Saturday, March 4, 2017

Edward Yang

Young Taiwanese directors Edward Yang (right) and Hou-Hsiao-hsien

Edward Yang on the set of The Terrorizers, 1986

Edward Yang on the set of A Brighter Summer Day, 1991

Edward Yang in Chicago for a complete retrospective, 1997

Edward Yang at Cannes in 2000

winner of Best Director at Cannes for Yi Yi, 2000

Edward Yang is often cited, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, as one of the central figures of New Taiwan Cinema. Yang’s visual and narrative style is among the most distinctive and spectacular in recent Chinese film. His films are quiet, slow, and use a minimum of dialogue. Western critics often invoke Antonioni, although Yang appears to resent the comparison. In Taiwan, where “different” is read as “foreign,” his departure from the norms of classical style are considered a symptom of Western influence. The director, however, attributes his stark style to Chinese origins, particularly his early education in Chinese brush painting. In any case, Yang’s films are passionately connected to place, as he consistently addresses the problems posed by modern Taiwanese life.

Notes from the 1997 Yang retrospective in Chicago (link lost)

A New Day in Taiwan: The Films of Edward Yang

All 35mm Prints!

“A rare opportunity to see the films of an artist who may have more to say about the direction of modern life than any other filmmaker currently working.” —Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

“Yang’s visual and narrative style is among the most distinctive and spectacular in recent Chinese film.” —James Monaco

“The hallmarks of any film by Edward Yang include sophisticated technique, deep seriousness of intent, a wicked sense of irony and humour, and a forceful, clear intelligence. He and Hou Hsiao-hsien have shaped the Taiwanese cinema into a prominent and incredibly rich international presence.” —David Overbey, Toronto International Film Festival

Edward Yang is one of two world-class filmmakers to have emerged from the contemporary Taiwanese cinema. The other, Hou Hsiao-hsien, is master of the rural family, village life, downbeat provincial towns. Yang’s milieu is the modern city -- specifically, Taipei. Taipei Story, the title of one of Yang's breakthrough early films, could be the title of any of his six features. But then, so too could A Confucian Confusion, the title of his fifth feature. Yang’s protagonists -- usually young, upwardly-mobile, middle-class business or professional types; sometimes wayward teens and minor criminals from lower social stratums -- live confusing, contradictory, chaotic, self-deluding lives cut off from the sustenance of their traditional Asian values and swept up in the soullessness and valuelessness of contemporary, urban, Westernized culture. His evocation of this rootless, alienated milieu, and the palpable presence of the alienating city in his films, has drawn frequent comparisons to the work of Antonioni -- although, improbably, Yang has cited Werner Herzog as his chief art-house inspiration. (“All my friend are billionaires now in Seattle,” Yang has joked. “If it wasn’t for Herzog, I’d be a rich man today!”)

Although Taipei may be the specific subject of Yang’s merciless social microscope -- and Taiwan’s unique social/political/historical situation, in the threatening shadow of mainland China, very much a part of the texture of his films -- Yang is a modernist and moralist whose clear-eyed, penetrating vision of contemporary urban life, and the contemporary search for meaning and identity, has universal resonance. His sophisticated narrative style, his complex weaving of seemingly disparate storylines into surprisingly coherent wholes, his intelligence and irony -- and, increasingly, the frantic, almost screwball, dark humour of his work -- mark him as a singular talent, and have earned him widespread recognition as one of the most important artists working in the cinema today.

This retrospective showcases all of Yang’s highly-acclaimed features, and includes a rare presentation of the full-length, Director’s Cut version of A Brighter Summer Day, widely regarded as Yang’s masterpiece.

EDWARD YANG’S TAIPEI STORIES  Steve Gravestock and George Kaltsounakis from Cinematheque Ontario, Jan – Mar, 2008

“Yang is a major filmmaker — and filmmaking poet — by anyone’s standards.” —John Anderson
“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 . . . 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.” —Saul Austerlitz, Senses of Cinema
“The bombs we plant in each other are ticking away.” —Edward Yang 

2007 was a trying year for cinephiles. With the deaths of Ousmane Sembène, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni (the latter two occurring, remarkably, on the same day), three titans of world cinema ceased to live among us, and we were left to ponder their extraordinary contribution. Each having lived for close to a century, their deaths could hardly be surprising, though still, a blow. The passing in June, however, of Taiwanese master Edward Yang (Yang Dechang) struck with the tragedy of incompletion. Yang succumbed to cancer, at the too-young age of fifty-nine, leaving several longstanding projects in limbo and a sense of having so much more to say. With this complete retrospective, Cinematheque Ontario pays tribute to a man known for his steadfast independence, breadth of vision, and an impressive body of work that ranks among the best in contemporary world cinema.

