A brief consideration of the films of Edward Yang
Edward Yang’s ability to present a complex and compassionate view of the world by way of a rich, meticulously crafted mastery of cinema has assured his position as one of the great filmmakers of the late 20th century—if only more people knew it.
In 2008 the New Zealand International Film Festival celebrated its 40th anniversary with a retrospective of films by the late Taiwanese film director, Edward Yang, arguably the most significant little-seen body of work in world cinema. It goes without saying that the Taiwanese New Wave has been one the most important developments in international cinema of the last 30 years, to which Yang’s contribution has been pivotal. Overshadowed by the higher profiles of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, the biggest stumbling block for Yang may have been his aversion to mainstream commercial film production. He once said that selling films for money is not his purpose as an artist, an attitude reflected in the thematic subtext of many of his films (uneasy tensions between business and art), but that may also have contributed to ensuring that his work remain largely unseen. Consequently, his films are more often that not appreciated by a relatively small but loyal coterie of film-buffs and critics. Knowing this, it was nevertheless a shock to realise just how small Yang’s following is in Auckland, given that the 700-seat Skycity Theatre was virtually empty for most of the sessions of this once-in-a-lifetime event. It was more than a little sobering.
From the get-go I have to fess-up that I am no Yang expert. I’ve seen all of his films two or three times with the exception of That Day, on the Beach, which I finally caught up with thanks to this retrospective. I admit that my first encounter with each of his films left me somewhat perplexed, but I can say from experience that a second viewing of a Yang film is mandatory for anyone looking for more than a superficial engagement with his work. Despite being reasonably acquainted with ‘difficult’ cinema, I simply wasn’t prepared for Yang’s unique brand of fragmentation and ellipsis, but after seeing A Brighter Summer Day I began to twig to him. Even though I left the theatre unsure about what I had just seen, it was obvious that Yang was a significant voice in world cinema, and it was just as obvious that I was going to have to come to terms with this modern master. Yi Yi proved to be easier to negotiate, but I saw the film after becoming more acquainted with Yang, Hou, Tsai and the stylistic, formal and aesthetic characteristics of Taiwan New Cinema. His early short film, Desires (which I only caught up with after this retrospective), was also relatively easy to get into, but again it revealed considerably more on subsequent viewings. What follows is an attempt by an enthusiastic admirer to offer a modest overview of a filmmaker deserving of serious attention from self-respecting film-aficionados. I would like to say filmgoers in general, but the fact of the matter is that Yang’s films are not easily digestible once-see entertainments. They are dense, complex, rich with subtext, and require a concentrated and committed viewing attitude.
Edward Yang was a film school dropout. After a spell at an American film school in the 70s, he realised he “didn’t have what it takes for the film business” and gave up his filmmaking aspirations. He may have had nothing in common with filmmaking as it was taught at USC, but Yang certainly had the capability to create aesthetically and intellectually expansive film art. After a period absorbing the great works of cinema, he was offered a chance to write and direct a short film for the omnibus production, In Our Time (1982), the film that heralded Taiwan New Cinema (a group of cineastes committed to discussing the socio-political transformation of Taiwan following the end of the Japanese occupation and the hitherto neglected realities of Taiwanese life). DESIRES is the most interesting episode, certainly the best conceived and realised. The influence of Ozu is evident, and there are also hints of Antonioni, Godard and Bresson, but the most striking aspect is how apparent Yang’s directorial style already was, noticeable in the revealing similarities between Desires and A Brighter Summer Day (one could almost believe it was assembled from outtakes from the later film). Characters and dialogue dominate the other segments of In Out Time, but Desires is a very fine example of visual storytelling, where much is conveyed through gestures, atmosphere, framing, camera position, tone, pacing and location. Locations are mere environments in the other films, but in Yang’s they are crucial, enabling him to comment on the milieu within which the characters exist and imbue the work with formally and thematically acute compositions (something gleaned from Antonioni, but effectively assimilated into his own unique style).
