Fengkuei is a small fishing port in Taiwan where a group of teenage friends have recently left school and now find themselves at a loss for what to do with their lives. They could stay in the village and eke out a living there, at least close to their families, or they could move to the big city and attempt to make something of their careers in a location where there is more money around. One of this small band of pals is Ah-Chung (Niu Doze), and he has more sadness in his life than the others since his beloved father was injured in an accident playing baseball, leaving him with brain damage and a shadow of his former self...
That nostalgia for a time when not only did things seem to be better, but there was more hope in a future that you were taking for granted would be brighter, was what informed the drama of this, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first real work that could be marked as that of the auteur he would become. He had cut his cinematic teeth on pop star vehicles for local favourite Kenny Bee, and while this had a certain teen appeal as those previous efforts had, there were no major stars here, and the mood was far more realistic and reflective, as if he had realised there came a time to put away childish things.
The effect was not, one had to say, optimistic, as if Hou was genuinely worried about the youth of Taiwan and had decided to establish himself as some sort of spokesman for what was remaining unspoken by the society at large. He refused to sentimentalise the situation, as early on we see the teenage boys cluelessly drawn into tit for tat fights that lead nowhere but manage to bolster their claims to macho supremacy which look absurd to our eyes, especially in light of where they end up. Not so much big fish in a small pond initially, but more small fish in a small pond, and they get by, harassing the girls and committing petty crime for ultimately useless status.
These activities, once the action moved to the bulk of the plot (not that it was vivid or starkly portrayed, you had to work at its observations), were thrown into sharper relief when three of the teens opt to move to the Big Smoke and see if they can get jobs there. Now they look like what they are, very small fry indeed, ripe for exploitation by the more worldly city folk and utterly out of their depth as they move into an apartment to share, part of a complex owned by someone's relative, where Ah-Chung is impressed by the sophistication of the girlfriend of said relative. We can tell this leaves him with a serious case of unrequited love, but he doesn't twig to his feelings himself until his heart is well on the way to being broken.
Despite the apparent temptation to depict his teen heroes as, well, as morons, Hou resists for he feels very sorry for how the modern world of eighties Taiwan is going to leave a lot of people who do not have the skills to survive in it very far behind, and after the earlier sequences where we were served up vignettes of the boys messing about in what seems very important to them, but to us looks almost pointless and trivial, we begin to warm to them when the extent of their lost at sea qualities become apparent. The Boys from Fengkuei did not have very much more to say than that, and when it did say it, Hou delivered the message at a certain distance the advantage of being an outsider can offer (though you imagine he knew people like this very well growing up), which could blunt its emotional impact (the classical music on the soundtrack his main surrender to sentiment), but in its quiet manner, he did hit home with this.
[This is available in the Eureka triple-film Blu-ray box set Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Three Films 1980-1983. The other films are Cute Girl and Green Green Grass of Home. Those features you can expect:
Limited Edition O-card [2000 copies First Print Run Only]
1080p presentations of all three films, across two Blu-ray discs
Uncompressed LPCM audio
Optional English subtitles
Video essays on all three films by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López
A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Phillip Kemp.]