation without seeking revenge, reflect the idea of the whole film, the idea that human beings do not have control over life, and it is only wise to accept it as it comes.
In conclusion, one can see that life is beyond the scope of human control. Ah-Yuan and Ah-Yun move from their village in search of a better life in the urban area and towards their fate. Surprisingly, they find out that life is as difficult in the city as it is in the village. Although Ah-Yuan and Ah-Yun think that they are meant for each other and strive to be together, fate directs them differently, and Ah-Yun ends up marrying another man. By Ah-Yuan accepting Ah-Yun’s decision to marry someone else, Hsiao-Hsien shows the inevitability of accepting life as it is. Human beings are limited when it comes to fate, they can only hope and try, but they do not have the ultimate say. Interestingly, they miss out on joy and other goodness that are present in life in their pursuit to shape a destiny that they cannot change. Their efforts to control their future amount to only a distraction from the other beauty that comes with life.