The central character is a young girl going through puberty and gradually becoming aware of herself, her fatherless family, and the world around her in a more adult way. Yang parallels her growing self-awareness with that of Taiwan, one of many allegorical notes in a film that signalled the arrival of a perceptive and sophisticated filmmaker. The influence of the West on Taiwan is evident in Desires, but what may not be quite so obvious to non-Taiwanese viewers are the qualities that set it apart from the cinema that preceded it: an emphasis on ordinary lives rather than the extra-ordinary movie lives typified by Healthy Realism in the 60s, Social Realism in the 70s, and since then a profusion of action films, comedies, romances and historical epics; the depiction of disorientating and isolating urbanism; women with economic, political and sexual autonomy; absent fathers (suggesting the absence or failure of leadership, but also the sense of perpetual exile within the Taiwanese psyche); and the articulation of ‘post-sadness’ (the legacy of repression within Taiwanese society). These themes were all developed further in his work, so it’s a shame that this revealing short film was not included in the retrospective, particularly as his first feature (the rather patchy, That Day, on the Beach), only fitfully reflects (in my view) his directorial strengths.
For the first half-hour or so of THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH (1983), formal similarities with Ozu, Yang’s later work, and the early films of Hou Hsiao-hsien (who has a small role in the film) indicated that it might have been a solid feature debut. It was also interesting to realise that another influence could have been Satyajit Ray. Critics have pointed to a neo-realist strain in Taiwan New Cinema that I’ve never picked up on, to be honest. However, Ray was influenced by neo-realism, but he filtered it through Renoir, which gave his work the grace, restraint and depth of feeling one can detect in Yang’s work. Despite a few clunky moments and some awkward acting, That Day seemed to be shaping up nicely, but then melodrama reared its ugly head, and before long glum introspection, posturing, and heavy exposition began to bog the film down. Of course, there are fine moments too, such as the flashback to the central character’s childhood, a virtually wordless sequence that concludes with the young girl walking out of the family home towards an uncertain (and implicitly troubled) future.
Yang dramatically tightened his grip after That Day, on the Beach, and his films would be the better for it. Nevertheless, the film was an important and influential start for Taiwan New Cinema, reflecting many of the characteristics that would later define Yang’s work: a modernist preoccupation with formalism; tension between traditional and modern values; the influence of the West; and the complex relationship between business, criminality, machismo, promiscuity, socio-political impotence and alienation, spiritual atrophy, and of course, art.
The lessons learned making That Day, on the Beach were conspicuously noticeable in the beautifully nuanced work that followed, the masterful TAIPEI STORY (1985). The performances are understated, the colour-palette subdued, and the imagery coolly depicts an anonymous landscape of traffic and high-rise construction. Everything is steadily, irreversibly on the move, but not so for Lon (played by the great director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who shows he could easily have had a career as an actor) and Ah-Chin (Tsai Chin), a couple slowly drifting apart. Lon, a one-time little league baseball star, works for a textile store but dreams of moving to America. Ah-Chin, an executive in a computer company, has embraced the economic aspirations of Taipei’s commercial development, but her sleek dark-glasses (a symbol of affluence that rhymes with the impersonal mirror-glass surfaces of the city) barely conceal her growing insecurities. Yang uses their collapsing relationship to reflect the uncertainty, confusion, disillusion and tension within a nation undergoing rapid (if not rampant) modernisation. The film is full of superb scenes, but one I particularly admire is a long-shot in the closing moments of ambulance men casually smoking and chatting, telling us know all we need to know about Lon and his future. As someone perceptively said, shots of this quality reveal the extent to which behaviour is story for Yang.
Despite its Ozu-like title, Taipei Story owes more to Antonioni in terms of its layered, non-linear exposition; emphasis on stasis and alienation; and the use of landscape to depict internal states and feelings. The film is not generally thought to be the equal of Yang’s great masterworks, but in my view it’s one of his best – better (perhaps) than the very highly regarded film that was to follow. Yang once said that “the bombs we plant in each other are ticking away”, and no film express that better than THE TERRORISER (1986), a complex thriller with a fragmented and perplexing narrative structure. It concerns a handful of characters (whose paths barely intersect) who live in an environment where obsolescence rules. Once again there is a couple in a failing relationship: Li (a doctor), and Chou (an aspiring writer), and again Yang uses their situation to examine tensions between traditional and contemporary roles within an increasingly alienated (and alienating) society. This idea is pushed further when the catalyst for their split is an anonymous prank, alluding to a fatalistic randomness within modern urban life.
