I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of Edward Yang, from colon cancer at age 59. Yang was one of the greatest film directors of the last several decades. A founder of the Taiwanese “New Wave” starting in the late 1980s, he is probably less well known (either in Taiwan or internationally) than his colleagues Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang; but to my mind he was the greatest of the three.
I remember being stunned and blown away by The Terrorizer (1986) when I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival: sometime in the late 1980s. It was an elegant, beautifully meditative, and deeply unsettling exploration of urban anomie and alienation, paranoia, and random encounters; it played as if a Patricia Highsmith novel had been turned into a screenplay by Jorge Luis Borges, and then shot by Antonioni. A few weeks later I went to the (at the time still existing) Chinese-language theater in Seattle to see it a second time. Since it hasn’t ever been released on video in the US, I have not seen it since; but it was one of those films that burns into your memory, because of its affective power, and because of the haunting power of certain images: a (male) photographer is obsessed with a certain woman; he has an enormous photo of her on the wall of his apartment; the photo is really made of scores of smaller, detailed photographs of small parts of her face; when he opens the window, the image is shattered –or, I should say, scattered — as all the little photos blow in the breeze.
After that, I made sure to see all of Yang’s subsequent features; they always played at the Seattle International Film Festival, even when they didn’t get an American release. (SIFF has always been very good with films of the Pacific Rim; and Yang had strong Seattle connections, working there as a computer engineer for some years before he returned to Taiwan). I never managed to see Yang’s first two (pre-Terrorizer) films, That Day on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985), but I saw, and found myself impressed by, all his subsequent work.
Yang’s two best-known films are probably A Brighter Summer Day (1991), about teenagers in 1950s Taiwan, and his (alas) final film Yi Yi (2000), which was the only one of his works to get international acclaim and widespread (in the US as well as other parts of the world) distribution. Both of these films are very long, giving a kind of epic weight to intimate, domestic family stories. They aren’t as abstract and self-referential as The Terrorizer; but they are rich, layered, and totally absorbing. Indeed, they are almost “classical” in their comprehensiveness and mastery of detail, and in the way they relate the pathos of personal situations to larger social themes (basically the history of post-1949 Taiwan). I also need to see them both again; they are both powerful films, though they don’t stick in my mind quite as intensely as The Terrorizer does.
The other Yang film that really blew me away on first viewing was A Confucian Confusion (1994). This film is fast-moving, with a large ensemble cast, and a shifting tragi-comic tone. The characters are mostly Taipei yuppies dealing with the various entanglements, and interconnections, of their professional and personal lives. There is a lot of stuff about changing mores, from traditional values (hence the “Confucian” in the English-language title, which I am pretty sure is not a literal translation of the Mandarin title Duli Shidai: can anyone tell me what it literally means?) to — not so much “modernist” values in general, as commercial values and the complete rule of money. There is also an avant-garde theater director who is struggling to put together a play that is more accessible and audience-friendly than his earlier works; this character is perhaps something of a parodic stand-in for Yang himself. For A Confucian Confusion marks a radical change/renewal of Yang’s style. It’s as if he had moved from emulating Antonioni’s Eclipse to emulating Renoir ‘s Rules of the Game; I use these references, not to imply derivativeness on Yang’s part, but simply to signal the kind of shift in sensibility, and in cinematic style, between the two films. A Confucian Confusion is brilliant for its multiple ironies, its multiple prespectives, and the way its complex characters are marked in terms of social class relations; as well as for its elegant, careful framings, and its foregrounding of the performative. Where The Terrorizer was slow and contemplative, even when it brushed against violence, A Confucian Confusion is thoroughly dynamic, and thrusts us into the lives of characters who don’t have the time to contemplate anything.
Or, to restate the point in a slightly different way: Yang’s earlier style, in The Terrorizer, is as different from the styles of Hou and Tsai as these filmmakers’ styles are from one another; but Yang’s earlier style, like Hou’s and Tsai’s, is demandingly abstract, oblique, and minimalist. And I love it. But the style that Yang develops in A Confucian Confusion, and also in Mah Jong (1996), to the contrary, is maximalist, highly concrete, and dizzying in its numerous shifts and reversals. And, I think, I love it even more. I am struggling, and failing, to describe this style as vividly as I would like to be able to do, and as the films deserve; that’s what happens when I try to give an impression of something I saw more than a decade ago.
I had been wondering what Yang was up to since Yi Yi, and hoping that he would make more films — especially since Taiwanese cinema in general has been getting more recognition in the past decade or so, and Hou and Tsai have been increasingly successful in raising money internationally for their own films. The only ongoing project listed for Yang in recent years was The Wind, apparently an animated (!) feature based on the life of Jackie Chan (!). Apparently Yang was ill for some time, and this is the reason both for cancellation of The Wind and for the absence of any other projects. All I can say, I guess, is that I am glad about the films Yang did get to make, and I hope more of them are brought out on DVD with English subtitles, so that I can see them again.