Edward Yang is in the intriguing position of being one of the most gifted, and least seen, filmmakers in the world, at least for American audiences. His films express the confusion, anxiety, and sheer beauty of societal transformation. Yang also equates the macrocosmic and microcosmic, making the lives of his characters stand in for the greater, less visible processes of social change. Along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, Yang is one of the most visible faces of the Taiwanese New Wave, possibly the most brilliant filmmaking movement in the world today.
When he was two years old, Edward Yang’s family moved from Shanghai, the place of his birth, to Taiwan. The year was 1949, immediately after the communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in mainland China. Yang spent his childhood in Taipei, and studied engineering in Taiwan before enrolling in the United States, at the University of Florida. Yang studied electrical engineering at Florida, while enrolled in the Center for Infomatics Research, one of the first information technology programs in the United States. After receiving a Master’s degree from Florida, Yang turned down the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D., and enrolled in the University of Southern California’s well-regarded film school. Yang only lasted one semester at USC before discovering, in his own words, that “I realized I didn’t have any talent at all. I didn’t have what it takes to get into the film business, so I dropped out. I recognized that I better not dream this dream because I didn’t have what it takes.” Instead, Yang chose to follow his parents, who had left Taiwan, to Seattle, where he worked in a research laboratory dedicated to defense work involving microcomputers. While he was successful in this line of work, he was also dissatisfied, and increasingly desirous to return to his experiment with filmmaking. A chance encounter, in a Seattle repertory theater, with Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), gave Yang the distinct sensation that where film school had failed to teach him much, self-instruction in world cinema classics would provide him with the necessary groundwork for a future in filmmaking. Yang’s interest in film was renewed, but it would be three years before he got his first opportunity, when asked by a friend to write a script for him, which eventually became The Winter of 1905 (1981). He went back to Taiwan to work on the script, and later assisted in its production as well. Following the completion of this film, Yang was offered a chance to write and direct a made-for-television film in Taiwan, Desires (1982). He jumped at the offer, and has stayed in Taiwan since, not returning to the U.S.
The first film over which Yang had a significant degree of authorial control was That Day, on the Beach (1983). This film is representative of many of the concerns that would run throughout Yang’s later career, from a modernist preoccupation with narrative structure and audience distanciation, to a grappling with Taiwan’s unique position, located between traditional and Western values. Yang’s vision alternates between the despairing and the comic, revealing a society in the midst of redefining itself, and struggling to maintain an appropriate balance between old and new. That Day, on the Beach is also the first attempt by Yang, repeated throughout his career, to filter the experience of the Taiwanese journey to modernity through the twin sieves of the romantic couple and the family. Yang repeatedly pins his considerations of Taiwanese society on the cusp of great change on the figures of the couple and the family. Needless to say, both the couple and the family are often seen drifting apart in his films, distanced from each other by processes outside their control.
Yang’s artistry took a substantial leap forward with his next film, Taipei Story (1985). A greater fluidity of imagery, and an increased facility for relating sound and image, are on display in this film. The central relationship of Lon and Chin, the long-time couple slowly drifting apart, is aptly and intimately connected to the grand changes overtaking Taiwan. Yang returns repeatedly to imagery of highway traffic, cranes, construction, and modern electronic equipment, as if to indicate the close relationship between these processes and the problematic romantic relationship. Lon, a former Little League baseball star (played by famed director Hou Hsiao-hsien), works in a clothing store, struggles with his youthful fame, and is unable to fully commit to his long-time girlfriend Chin. He dreams of a new start in the United States, but lacks the necessary verve to make such a momentous change. In one of Yang’s most poignant images, Lon watches a tape of an American baseball game, in which he glimpses a runner caught between two bases, unable to move forward or retreat-an apt metaphor for Chin’s own existence. The U.S. becomes a dream of a better life, a new start for those hampered by the baggage of their pasts, but even in dreaming, America is not all positive-Lon tells Chin the story of his brother’s shooting an armed robber in his convenience store. Lon is posed next to a poster of a sultry Marilyn Monroe (a favored technique of Yang’s, seen again in A Brighter Summer Day  and Yi Yi ), articulating the divided imagined America-half sex goddesses, half brutal gun violence.
Chin’s sunglasses, seen repeatedly both covering her eyes and posed suggestively in the background of scenes, become indicative of her relationship to the world surrounding her. They deflect her personality, and keep her emotions safely out of sight, when necessary. They serve as a defense mechanism against the world’s blows. In the film’s haunting final sequence, Chin puts on her sunglasses one final time, tuning out her boss/boyfriend’s disquisition on the future of corporate life. The glasses reflect the passing cars outside, deftly incorporating the exterior of public life into the private space of the body. Chin’s life is a reflection of similar processes changing the face of Taiwan, and it is Yang’s graceful mise en scène that communicates the sense that each car contains a story similar to Lon and Chin’s, of attempting to navigate the complex, non-linear paths of the modern world.