Since our retrospective on Edward Yang in 1998, he completed only one more film, the nearly three-hour, multi-award winning YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO) in 2000. Perhaps only is inadmissible here. YI YI quickly became the filmmaker’s biggest commercial and critical hit, and announced, on a grand scale and despite his earlier sizeable achievements, a new talent to the world. Yang garnered the Best Director Award at Cannes, and the film became his only theatrical, and later, DVD release in North America. YI YI formed, with Yang’s epic masterpiece, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991), an astonishing bookend to the Nineties; with these two weighty works alone, Yang’s position as a major director would be assured. It’s tempting, now, in light of Yang’s death, to view YI YI, his poignant family saga, as a summative work featuring many of his main motifs - the tensions between old and new, strained family relations, existential urban anguish, the role of the artist in society - all interlocking like pieces of a puzzle and ultimately forced into submission by the inevitability of the cycles of life. But YI YI was never intended to be a swan song and Yang had several projects on the go, including an American animated feature involving Jackie Chan, which would have either challenged or endorsed the lens of critical auterism. Glancing back to the beginning of his filmmaking career, it becomes clear that Yang was on an auterist path - one that grew in relation to Taiwan’s ever-changing and paradoxical capital, Taipei (his muse?), as well as within a national emerging film movement that firmly took hold in the Eighties and forever changed the evolution of contemporary international cinema. 

Born in 1947 in Shanghai, Yang grew up in Taipei at a time when the capital experienced dramatic growth as a result of the millions of mainlanders who fled the Communist revolution in 1949. He later moved to the United States where he studied first computer engineering at the University of Florida, then film for a short, dismaying time at USC, and later worked as a software programmer in Seattle for eight years until, according to an oft-told story, Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD sent him down his cinematic Road to Damascus. Soon thereafter, Yang returned to Taipei with renewed interest and faith in the cinema, and in search of possibilities beyond the strictures of commercial narratives and the industry in general. His first foray was as a writer, of Yu Wei-cheng’s THE WINTER OF 1905 (1979). He dabbled in television for a short while before signing on to direct one of the four segments of IN OUR TIME (1982), a landmark portmanteau film that unleashed, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s short, SANDWICH MAN, the Taiwanese New Wave. Yang’s thirty-minute contribution, DESIRES, evidenced a bold, new vision, effectively fulfilling the promise of what this seminal film was designed to be -a historic break with the past. Ironically, DESIRES is a period piece, and early blueprint to A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, which takes place in 1960. The rest of Yang’s oeuvre is resolutely concerned with present-day Taipei, its hybrid and schizophrenic culture (an amalgamation of Western, Japanese, and Chinese influences whose telltale signs are scattered throughout the work), the complexities of modernity, the fear and reality of urban alienation, capitalism’s perpetual ruse and guises, and the decline of family values. Money — its temptation, vulgarity, and elusiveness — is as ubiquitous in Yang’s oeuvre as it is in that of Mikio Naruse. 

Yang’s work is commonly split into three periods, his so-called urban trilogy (THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH, TAIPEI STORY, and THE TERRORIZER); his novelistic works (DESIRES, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, and YI YI) and his sharp, social satires (A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION and MAHJONG). His first feature, THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH (1983), shot by then novice Christopher Doyle, and starring superstar Sylvia Chang in a breakthrough role, confirmed the beauty and modernist spirit for which his cinema has become known. Following THAT DAY, critics were quick to point out Antonioni’s influence, which Yang continued to deny, citing Herzog’s imprint instead. The episodic structure, irresolution, and female point-of-views that characterize THAT DAY drew comparisons to L’AVVENTURA (not AGUIRRE!), but in this instance, Yang is arguably closer to the Antonioni of IL GRIDO, and closer still to RED DESERT, where the use of metonyms drives the mise-en-scène, creating within-the-frame tensions between tradition and modernity. In fact, Yang’s oeuvre is rife with splits, serrations, diptychs, and delineations; his complex plots and multiplicity of characters revel in the dialectics of history and hierarchy, surely a result of his own amalgamated culture. 