Apart from other Antonionian touches (a large blown-up photo [put to great use in an evocative moment when sheets of photographic paper that make up a large composite of a woman’s face are tellingly – perhaps prophetically – blown by the wind]; haunted cityscapes and the suggestion of things seen and unseen; a ghost-like evaporation of identity and meaning, and an abiding sense of mystery and betrayal), there are also hints of Godard lurking within the modernist construction and narrative distanciation. One also senses more acutely the novelistic qualities that were to flower magnificently in A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi. The novel being written by one of the characters (and the work of the photographer, an idea used profoundly in Yi Yi) touches on themes related to art – the moral responsibility of the artist and the role of art – and it also hints once again at a subtle strain of autobiography and/or self-reflexivity in Yang’s work. There are some nice ideas about the inevitability and unreliability of autobiography, and the artist’s prerogative to fabricate aspects of their life for the sake of greater universality. These may not be profound ideas, but within the context of other thematic threads these simple ruminations subtly add to the overall resonance of the work.
For all that, I have to say that I found The Terroriser a little too contrived, particularly its thriller aspects, as if Yang set aside the elegant restraint of Taipei Story and Desires in order to engage a wider audience – but of course this would have been at odds with his distaste for commercialism, as well as the rather demanding complexity of the resulting film. Maybe he imitated the tropes of the policier in order to draw critical attention to them – who knows? I need to see the film again before I can say for sure, but given the extraordinary critical reputation of the film, I’m prepared to admit I’ve got it wrong. Films as sophisticated and complex as Yang’s resist easy summation and invariably require more than one viewing, so I’ll definitely be returning to the film again at some stage.
In this respect, the film that arguably rewards multiple viewings more than any other is Yang’s universally acclaimed masterpiece, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), if for no other reason than its dense stories-within-stories narrative and vast array of characters. On a single viewing, Yang’s use of distanciation and ellipsis ensures that even the most perceptive and attentive viewer will have their work cut out making sense of who’s who and how their various stories interconnect. If one can liken Taipei Story to chamber music, then Brighter Day is full orchestration – with choir! Yang’s expansive novelistic approach is at its richest here (and in Yi Yi, of course). Masterful on every level and one of his most finely acted films, this epic overview of the general climate in Taiwan in the early-60s lays the historical groundwork that his other films (and those of his contemporaries) built on. Why this film and Hou’s equally important City of Sadness (1989) have never been released on DVD is mystifying, but if ever a film was suited to the repeat-viewing advantages of the medium, this long-form masterpiece certainly is.
The film is loosely framed around the character of teenage schoolboy Zhao Si’r and the gradual, irreversible impact of gang infighting and corruption on him. The inescapable reach of gang culture parallels a broader venality. The relationship between darkness and light is central to Yang’s thematic and formal intentions, and is subtly indicated in the very first shot of a light bulb being turned on. The notion of seeing and not seeing informs virtually every frame, and the inspired device of Si’r’s failing eyesight becomes a metaphor for moral deterioration. It’s also reflected in various blackouts; lights switching on and off; candles blown out; activities shrouded in darkness; and the crucial prop of the torch that Si’r steals from a film studio, suggesting a parallel between the modest beam of the torch and the revelatory potential of cinema – despite limitations of reach. The torch is used to great effect as a technical and thematic device; focusing our attention on specific objects and characters within the general darkness of the frame, paralleling the function of the filmmaker as the director of our gaze; possibly alluding to Yang’s aspiration for an active audience who will watch/read the frames he presents with concentrated perception; a metaphor for seeking truth in general; and ultimately to convey Si’r’s growing disillusion with the near-impossibility of discerning truth from lies and maintaining moral focus. When Si’r finally comes to realise that everything he regarded as important in his life has been a sham, he returns the torch to the studio before embracing (literally) his tragic fate.
The narrative, historic and thematic complexities of A Brighter Summer Day are much too involved to adequately examine here. Even the title of the film (a mistranslation of a line from Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”) resonates with enough subtext to fill pages on the subject of imperialism, but it also gives us a glimpse into how deeply penetrating this great film is. While many would make similar (and not unjustifiable) claims for Yi Yi, few would be as categorical about Yang’s next two films. However, that is not to say that A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong are failures. Despite whatever faults they might have, both are rich studies of contemporary urban life with expansive plot and character threads that Yang weaves with great dexterity, perception, and (interestingly) a very wry wit.
