Undiscovered Country: the Films of Edward Yang

by Philip Concannon

A Brighter Summer Day

When Edward Yang died in 2007, I didn’t feel the sense of loss that I often feel when a notable filmmaker passes. At the time, I had only seen Yang’s last film Yi Yi, and as much as I adored that picture, I had no idea that it was merely the tip of the iceberg. I had no idea that we were losing in Edward Yang one of the most remarkable directors of his generation, and I wasn’t the only one unaware of the richness of Yang’s oeuvre either, because aside from his internationally acclaimed Yi Yi, the director’s films are largely unavailable for viewers in Europe and America. Prints and DVDs remain intractably bound up in complex rights issues, with the funding of some Taiwanese films by the country’s gangsters complicating the matter further. Few would quibble with Yang’s status as a great filmmaker, if only they were given the opportunity to see his body of work in its entirety.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve had that all-too-rare opportunity. A restored version of Yang’s four-hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day played at the 2010 London Film Festival, and last month the British Film Institute held a complete retrospective of his films. In his two-decade cinema career, Yang directed seven features and contributed to one portmanteau film – 1982’s In Our Time – revealing through that collection of films an extraordinary aptitude for complex storytelling, and a point of view that was both culturally specific and broadly humanistic in its outlook.

Most of Yang’s films revolve around the lives of young professionals living in the dynamic, rapidly changing city of Taipei. Films like Taipei Story, The Terrorisers, A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong bring together anywhere up to a dozen central characters across multiple narrative strands and develop a consistent theme; how the socio-economic transformation of the country has affected the way people live and interact. In particular, Taipei Story observes a couple whose relationship is slowly disintegrating against the backdrop of a city developing at an alarming rate. They dream of emigrating to the United States and starting a new life but they find their ambitions stunted by the demands of their professional lives, the emotional baggage of friends, family and ex-lovers, and their own insecurities about the future. The alienation and emotional fragility of his characters is depicted by Yang in a variety of ways; through the large sunglasses that his female lead (and future wife) Tsai Chin constantly wears, and through the formal rigour of his framing. Yang was not a flamboyant visual stylist, but his expertly composed mise-en-scène is integral to the impact of his films.

However, the quality that shines through in all of Yang’s pictures is his unerring eye for the fine details of human behaviour. Yang once claimed that he could make a picture focusing on any one of the many characters in his films, because he had developed complete psychological profiles for each of them, with their histories, tastes and idiosyncrasies all being carefully worked out in advance of filming. His characters are rarely instantly sympathetic, and initially their motivations and relationships can appear frustratingly opaque. Yang slowly develops our understanding of these individuals through their relationships with others or, as in his ambitious debut feature That Day, at the Beach, through the judicious use of flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks). He draws us into the story in such a quiet, imperceptible fashion that I was often surprised at how gripped I was by the films when they took a darker turn in the third act, which is the case with a number of his pictures. At least half of Edward Yang’s films climax with an act of violence, as the tensions and complications that he has so artfully crafted throughout the story finally boil over.

This is the case with A Brighter Summer Day, Yang’s longest film and perhaps his most personal too, being loosely based on an incident from his own childhood. The tragedy at the end of the film hits harder than in any of Yang’s other pictures because we have spent almost four hours in the company of such believable characters and in a time and place that has been depicted with an astonishing immediacy. One criticism of Yang’s films is that they contain so much plot, character and incident they inevitably risk feeling a little cluttered, with The Terrorisers and A Confucian Confusion being the most obvious examples, but in A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi he allows the stories to breathe beautifully. These films showcase Yang at his best: expansive, generous, humane. He allows his characters and his story ample room to develop in front of us and he fills his scenes with subtle but telling details. Almost every sequence in an Edward Yang film is stimulating in some fashion and I suspect they would reward repeated viewings magnificently.

The only Edward Yang film I have seen more than once is his last film Yi Yi, which is the only one that has been released on DVD. In many ways, Yi Yi is a fitting final work; in its three hours it explores the fullness of life itself through births, marriages and deaths. But Yang was only in his early 50’s when he made it and he had plans for more films before cancer ended his life prematurely. In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, Yang discussed his idea for a story about “a young kid who travels the world with just a cellphone and a credit card. Those two things are all you need now. It’s a new world and there are a lot of stories we can tell each other.” Yang didn’t get to tell us all of his stories but the ones he did share make up a formidable body of work that bears comparison with that of just about any contemporary filmmaker. He stands as one of the most talented “unknown” filmmakers in world cinema, but he left us so many treasures to discover and we can only hope that they will eventually find the audience they deserve.

A complete retrospective of Edward Yang’s films screens at the Film Society Lincoln Centre from November 22nd to 27th

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2 thoughts on “Undiscovered Country: the Films of Edward Yang

  1. I ended up missing most of the BFI season (having also missed out on ABSD at the LFF last year), but I enjoyed the potatoes out of A Confucian Confusion, which was a bit like a Stephen Poliakoff TV miniseries, but featuring actual human beings and vaguely credible situations.

    I loved the way he just dropped you in at the deep end with the characters, and then just gave you the time to figure them out. For example, almost the introduction of Qiqi is some guy (we never see again) telling her she’s a slick phoney, using her beauty to manipulate people, which turns out to be neither true or (quite) false.

  2. The utter anonymity in the west of Edward Yang meant that when I first saw Yi Yi, which I adored, I assumed it was a brilliant debut rather than a swansong. I’d love to see his other work.

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