Terrorizer, released in 1986, continues along the path laid out by Taipei Story. Yang, never one to back away from a complex narrative, structures the plot around six primary characters, whose lives are gradually revealed as dramatically intertwined. An upper-class young photographer and his girlfriend, a female criminal known as the White Chick; Chou and Li, a married couple on the outs; and the woman’s magazine editor boyfriend form the primary nodes of this unit. Again, however, Yang is most intrigued by the dynamics of the romantic relationship, and specifically the failing relationship. The married couple both pursue success in separate fields, he as a doctor, she as an aspiring writer. Their relationship is defined by sacrifice-her attempts to tailor her dreams as a writer to fit the necessities of marriage, and his anguish at being unable to make her happy. Yang reveals the underlying tension between traditional and modern ideas of female roles, and then stretches it to the breaking point, when Chou leaves her husband. The almost-unbearable bittersweetness of Li’s carefully closing Chou’s suitcase and handing it to her, and then standing by the window and watching her as she leaves, is complicated by the fact that neither of these characters, nor any other in Terrorizer, is particularly likable.
Chou’s departure is at least partially facilitated (although its degree of responsibility is one of the film’s mysteries) by a phone call she receives from an anonymous caller, claiming to have important information about her husband, and demanding to meet. We later learn that this call had been placed by the White Chick, who in her enforced convalescence following the shooting that opens the film, has taken to placing mean-spirited and misleading phone calls to strangers. Terrorizer is full of randomness of this sort, highlighting the central notion of the vagaries of fate and interconnectedness, and the terrifying uncertainty of urban life.
The role of art and the artist is another theme running through this film, and also features prominently in Yang’s later masterwork, Yi Yi. Chou’s novel, heavily based on her own life, cannot be completed because she is unsure how it will turn out. Later in the film, when the book has been published, and is a success, she appears on television, and we learn that her novel, truthful to her life up to a point, takes a crucial turn away from verisimilitude toward a more dramatic finale. The artist’s prerogative to shape their own reality is dramatically reinforced. Her offhand comment about being inspired by Japanese suspense fiction is a wink and nod toward the creator behind the creator-Yang has repeatedly nodded, in interviews, toward a youthful fascination with Japanese comic books. The photographer, likewise, articulates some of the complexities of the artist’s function. He becomes obsessed with the White Chick, and rents the apartment he saw her running away from, tacking up a giant photo of her, composed of many smaller pictures, on the wall. When he again encounters the White Chick, she is disturbed by the homage to her, asking him in response to his accusations of malfeasance, “And is it nice to take photos of people?” The moral responsibility of the artist is a key to unlocking Terrorizer, and the subject returns full force in the presence of young Yang-Yang in Yi Yi. After the White Chick’s departure from his apartment, the photographer pulls up his blackout shades and opens the windows, a breeze flapping the smaller pictures up and down, the wholeness of the girl’s image lost to the winds.
A shared trait of all Yang’s films is a complexity resistant to quick summary or explication. Each of his films possesses a difficulty and depth that requires multiple viewings to parse. Even elements of plot and character development are not always clear on first viewing. Within this context, Yang’s fifth film, A Brighter Summer Day, is an interesting development, simultaneously more and less accessible than his previous films. A Brighter Summer Day‘s plot is more accessible on first contact, but the film, set in 1960, maintains an essential distance that is similar to that of Yang’s previous films. It is as if Yang prefers to create a film world where no character demands too much (or much at all) of the audience’s sympathy or attention. What is astonishing about A Brighter Summer Day is its capacity for deep feeling copresent with an aesthetic distanciation from the film’s world. Yang’s film is deeply affecting in a way that Taipei Story and Terrorizer, while brilliant, never are. Zhao Si’r is a teenager in early-1960s Taipei, forced to attend night school. His alienation extends beyond this perversion of schedule to include a general dissatisfaction with contemporary Taiwanese culture (or lack thereof), and his membership in a youth gang, the Little Park gang. Si’r and his friends spend their time listening to American rock ‘n’ roll and planning future showdowns with their rivals, the 217 gang. Within this framework, Yang presents a large-scale vision of Taiwanese life in the early 1960s, with Si’r and his family and friends coming to represent all the tensions and complexities of the time. The adolescent gang culture provides a simplicity, an easy-to-understand demarcation in a world of gray areas. In Yang’s subtle mise en scène, his Taiwan is a country dominated by the detritus of other cultures, from the Japanese house the Zhao family lives in to the American tape recorder that serves as a talisman of sorts for Si’r and his friends. Yang’s use of music in A Brighter Summer Day is a nod toward the theses of his contemporary films, with the youths’ love for American music an early foray of Western culture into Taiwan, displacing an earlier, more traditional cultural practice. Yang’s understanding is that there never has been an indigenous culture in Taiwan-it has always been an amalgam of its various conquerors’ cultures. In this, Taiwan is ahead of the curve in experiencing the contemporary global hybridity of culture, a fact that explains the remarkable universal relevance of such master filmmakers as Yang, Hou, and Tsai.