A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION (1994) and Mahjong foreshadow the formal ideas that would be more fully expressed in the exquisite poise of Yi Yi. The grace and delicacy with which Yang handled the near-perfect exposition of his last film (begging persuasive comparison with Lubitsch), testifies to the great loss his death was to cinema. Confusion is in some ways Yang’s most ‘movie-like’ movie, and has been nicely described as a comic-satire on the “culture of business and the business of culture”. Comedy is pivotal to the film (as it would be to Mahjong and Yi Yi – one can only surmise that Yang would have refined his nascent interest in comedy had he survived). On one level, Confusion is virtually a post-modern analysis of cinematic comedy, referencing Chaplin, Sturges, Lubitsch, Hawks and (at times) Woody Allen as it gleefully but subtly mixes a broad range of comic styles: verbal comedy, physical comedy, theatrical comedy, screwball comedy, thematic comedy, visual comedy, absurdist comedy, art as comedy, politics as comedy, business as comedy, film as comedy (poking fun at mainstream cinema), and of course life and its participants as the ultimate comedy. There is also a passing resemblance to the films of Jacques Rivette in terms of an understated, gently wry self-reflexivity.
In terms of the subtextual underpinnings of the film, Yang’s comments (taken from the official press-book) articulate them well when he says: “In all the books on Chinese history (over 2,500 years’ worth) and in most of the recent Chinese-language films that depict the past, poverty and suffering are central themes. Wealth was never really intended for the people in Confucian doctrines, which enforced more than anything else the central authority’s legitimacy with rigid social structures coated with moral justifications to stress conformism, discipline and personal sacrifices for social harmony and group security. Ironically, the resulting conformism and discipline bore fruit in terms of economic miracles and the double-digit annual growths of the past two decades. And so we find ourselves in a position where we have run out of Confucian teachings as well as Western solutions (such as Democracy) from which to model ourselves. This confusion has created threatening anxieties in the details of our daily lives.” He also said that Taiwan was “trying to head into the 21st century with a 4th century BC ideology’, and that “if Confucius returned to contemporary Taiwan, he would be greatly admired as an influential and powerful fraud”.
A Confucian Confusion has a large cast of overlapping characters, narratives and points-of-view, and with much to say about the Taiwanese economic transformation and its social impact. Personal interactions have an almost contractual feel to them. Artists are businessmen, businessmen are artists – no one really knows who they are. Self-interest and delusion are rife, fraudulence rules, and confusion is the norm. Yang toys with characters and audience alike with ever-shifting relationships and misleading trajectories. Virtually all of the characters are attracted to someone other than the person attracted to them. These attractions are perpetually in flux, suggesting a kind of corporate incest. It all seems like a hopeless and loveless cycle of perpetual emotional adolescence and narcissistic delusion, but in the end Yang allows one couple to connect amid the swirling mass of insecurity around them.
What is depicted in A Confucian Confusion as amusing takes on a much darker hue in Yang’s next film, where the comedy of manners gives way to a kind of comedy of venality. MAHJONG (1996) is the most problematic of Yang’s films (well, for non-Taiwanese, I presume). In many respects it’s his most daring film, but also (seemingly) the most flawed. For English-speaking audiences it is his most poorly acted film, but it’s hard to tell whether that was intentional or not. Given the tightly controlled quality of his other work (That Day, on the Beach notwithstanding), the performances here are at times surprisingly big and/or wooden; the tone of the film deliberately erratic; and the comedy broad, yet Yang’s formal intelligence is as precise as his view of Taiwan is caustic. Following the relative sophistication of Confucian Confusion, one might be tempted to view Mahjong as an attempt to reach a broader audience (particularly in Taiwan), but again, that doesn’t sit with Yang’s distaste for commercialism, or his comments about the critical function of art (especially his). As a portrait of an insidious, self-serving ethos, the film leaves little doubt about the implicit anger behind Yang’s depiction of the commercial prostitution of Taiwan, which is apparent in virtually every scene but particularly when a woman accompanies a man she’s interested in back to his flat only to find that she is expected to ‘service’ his entire gang.
