Winner of the best director award at Cannes in 2000—not always a favourable distinction—Edward Yang has gained a wide international audience only with his latest film Yi Yi. Outside Taiwan itself, his movies remain largely unavailable even on video. Not even an English-language essay of the fame of Fredric Jameson’s analysis of The Terrorizer, which Yang made fifteen years ago, has moved the philistinism of the distributors. In the West it is easier to see the work of his great contemporary Hou Hsiao-Hsien—paradoxically, since Yang’s cinema, always focused on modern urban milieux, is in many ways closer to the imaginary of Euro-American city life. Presumably part of the reason lies in Yang’s refusal to compromise with an ordinary requirement of success even in art-house circuits. His film language is dense and terse. But his narrative structures have always been of a remarkable ambition and complexity, regularly exceeding standard viewing lengths.
Even as a child, Yang excelled at telling visual stories. Later, he wanted to be an architect, a career he gave up for engineering, the typical path to success in his generation; a renunciation with more than one bitter echo in his movies. But the architectural impulse has remained strong in his films, in which structural solidity and intricate detail are held in extraordinary balance, on a scale that might be described with an oxymoron: delicately monumental. He made his debut as a director with a movie—That Day on the Beach—which ran for 167 minutes: a bold step for an unknown. His current film Yi Yi is 173 minutes. His masterpiece, A Brighter Summer’s Day, takes a full 235 minutes. But if length is a defining feature of Yang’s cinema, he is expert at pace: these are movies with few longueurs.
Coming from a prosperous middle-class family, mainlanders from Shanghai, Yang spent a decade as an engineer in the US before returning to Taiwan at the turn of the eighties, just as the KMT dictatorship was beginning to weaken. That Day on the Beach (1983) is commonly considered the first breaker of the Taiwanese New Wave to hit the shore. An elegy on the generation gap that opened up with the passage from the rigidly patriarchal order of Taiwan’s elders to the new conditions of economic growth in the sixties, the film begins with a reunion between two women, once teenage friends, after a separation of thirteen years. One is a professional pianist, the other has been a housewife. The former, to whom we are introduced first in an establishing sequence, seems destined to be the principal figure; but it is actually the housewife around whom the film revolves. In a long flashback, itself containing further flashbacks, she explains how her brother had jilted her friend under pressure from their father—a typically brittle family tyrant of the time—to enter an arranged marriage with the daughter of one of his colleagues; and how, to escape the same fate, she eloped with her own boyfriend—only to find the search for emotional freedom turning to ashes as her husband becomes a faithless managerial zombie, who eventually disappears after embezzling company funds. Whether by suicide, after emptying a bottle of anti-depressants on the beach, or by flight abroad, is left open.
The precocity of Yang’s command of the medium and his gifts of psychological observation are already on display—even if he would later eschew the relatively conventional devices of close-up and flashback deployed here. It has sometimes been said—Yang has not concurred—that the film’s unexpected success with Taiwanese audiences was due to a powerful performance by starring actress Sylvia Chan, a local icon. But it also resonated with the experience of a gender and a generation. At the end of the story the husbands are still missing but the women are finally standing on their own ground. The open ending, re-figured by the swept expanse of beach and empty sea beyond it, is in direct contrast to the claustrophobic, enclosed spaces presided over by medical father and commercial husband—both nicely pre-empted, if not castrated, by that empty medicine bottle. The quest for lost male figures proves to be just a McGuffin that propels the narrative of two female figures walking out of the shadow of a patriarchal order, into a contemporary Bildungsroman.
By the end of That Day on the Beach—this was a bit too pat—the housewife is running a company. Yang’s second film can be seen as a historical sequel. It deals with a time when women were already at work and could choose what men they pleased, in the boom economy of the early eighties. But Taipei Story (1985), for which he deliberately picked non-professional actors—the lead male role is played by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the female character by chanteuse Tsai Chin—is a bolder experiment. Yang set out to depict the social transformation of the city, scanned across a range of contrasted urban settings. Changes of landscape and mindscape are traced through the vicissitudes of two lovers, unable to deflect each other’s routes at a forking path set by wider societal forces. He is a former little-league baseball player, now running an import–export business; she is the assistant to a developer, taken over by a big real-estate company. Her incompetent father has a small workshop in the rag-trade; her younger sister hangs out with street bums. Material and emotional tensions criss-cross. Against her wishes, he lends money to her father, who promptly goes bankrupt; she dreams of escape to America, which he—having spent fruitless time in Los Angeles—rejects. Fears of his former girlfriend torment her; a brawl with a random admirer of hers eventually kills him.
Clinically detached in its portrayal of their deepening deadlock, Taipei Story is constructed like a visual fugue. Reiterated empty shots of empty rooms in empty housing complexes—part of the girl’s job is to show clients round apartments in new tower blocks and speculative developments—mirror the inner void of those adrift in the swirl of modernization. The English title of the film captures the way in which the city itself becomes a character in the narrative. The Chinese title is more cutting: Chingmei Zhuma—‘green plum, bamboo stalk’—comes from a famous T’ang poem by Li Bo in praise of undying young love; something that desolately fades away in the movie. Its final shot frames Tsai Chin in multiple planes of glass—she is taking instructions from her old boss while checking office space for a computer firm—against a bleak Taipei skyline, with reflections of relentless traffic lines tracking across her face, indifferently answering a question about her future, without knowing of her lover’s death. The scene is constructed like a desolate negative epiphany.
Taipei Story, as Yang explains below, was not popular with Taiwanese audiences, who found it disconcertingly cool and distanced. Undeterred, he went on to make a film calculated to throw them even more drastically. The Terrorizer (1986) was made faster and more efficiently than any of his other movies. ‘It is a mind-game,’ Yang has said, ‘like the puzzle-games we used to play as children’. Starting from a shoot-out accidentally captured by a young photographer, the narrative gradually entwines the fates of a set of disparate individuals and couples—a delinquent Eurasian girl, a medical husband and his novelist wife (Cora Miao), her publisher lover, a police detective—in a series of segmented scenes, the connexion between at first entirely baffling. This was the construction that Jameson, comparing it to Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs, termed ‘synchronous monadic simultaneity’.footnote1 The detonator that sets a lethal outcome in motion is an anonymous phone-call from the Eurasian to the novelist, based on a prank once played by the actress, in real life, as a teenager grounded by her mom in a single-parent household. This random act shatters successive lives, as lurking suspicions and buried frustrations are suddenly forced to the surface. The writer’s compulsively hand-washing husband, discovering the failure of his malign scheming against a colleague to secure promotion, kills his superior and wife’s lover—or else, he commits suicide, as his wife wakes from a nightmare in her lover’s bed. The end is carefully constructed to leave a graphic ambiguity.