A Brighter Summer Day is dominated by misery, hopelessness, and death, but nonetheless never succumbs to lifelessness. The film is alive with the promise offered in the title, even if such a respite never manifests itself. The haunting title song comes to stand in for much that is left unsaid in the film, acknowledging many of the private hopes and desires of the film’s protagonist. The sharp contrast between the pitch-perfect renditions of swooningly romantic American songs and the singers’ violent, callous behavior when offstage is the perfect encapsulation of Yang’s film. Si’r’s on-and-off girlfriend, Ming, unifies the personal and political, revealing one as a reflection of the other, when she finally, and brutally, tells Si’r off: “You’re just like all the rest.I’m like the world, I’ll never change.” A Brighter Summer Day‘s final two scenes gather the force of all the accumulated tragedy, so tightly reined in for the majority of the film, and scatter it to the winds. The characters’ motivations and hopes are so well-known to us after 3+ hours that these semi-oblique scenes convey their message perfectly, carrying the crushed dreams of the younger and older generations without veering into sentimentality. Si’r’s friend receives a letter from his hero Elvis Presley, who expresses surprise at learning that his music was so beloved in “this unknown place.” A fitting coda to Yang’s second-best film, and first genuine masterpiece.
Yang’s next two films return to the contemporary, and in many ways revisit the subject matter of Taipei Story and Terrorizer. A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996) both struggle with the division between the modern and the traditional, but are unable to move much beyond stating the problem. Both films are primarily of interest in their foreshadowing of Yang’s most recent film, and undisputed masterpiece, Yi Yi.
Yi Yi is structured around a year in the life of the Jian family, and the film is carefully plotted around a series of family occasions, beginning with a wedding, reaching its center at a party for a new baby, and ending with a funeral. This family is a middle class Taipei family, struggling with the demands of modern urban existence. Yang takes 3 hours to tell his story, allowing his characters an epic-size canvas, and leaving them room to breathe. The film conveys a magnificent sense of life being lived, of time taking its toll on these characters as we watch them, unmatched in world film outside two of the other pre-eminent auteurs of Third World cinema: Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Yang is gifted with a remarkable sense of framing, alternating between a tighter framing that glimpses into the characters’ interior lives, and a more idiosyncratic framing that removes the characters from the immediacy of the close-up, and inserts physical-psychological-mental space between us and them.
Yi Yi‘s characters are defined by their need to think about themselves, to find a still moment in which they can watch the ceaseless flow of their existences. NJ, the middle-aged protagonist, tells Sherry, his old girlfriend, when they are in Tokyo reliving their youth, “We all need time to think”, and this statement can stand as the motto of all Yi Yi‘s characters. Yang’s creation of stillnesses within motion, such as this scene displays, allow us as spectators to watch this narrative process, and engage in it ourselves.
Yang’s creation of stillness as a means toward contemplation is echoed by two characters in the film, and their attitude toward art: NJ’s son Yang-Yang, and his daughter Ting-Ting’s sometime-boyfriend Fatty. Yang-Yang, clearly designated as the artist figure, both in the repetition of the director’s own name, and in his explorations of the meaning and purpose of art, becomes the character who asks the questions that lie at Yi Yi‘s heart. He also reunites the family at the film’s close, in the final family occasion, his grandmother’s funeral.
Earlier in the film, Yang-Yang gives his uncle, A-Di, a picture of the back of his head, telling him, “You can’t see it, so I’m helping you.” Yang-Yang, as the artist, reveals the blind spots of others, and shows them what they heretofore have been unable to see. Edward Yang also engages in a similar task in Yi Yi, and showing his audience the Jian family coming together is a revelation of just how far apart they have grown, and how great the need is for artists to show us what we are too blind to see about our own lives. It is only through Yang’s masterful framing in Yi Yi that his spectators are provided with the necessary space, the ability to see the harsh beauty of time’s passage, in all its speed and relentlessness. Yang’s ability to show us the world afresh by virtue of his masterful framing and mise en scène cements his position as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.
Films directed by Yang:
In Our Time (Guangyin de gushi) (1982) (directed one episode of this four-part film, the other directors being Tao dechen, Ko I-Cheng and Zhang yi)
Desires (1982) Written by Yang.
That Day, on the Beach (Haitan de Yitian) (1983) Written by Yang and Nien-jen Wu. Starring Sylvia Chang. 166 minutes.
