Spring and summer a time of growth, “executions mandated by the court guard wait for the autumn equinox.” Having already attempted escape once, pursued by officers of the law as he ran through the forest on a carpet of fallen leaves dragging his chains behind him, Pei Gang is unlikely to be given a second opportunity, recaptured and returned to his cell of wooden bars behind stone walls to await trial and sentence.
The crime of which he is accused the murder of three people, the woman who claimed she bore his child and her two cousins who pressed him to take responsibility and support the baby, Pei Gang is unrepentant, delighting in the telling the court of their deaths, justifying the final murder of defenceless mother Chintao by saying “I couldn’t stand her tone.”
The sentence predictably death, it will be the end of the Pei family line though with the equinox having already passed Pei Gang has almost a year to live in his cell awaiting his execution in autumn while his grandmother fritters away the family fortune trying to bargain for his release, in desperation finally making the plea that he might be allowed to marry so a true heir can be assured.
Directed by Hsing Lee, Execution in Autumn (Qiu Jue, 秋決) was the Taiwanese entry for Best Foreign Language film for the 45th Academy Awards though it was not ultimately accepted; now, fifty years past its 1972 release in celebration of its anniversary it is presented on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, the new edition featuring a brief comparison of the material before and after 2K restoration of the original film elements undertaken by the Taiwan Film Institute alongside a comprehensive discussion by Tony Rayns.
Written by Chang Yung-hsiang with whom Hsing Lee also collaborated on 1965’s Beautiful Duckling (養鴨人家), the studio-based production of Execution in Autumn is impressive in its recreation of the forests and river surrounding the prison but also ethereal, unreal, sparsely populated and shaped like a fable of forgiveness and redemption as Pei Gang (Ou Wei, who died only a year after the release of the film at the age of thirty-six) at first rejects then accepts the proposal of Lian’Er (Tang Pao-yun), the orphaned girl his grandmother took in now obliged to repay her debt.
Sharing his space with an oily career thief and the philosophical son of a debtor who volunteered to serve the sentence of his elderly father, it is difficult to feel sympathy for either the arrogant Pei Gang who blames others for his repeated failures or his vain and manipulative grandmother who is fully aware she spoiled him, the sudden transformation of the convicted man the facile contrivance which colours Execution in Autumn as a sentimental drama, ultimately a lesser work than the similarly themed Yield to the Night.