Contemplating the Inevitability of Death and Loss in A Journey in Spring

By Latasha Seow

A Journey in Spring (2023) by Taiwanese directors Tzu-Hui Peng and Ping-Wen Wang is a deeply moving exploration of death that centers on the realistic and often bizarre ways in which we grieve. It bravely unravels the inner world of Khim-Hok, an emotionally distant elderly man who loses his wife, Tuan. Although he exhibits peculiar coping mechanisms, notably freezing Tuan’s body and driving off with her casket before she is cremated, what is even stranger is that none of these actions seem out of place at all. In fact, the audience is invited to embrace the unexplainable things grief compels us to do and even view them as natural responses to tragedy. The end-of-life experience is somberly accepted as inevitable, and the film allows us to experience the heaviness of grief through the naturalistic, empathetic telling of Khim-Hok’s journey.

In an interview with Variety, Wang explains that the directors simply tried to portray Khim-Hok’s actions as “reactions of a human being”. To mirror the natural easiness of human “reactions”, most scenes are set against nature, including dense forests and small pockets of greenery. A few recurring settings, such as the staircase leading up to the couple’s home, are consistently depicted through long shots, where greenery consumes almost the entire frame. It is a consistent reminder that the couple will likewise be returned to the earth soon—that they are a part of the natural cycle of life.

The gentle rhythm of nature is used as a frame for the couple to see and understand themselves. In one poignant scene on a beach at night, the couple admits their fallibility in old age. Tuan begins with the question:

“Why can’t I see the sun?”

To which Khim-Hok answers:

“This is the west side.

The sun rises in the east.”

The use of the sun rising and setting masterfully situates their stage of life as a natural end and suggests that there is no way to reverse this. In this same way, the whole film also moves to this tender yet unrelenting rhythm, mimicking the rising and setting of the sun.

Heavy scenes are tackled with the same sense of ease and routine, conveying the unavoidable reality of death, and situating these difficult moments as part and parcel of life. We watch Khim-Hok prepare a freezer for his wife ‘s body, taking wires out of storage, and lifting the heavy metal door to access the freezer. Even in an unsettling scene like this, the pace of the film is maintained. Few actions feel out of place for the characters, and we even begin to empathize with their unconventional behavior. Perhaps I too would have tried to freeze my spouse’s body, the film seems to insinuate. In the end, Khim-Hok’s efforts to preserve, and turn back time, are futile in the face of the unrelenting passing of life.

Although A Journey in Spring portrays death and grief as a natural part of life, it also never lets us forget Khim-Hok’s discomfort as he struggles to cope with losing Tuan. Jieh-Wen King’s stoic performance as Khim-Hok is also what makes the audience feel so sympathetic for him. Seeing his character move from a stand-offish partner to an emotional, grieving husband was gut-wrenching to watch. Towards the end, Khim-Hok rejects an offer to live with his son, and we are left watching him limp alone down the street, solidifying his position of isolation. Especially impactful is the film’s closing scene, pausing for an unusually long time on a photo of the waterfall from Tuan’s childhood. After Tuan passes away, there is no respite from grief and gloom in Khim-Hok’s life until this final image of the waterfall. This silent closing cements Tuan as a part of his thoughts, and a final reminder of why he suffered during the film. The audience likely never expected to see him cry, and so watching him breakdown here is even more heartbreaking.

At the same time, the ambiguity in this scene offers a glimpse of hope for Khim-Hok. It leaves his fate as open-ended and up to interpretation, and we are left wondering if Khim-Hok ever finds his way around his grief and loneliness. Since the waterfall only alludes to the memory of Tuan, we are allowed to hope that Khim-Hok manages to navigate the loneliness he struggles with, while carrying the memory of Tuan with him.

Something as human, and as foreign, as death can only be depicted well when we empathize with the circumstances of the on-screen character. To this end, A Journey in Spring has successfully allowed us to do so, drawing us deeply into Khim-Hok’s daily life so that we come close to understanding how he feels in spite of the convoluted and idiosyncratic nature of grief. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the film is the space it gives audiences to contemplate their own responses to the inevitable experience of death and loss.