Taipei Story (Qingmei Zhuma) (1985) Written by Yang. Starring Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chin Tsai. 115 minutes.
Terrorizer (Kongbu Fenzi) (1986) Written by Yang and Hsiao Yeh. Starring Cora Miao, Paoming Ku, Wang An, and Lichun Lee. 130 minutes.
A Brighter Summer Day (Guling jie Shaonian sha ren Shinjian) (1991) Written by Yang, Yan Hongya, Lai Mingtang, and Yang Shunqing. Starring Jiang Xiuqioung, Lisa Yang, Juan Wang, Han Zhang, Elaine Jin, and Guozhu Zhang. 188/237 minutes. 140 minutes.
A Confucian Confusion (Duli shidai) (1994) Written by Yang. Starring Chen Yiwen, Danny Deng, Yan Hongya, and Chen Shiang-chyi. 125 minutes.
Mahjong (1996) Written by Yang. Starring Chen Chang, Tang Congsheng, Elaine Jin, Carrie Ng, and Virginie Ledoyen. 121 minutes
Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two) (2000) Written by Yang. Starring Nien-jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Su-Yun Ko, Hsi-Sheng Chen, and Adrian Lin. 173 minutes.
The Winter of 1905 (1981) Dir: Yu Weizheng (Screenwriter)
Austerlitz, Saul, “Life Inside and Outside of the Frame.” Cinemascope 7 (Spring 2001), pp. 24-27. Accompanied by interview with Yang by Mark Peranson.
Sklar, Robert, “The Engineer of Modern Perplexity.” Cineaste 26:1 (2000), pp. 6-8.
Gravestock, Steve, “Historical Alienation: Edward Yang’s Taiwan.” Cinemascope 2, pp. 24-25.
Jameson, Fredric, The Geopolitical Aesthetic. “Remapping Taipei.” London: BFI Publishing, 1992, pp. 114-157.
Pickowicz, Paul, Browne, Nick, Sobchack, Vivian, and Yau, Esther, eds., New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Tan, Kwok-kan, and Dissanayake, Wimal, New Chinese Cinema. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Edward Yang in Conversation
Excerpts from an interview with Shelly Kraicer and Lisa Roosen-Runge, first published in CineAction magazine.
Filmmaker of the Month: Edward Yang
Interview with Yang following his Cannes win as Best Director for Yi Yi.
Exiles in Modernity – the Films of Edward Yang
Excellent article by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Taiwan Stories: Films by Edward Yang
Article by Jim Udden on the films screening at Yang retrospective in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
Asian Film Connections – Edward Yang
Great page as part of this excellent web site.
Taiwan Stories – Filme von Edward Yang
A presentation of Yang films by the Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek.
An interview with Yang by Duncan Campbell.
Brief filmography with extended annotations on Yi Yi.
Ilha Formosa – Edward Yang
French-language biography, filmography and photos. Also has links to reviews of Mahjong and Yi Yi.
A Family Affair, a Conversation with Director Edward Yang
Interview by Andy Spletzer.
Retrospektive Edward Yang
Page dedicated to the Yang retrospective in Berlin, with reviews of his major films. Part of the Jump Cut site and in German.
Cineweb – Entrevistas
Interview with Yang. In Portuguese.
A Brighter Summer Day
A great French page dedicated to Yang’s masterpiece, with a synopsis, poster reproduction, stills and some thoughts by Philippe Serve.
Various Hong Kong film critics give their thoughts on this film.
Another wonderful page and available to read in French and English.
Yi Yi, a film by Edward Yang
Official website for the film, a massive amount of information on the film as well as pages on each of the characters and their place in the narrative, reviews, a Yang interview, filmography, a picture gallery and a lot more. Great to navigate too.
Nick James’ article from Sight and Sound.
Edward Yang – Yi Yi
Review (in German) by Ekkehard Knörer.
Festival de Cannes 2000/A One and a Two
Official Cannes page with an entry on Yi Yi (in French).
Useful page in Spanish.
Stunning French site, with a synopsis, trailer, cast and crew information, press kit, trailer and photos from Cannes.
Review by Richard James Havis.
Cannes Review: A One and a Two: Edward Yang’s Meaning of Life
Review by Mark Peranson.
Asian American Film Reviews: Yi Yi
Review by Greg Pak.
Slant Magazine: Yi Yi
Review by Ed Gonzalez.
In These Times: A Family in Full – Yi Yi
Review by Joshua Rothkopf.
A One and a Two
Review by Alan Pavelin.
Film Journal International – Yi Yi
Useful page with a review by Maria Garcia.
Review by Kevin Hagopian.
La vie de Min-Min, de Ting-Ting et de Yang-Yang
Review of Yi Yi by Annie Lise Clément (in French).