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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Films of Edward Yang

The Taiwanese director Edward Yang had been one of my biggest influences.

He died of cancer at the age of 60 exactly 5 years ago, on the 29th of June, 2007.

A few filmmaker friends of mine like Ying Liang and Eva Tang had posted the video below on Facebook to mark this occasion.

At that time, his name was a familiar one to me, but I have yet to see any of his films until a few weeks later, when I was preparing for the television movie that I was producing, KURUS (DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY), directed by Woo Ming Jin. As Ming Jin and I went through the script and reached the very last scene, Ming Jin told me that he would have his protagonist give a monologue describing the ending of CATHER IN THE RYE, which would be a homage of sorts to the ending of Edward Yang's final film YI YI: A ONE AND A TWO (2000).

Intrigued by his reference, I went home and watched YI YI. In the course of the film's 3-hour running time, I found myself mesmerized and amazed by the novelistic scope of the film, which seemed to cover every single aspect of humanity in the film. It was an absolutely rich experience, that the film would follow the lives of a typical Taiwanese family in the span of a year, beginning with a wedding and ending with a death, and the middle of it, we see the Father reminiscing his past love with an old lover, the Mother crying over the monotonous everyday life she had led, the Daughter undergoing the experience of first love, and the Son, gradually finding his own artistic side, taking photos of people's backs because he wanted to take photos of things that people could not see.

Just like how the film was subtle in its majesty, my life, in a subtle way, was altered after watching the film, I never realized how much it would impact me.

One particular scene that stood out to me had been a masterful sequence which featured a crosscutting between Father speaking to his old lover about their previous relationship while they were both in Japan, and Daughter, during her chaste first date. I stopped and looked at the sequence over and over, years later I would attempt its editing methods on Ming Jin's film WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER, and a couple of my shorts.

The next Edward Yang film I saw was THE TERRORIZERS (1986) in the following year at 2008, at that time, I had already moved to Tokyo. Edward Yang was what many had called, a "poet of the city", therefore his films had mostly been about Taipei instead of the countryside. THE TERRORIZERS was a lot about the effect of globalization and modernization had affected the city, thus causing the increasing alienation between people. In stark contrast to YIYI, this was a bleak and dark film, which had a wonderful ending that could be interpreted in so many ways, either as dreams within dreams, or fantasy sequences, or numerous alternative endings, it didn't matter which was it really, it gave me chill. I highly recommend you to watch this fine 20-minute video essay by The Seventh Art.

It was also in 2008 when I saw the 4-hour film A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991). This would end up as my favourite Edward Yang film of them all. Again, this was a sprawling tale set in the 60s and revolves around a 14 year old boy. The literal Chinese title was "THE MURDER INCIDENT IN GULING STREET", which was an incident that really happened during Edward Yang's teens, when a teenaged boy murdered his girlfriend who happened to also be involved with a teen gang leader. Therefore, knowing Chinese, what exactly happened towards the end of the film wasn't exactly a surprise, but watching it placed in context of the Taiwanese political environment then, and seeing how it affected the many primary characters in the film (the film had a cast of hundreds of amateurs), gradually consuming and eating their souls, the ending was inevitable.

If you have not seen it. See it now. Buy its DVD. Or... well, let's just say that the film isn't that difficult to find.

This is the scene of Lao Er the protagonist (Chang Chen's debut role) and his supposed romantic rival the gang leader, discussing WAR AND PEACE.

There had been a restoration of the film by World Cinema Foundation in 2009. How I wish I could watch the film on the big screen, in its restored form.

A line spoken by the tragic female character Ming (played by Lisa Yang, it's a tragedy that she never again after this film) that stayed with me. I paraphrase:

"Why do you want to change me? I am like the world, I will never change!

In early 2010 I saw A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION (1994), another ensemble piece that focuses on a white-collar group, it is a comedy, but not a laugh out loud type, but compared to the other Edward Yang films, it is lighter and had more humorous moments. (It's sort of like Jean Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME, and some hints of Robert Altman) Yet it was also a heavy film, since, again, the themes of the rapid modernization of Taipei, along with its effects on people, are re-examined. The relationship between art and commerce, the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, the absurdist feeling of love, the inevitability of certain things.

"Everything is inevitable." (or, in a more literal translation, "everything is natural") was a line uttered in melancholy by a character before he started listing out the various historical tragedies that had happened in the nation. The screen gradually turned black as he continued speaking. Stylistically, that scene was different from everything else. But what he did lingered. So were the words.

A few weeks after that, I made INHALATION. In numerous question and answer sessions after the screening, I had pointed out that the short film was a homage to Edward Yang. Its Chinese title is "everything is inevitable (natural)", and the male protagonist would go into a monologue similar to the one mentioned above. The female protagonist would also have a "why do you want to change this? I am happy with being who I am right now!" line similar to A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY'S Ming. (you can watch INHALATION here)

When I visited Taipei twice in the past year, I looked around and felt with some wryness that I had been transported to an Edward Yang film. When INHALATION finally made its Taiwanese premiere at the New Taipei Film Festival last month, I wondered whether any of the audiences had spotted the blatant influences. I wasn't at the festival, so I would never know.

In truth, I have only seen four Edward Yang films in their entirety, yet it felt so much more. When each and every single film of his could leave so deep a mark, it is difficult to move to another film. I have only started watching his film after he passed away five years ago, in these five years, I felt that I have gotten a little older.