TAIPEI STORY and THE TERRORIZER are both pseudo-thrillers, with a gritty, realist feel to them, mordant in their ambivalence toward Taipei and its hardened inhabitants. Despite a marked evolution in his style, Yang somewhat unfashionably maintained the importance of subject matter over form. Indeed, his works can all be viewed as densely layered texts that demand to be seen more than once. “Yang’s script structures,” observed Nick James in Sight & Sound, “insist on such quiet revelation. Each scene peels off like the skin of an onion.” Political and satirical commentaries simmer below the surface of his fiction -but those surfaces are meticulously designed and executed, owing much to Yang’s lifelong fascination with manga . Just as his films include the self-reflexive device of a film (or play) within a film, every composition includes other narratives (whether a message on a blackboard, a videogame or television screen, a Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley poster, etc.) making it virtually impossible to decipher all of Yang’s messages in a single viewing. The symbolic import of every object in the frame (the Japanese sword and American record player in A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, for instance) bears the weight of history and an uneasy transition over time. 

His “Tolstoyesque” storytelling (John Anderson) reached its apogee in the elegiac A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY which Jonathan Rosenbaum called “so uncommonly good that Yang’s other very impressive works pale beside it.” Several years in the making, the film, which placed number nine in our Best of the Nineties curators’ poll, combined a real life tragic news event with autobiographical childhood memories spent in Sixties Taipei, and used a troupe of actors whom Yang rehearsed for nearly half a decade. Its tale of street gangs, young love, and family struggle unfolds like a sprawling and speckled fresco whose quietly devastating impact can only compare with fellow new waver Hou Hsiao-hsien’s DUST IN THE WIND and A CITY OF SADNESS. From lamentation to frenetically-paced social satire, Yang’s A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION and MAHJONG display a wild “polyphonic ambition” (Jean-Michel Frodon) and strong, sexy female characters who both partake in and question the superficiality plaguing the Taiwanese metropolis. Its trajectory remaining unaltered, Yang’s career took on cumulative brawn and multi-dimensionality while revisiting many of the same themes. Following the lukewarm reception of A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION and MAHJONG, Yang returned to a calmer place (“maturity,” he called it) and gave us the gem that is YI YI. An elegant and virtuosic family drama with universal appeal and lessons to last a lifetime, Yang’s final film may not be as autobiographical as A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, but the filmmaker’s true talent lives on in Yang Yang, the little boy who doubly bears his name, and snaps Polaroids of the backs of people’s heads in order to show them what they cannot see. With a bit of yin, and a lot of Yang, YI YI is a perfect way to conclude, albeit much too prematurely.           

—Andréa Picard 

Edward Yang | Obituaries | News | Telegraph  from the London Telegraph, July 3, 2007 

Edward Yang, who has died in Los Angeles aged 59, was one of the leading figures of the new Taiwanese cinema that came to prominence in the early 1980s as a direct result of government encouragement.

Unlike his contemporary, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang made relatively few feature films, only seven in all. But at least two of them — A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Yi Yi (2000), also known as A One and a Two — are recognised as masterpieces. The latter won him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hou and Yang, both originally from China, were very different film-makers. Where Hou focused on Taiwan's history and rural past, Yang concentrated on its urban present. Together their work amounted to a remarkable portrait of how the island evolved and what it is like to live there today.

Born Yáng Déchāng in Shanghai in 1947, probably on November 6, though some reference works list dates in September of that year, he moved with his parents to Taiwan in 1949, when the Communists took over the mainland. Educated at Taiwan's Chiao-tung University, he obtained a degree in Engineering in 1969 and subsequently an MA in Computer Science from the University of Florida in 1974. At this time he dabbled in film, spending a term on the course offered at the University of Southern California. But he never seriously considered a career in the cinema, and relocated to Seattle to take up a post as a computer designer at the University of Washington.

In 1981 he returned to Taiwan to write and produce The Winter of 1905, a film being made by a former student, Yu Weizheng. This prompted him to seek further work in television, and in 1981 he personally directed Floating Leaf, an episode from the television series Eleven Women.