For admirers of Yang’s sophisticated cinema, Mahjong seems very heavy-handed, but that could be the point. Everything in this film is unmistakable, suggesting a deliberate formal strategy appropriate to (and reflective of) the reality the film depicts and Yang’s feelings about it. It’s also evident that he wanted to ensure that no one could possibly miss the point of the film, to the extent that he has one of the characters (the English architect, Markus – played woefully, it has to be said, by Nick Erickson) espouse the film’s fundamental themes in a terribly clunky monologue near the end. It’s been said that Mahjong is about personality disorder and identity issues, which is why it comes across as a film with a personality disorder and identity issues! Perhaps that’s what critics mean when they call it ‘audacious’. As an allegory about the interconnectedness of business and the criminal underworld, the multi-lingual/multi-cultural cast is crucial to fleshing-out (for want of a better word) Yang’s view of global economic promiscuity, with Taiwan as a young whore willing to take all comers. As befits such a theme, the film ain’t pretty. It’s simultaneously jarring, awkward, violent, depressing, embarrassing, ugly, astounding, coarse, poignant, silly, pathetic, moving, off-putting, tender, ridiculous, and exhilarating. Like it or loath it, there’s no equivalent in Yang’s oeuvre, yet it is unequivocally, perhaps even profoundly Yangian.
A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong may not qualify as masterpieces, but they are (as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it) “major works by any standard”, but Yang's final film, YI YI (A One and a Two, 2000), is something else again. The film essentially encapsulates an entire life through the collective lives of its characters from cradle to grave, covering everything from early self-awareness, first love, adult relationships, family, work, spirituality, illness, betrayal, forgiveness, love, acceptance, and final release. Yi Yi was the closest Yang came to a fundamentally philosophic work, hinting at what might have been a new line of enquiry in his art. It’s also his most inward looking and tender film, more personal and compassionate (particularly after Mahjong), and imbued with an attractive contemplative stillness. It’s interesting to note that the actor who plays NJ (the father) is Wu Nien-jen, a writer/director often referred to as the ‘third father’ of Taiwan New Cinema. He was one of the major driving forces of the movement, writing several screenplays including That Day, on the Beach and City of Sadness. His presence lends a deeper and more personal sense of family to the film.
While Yi Yi may have a more traditional narrative linearity than Yang’s other work, this densely orchestrated film is no less complex. The narrative is structured around a series of events over the course of a year in the lives of one family, opening with a wedding at which Grandmother falls ill; a celebration for a new baby in the middle; and closing with Grandmother’s funeral. The old woman’s illness triggers re-evaluation in the lives of the family members, but particularly NJ and his wife. This allows Yang to pursue a philosophically searching meditation on the fundamentals of life, morality, human interconnectedness and art, but without compromising the film’s extraordinary inner-balance and seemingly effortless blend of humour and drama. There’s definitely a touch of autobiography in Yi Yi, especially in the character of Yang-Yang (NJ’s young son) with his artistic impulse to take photos of the things others can’t see. This speaks directly to Yang’s passionate belief in the function and importance of art and the moral responsibility of the artist.
The overt influence of Ozu, Antonioni, Bresson and others, is completely subsumed in Yi Yi, and Yang’s unique artistic voice is assuredly to the fore. His ability to present a complex and compassionate view of the world by way of a rich, incisive, meticulously crafted mastery of cinema has assured his position as one of the great filmmakers of the late 20th century. It’s just a pity not more people know it. It’s disappointing that this retrospective was so poorly attended, that filmgoers allowed a rare opportunity to experience (and celebrate) the work of one of the masters of contemporary cinema to slip by them. Difficulty seeing Yang’s films aside, it’s disconcerting to speculate that the apparent lack of interest in him (and other equally uncompromising filmmakers) might stem from an aversion among film-aficionados today for this kind of substantial, challenging cinema, or for the notion of film as art and culture perhaps. Despite 40 years of the New Zealand International Film Festivals, one can’t help wondering if cinema is still thought of as little more than mere entertainment in New Zealand.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader