I wished I saw more of his films. Didn't like Mahjong (1996); loved his two best-known works.
Here's a reprint of an old article I wrote about them:
Directed by Edward Yang
You know that you’re in for something when a filmmaker opens his film with a wedding. Movies supposedly end with weddings--it’s the happy finish they all strive for, the neat resolution to all that conflict. Weddings are such large-scale events involving so many people in a complex ritual that when a film begins with one, it sets up the anticipation that the film will deliver even more complexity, on an even larger scale. This is either the mark of a filmmaker who hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s doing or the mark of a filmmaker so supremely confident he can signal his intent to achieve greatness--and deliver on his promise, more or less.
Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two 2000) is possibly one such film. It has a running time of a hundred and seventy-three minutes--nearly three hours--yet hardly feels as long. It’s an elaborate weave of several different threads involving over a dozen characters, yet after the initial confusion--which, come to think of it, doesn’t feel much different from being the new arrival at a wedding reception--the characters sort themselves out and their stories unfold swiftly to their respective ends. There’s A-Di, the blushing groom--blushing because Xiao Yan, the woman he’s marrying, is several months pregnant; there’s Yun-Yun, the woman A-Di really loves, who crashes his wedding; there’s the groom’s sister Min-Min--and her husband NJ, who during the reception runs into Sherry, his first great love; and there’s their two children--elder sister Ting-Ting, younger son Yang-Yang, the latter being cruelly teased by girls. Finally, there’s the old matriarch who sits in one corner, silently disapproving of her family’s shenanigans.
Yang uses the wedding the way a conductor does his baton, as a signal for everyone to pick up their various instruments and begin the symphony. It’s a discordant piece of art, full of shapeless melodies and random notes, yet played so softly and lightly that you don’t mind the lack of structure. It could be something you hear warbling in the background, like Muzak in an elevator--only Muzak was never so enormously complex, or compelling. Part of the magic of Yang’s film is in the way he pulls the odd vivid image or sudden bit of drama out of that warbling, like a magician plucking flowers and rabbits and coins out of the thin air, or from one’s ear; part of the magic is in how Yang, in the making of this seemingly aimless tapestry, allows certain strands to clearly emerge. NJ represents possibilities exhausted and forever lost--given the chance to renew his affair with Sherry, still he hesitates; his son Yang-Yang represents the unlimited and as yet unrealized possibilities of youth, possibilities he feels the need to share those possiblities in odd ways--by taking, for example, pictures of the back of people’s heads, to show them the other 50% of the world that they never see. A-Di represents the craven, opportunistic Chinese, always fearful of the future, always seeking signs and portents to avoid bad luck and shortcut good luck into his life (ironically his salvation lies in a totally unforeseen knick-knack he happens to pick up); Ota, the Japanese video-game designer NJ is courting for his company, represents the outsider philosopher who serenely accepts life as it is. Ting-Ting’s brush with early love involves a boy named Fatty who’s obsessed with her best friend, Lili; Ting-Ting loves Fatty who loves Lili who loves someone else…as with all love triangles, this one is inherently unstable, with no one left satisfied--a state of being Ting-Ting’s father NJ would find uncomfortably familiar.
In its last twenty minutes, Yang rolls up his sleeve and gives us five climaxes in a row, in so smooth and gentle a manner that we aren’t quite sure just what has happened. The audience is free to go home, only some don’t--they sit and blink for a few minutes, stunned, unbelieving. Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay a film is of experiencing such an intense feeling of life unfolding before your eyes the line between onscreen and offscreen life has blurred; you wonder for a moment if the film is really over, and if ordinary life has begun again. It’s a rare feeling to evoke in people--rare because it’s seldom attempted, and also because it’s difficult to do--which may be why so many have responded so strongly to the film, and why they treasure it so.
It’s instructive comparing Yi-Yi to what many consider his masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day. The story of Yi-Yi could easily take place in any major city anywhere in the world--its themes of regret and acceptance, obsession and unrequited love, are universal enough to be understood by anyone (the probable reason why this is Yang’s first film to win commercial distribution in the United States). A Brighter Summer Day happens in a specific time and place--Taiwan, 1961, some dozen years after millions of Chinese were forced into exile on this island by the communist takeover of mainland China.
Early on, Yang thrusts you in the middle of things--adolescents milling about, the chanting of a faintly obscene childhood rhyme, a gang rumble. Through snatches of dialogue and sharply sketched scenes, Yang builds a devastating portrait of Taiwan at this point of time. The story of one man’s arrest and interrogation points out the irony of men and women fleeing to Taiwan to escape oppression, where the Taiwanese government, fearful of communist infiltrators, is just as oppressive if not more so; the scenes set in classrooms show how it isn’t just the adults--the schools are also run like prisons, with punishment meted out for the smallest offenses, and expulsion a very real possibility. The adults rarely if ever rebel; you wonder if it’s something in Chinese culture, in their reverence for authority and the aged, that makes them so passive politically. But the youths do, and Yang’s depiction of the gangs and their confrontations are horrifyingly violent, made even more unsettling by the coolly distant manner in which Yang shows us the violence.
Towards the end, Yang piles up the incidents so much that he risks melodrama; his transitions from one climax to another are shaky, not as precisely controlled as the early half of the film--or, for that matter, as the climaxes in Yi-Yi. Yi-Yi shows no such shakiness in the course of its three hour--throughout the film you feel Yang in command of his material. But Yi-Yi also doesn’t have that sense of vast forces on the move, of history captured and brought to thrilling life. “Yi-Yi” doesn’t have the sense of a filmmaker going all or nothing, risking the audience’s trust and his own credibility to play an exciting game of narrative “Chicken”--he wins in A Brighter Summer Day, but it’s not a clear victory. Overall, I tend to prefer the earlier film (this being more a personal preference than a reasoned and logically arrived-at choice). The two pictures do highlight Yang’s range and development as a filmmaker--Yi-Yi being Yang at his most assured and masterful, A Brighter Summer Day being Yang at his most ambitious, exciting, inspired.
A final note: there are critics who have compared Yang to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. You can see the similarities--Yang revels in commonplace concerns like Ozu and shares his narrative reticence, not to mention reluctance to give the audience easy melodramatic highlights--yet the analogy may not be entirely appropriate. Ozu’s films are, if anything, even more stringently ordinary, use simpler, even more elliptical narrative strategies than Yang does; Yang sometimes feels the need to resort to grotesqueries, like the massacre alluded to near the end of Yi-Yi (the violence in A Brighter Summer Day is better justified, a symptom of the turbulent times).
Ozu’s editing, despite what people think, is actually quite brisk--he never holds a shot longer than necessary to make his point (unlike certain shots in Yi-Yi, which tend to be long, even pretentiously so). His compositions have a lovely asymmetry to them; he doesn’t presume (or rather, he does presume) to use many other camera angles than his preferred one, that of a man sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat. Yet his visual style is so uninsistent and clear that you can for the most part ignore it, leaving you free to concentrate on the narrative.
And Ozu’s understanding of people is complete. For someone who never married or raised a family, you believe in the children, husbands, wives, girlfriends, mothers, uncles, spinsters in his films; he never strikes a false note, or makes you doubt them for a second.
Yang can be excellent at characterization, but you can’t help but feel that he’s stronger with men than with women. The adolescent males were brilliantly realized in A Brighter Summer Day but the only truly memorable female character, Ming, seems more like a Madonna-whore caricature (rather, a Madonna-disguised-as-whore caricature). In Yi-Yi, the potentially major female characters, the silent matriarch and Min-Min, are relegated to the sidelines--the matriarch suffers a convenient stroke, while Min-Min flees into spiritual retreat in the mountains for most of the film. Daughter Ting-Ting is pivotal, but her storyline is dominated by the love-obsessed Fatty, who seems more vividly realized, more full of unruly life, than Ting-Ting could ever hope to be.
Finally, Ozu’s films appear so conventional that they were never really seen as arthouse films--they had a steady and loyal audience, they consistently made money, and they never ran up to three hours (you feel Ozu would never presume on his audience that way). Yet Ozu is great, with something like fifty films devoted to the details and nuances of the Japanese family. It’s an enormous investment of time, money, effort and imagination on what one might assume is a rather limited subject matter, but watching the films themselves, you don’t see this--Ozu’s close attention, if anything, expands his subject, transforms it, makes it worthy of his masterful examination. You might say Yang needs to do his own fifty or so films before we can even begin to compare him with the likes of Ozu.
Still, Yang has his moments, and he has certainly found his own, just-as-distinct voice--somewhat more nihilistic perhaps, capable of surreal wit, of sudden bursts of violence. And he speaks more clearly to the younger generation, familiar as they are with emotional terrain Ozu with all his films never really covered--alienation, self-destructive despair, the cold regard of a dispassionate eye*. With Yi-Yi and even more with A Brighter Summer Day, Yang is yet another welcome voice to the rapidly expanding panoply of voices that is Asian cinema.
(First published in Menzone Magazine, 2001)
*On careful consideration, I suppose I'm mistaken on this--Ozu's films do have their share of such sentiments. I'm thinking, off the top of my head, of Setsuko Hara in Banshun (Late Spring, 1949): certainly she was isolating herself from the rest of society in order to care for her father; certainly the father felt despair at her leaving him; certainly Ozu's camera can at times take on a distant, even frosty aspect. I do think Ozu has difficulty speaking directly to young Japanese audiences today, and I suspect it's more a failure of the audience's imagination than Ozu's--they'd rather have their daily fix of alienation from a popular manga, or anime series (the otherwise enjoyable Death Note comes to mind)). Postscript added 5.17.08