The following year the Central Motion Picture Company, the state-controlled production and distribution organisation, commissioned a portmanteau picture called In Our Time, designed to put Taiwanese cinema on the map. It consisted of four separate, but eventually connected, stories by different directors. Yang's section, Expectations, depicted a girl on the threshold of puberty.

In Taiwanese terms it was commercially successful, tracing the process of modernisation in the country from the 1960s to the 1980s and its gradual transformation from a predominantly rural economy to an industrial one. Edward Yang identified the importance of In Our Time when he described it as "perhaps the first attempt in cinema to recover Taiwan's past, one of the first films in which we began to ask ourselves questions about our origins, our politics, our relation to mainland China, and so on".

A striking aspect of the Taiwanese new wave was the readiness of its leading lights to co-operate with one another rather than compete. Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example, took time out from his own fast-developing career as a director to play the main role in Edward Yang's Taipei Story (1985). He went further with its successor, The Terroriser (1986), mortgaging his own home to finance his friend's picture. Three years later Yang repaid the compliment by producing Hou's film A City of Sadness.

Yang's first feature film was That Day on the Beach (1983). Ambitious in length and treatment, it made extensive use of flashbacks and voice-overs to explore the heroine's life in metropolitan Taipei.

In essence it was a feminist picture, showing how a woman of strong convictions with an iron will could challenge and prevail over the constraints of a patriarchal society.

Taipei Story was an episodic survey of the progressive urbanisation of a once rather sleepy city and the erosion of traditional values in the face of consumerism. In this film the capital looks and feels brash, studded with skyscrapers and inherently stressful. This was the film that introduced Yang to a wider audience worldwide. His talent was immediately apparent, but better work was yet to come - for example, his next film, The Terroriser.

After 9/11, the title has inadvertently acquired overtones that were never intended, for this is a terroriser not a terrorist. It appears to refer to a prostitute who phones strangers, spreading malice. The film shows how this mindless prank affects a wide range of characters: a detective, a woman novelist with writer's block, a photographer, a salaryman in a dead-end job, a hoodlum.

It was as if Yang was deliberately taking a cross-section of Taiwanese society and illustrating how urban pressures tear lives apart; in fact, it can be inferred that the real terroriser is not the prostitute but modern life itself. This remains Yang's most complex film, not least because he leaves it open-ended. There are in fact multiple endings, in which a single pistol shot has several different consequences.

It was some years before Yang made another film, but A Brighter Summer Day was one of his finest. About a group of rebellious youths, its title is taken from the Elvis Presley ballad Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Yang admitted that to some extent it was autobiographical. The plot, however, is based on an incident that shocked everyone in 1961, when a young boy, suspended from school for joining a street gang, reacted in frustration and murdered his girlfriend.

Yang's film is set in the early 1960s, when the children of the mainlanders who came to Taiwan in 1949 were at odds with native-born Taiwanese youths, and street fights were prevalent. A very long film, running almost four hours, the length was justified by its penetrating analysis of the internal conflicts between different strands of Taiwanese society at a time when the island was in transition and in search of an identity; and after 237 minutes, the very last shot - of a tape carelessly thrown by the police into a waste bin instead of being delivered to the prisoner for whom it is intended - is riveting and profoundly moving.

Yang waited another four years before making his next film, but A Confucius Confusion (1995, his first comedy, satirising the cultural chaos in modern Taiwan, part Chinese, part pseudo-American) was not in the end as sharp as its witty title. Similar criticisms were levelled at Mahjong (1996), another ill-focused comedy about delinquents. But he made a spectacular comeback in 2000 with Yi Yi, a three-hour film at least as rich as A Brighter Summer Day.

It follows three generations of a family caught between a wedding and a funeral, and in particular the head of the family, who unexpectedly runs into an old flame on the day his mother-in-law becomes mortally sick. Can he - should he - try to turn the clock back?

Yi Yi explores all the characters in unusual depth. By the end it is as if we had known them all our lives. It is another comedy, but with a generosity of spirit missing in Yang's two previous pictures.

Edward Yang made no more films, but directed some plays and produced MTV videos.

In later years he was based in Los Angeles but had been suffering for some time with cancer of the colon, of which he died on June 29.

List of films reviewed:

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