PRINT October 2000


Edward Yang’sYi Yi

DESPITE SOME RECENT, heartening developments—stateside distribution for two Tsai Ming-liang movies (Vive l'amour [1994] and The Hole [1998]) and Winstar's acquisition of an assortment of Hou Hsiao-hsiens (including The Puppetmaster [1993] and Flowers of Shanghai [1998])—Taiwanese cinema is still an unknown quantity in America. It takes time for horizons of cinematic “difficulty” to broaden. Unfortunately, that's the kind of time that few distributors or exhibitors can afford, especially now that the once-flourishing network of independent art houses, the kind that gave an Antonioni semipopular status, is a distant memory.

It's unlikely that any of Taiwan's three greatest filmmakers—Hou, Tsai, and Edward Yang—will ever make it far enough up the ladder to be dismissed as a poseur in the pages of the New Yorker, as Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was in August. They've never seemed remotely interested in making their movies America-friendly by sweetening them with a “universal” appeal. Instead, they have stayed stubbornly rooted in the particulars of their nation and its history: fifty years of Japanese occupation, a split with the mainland, the White Terror of the '50s, unregulated capitalist expansion. Unlike the Nouvelle Vague, which was famously a response to the staid conventions of French commercial filmmaking, the Taiwanese New Wave was not just an aesthetic rebellion but a passionate form of historical and cultural inquiry as well. The Young Turks who made up Taiwan's New Wave arrived in the early '80s, just before forty years of martial law came to an end. They fashioned an aesthetic of what you might call defiant contemplation and posed a question that had never been addressed by their country's blandly commercial, genre-oriented cinema: What does it mean to be Taiwanese? If Taiwanese cinema had a 400 Blows and a Breathless, they were Hou's A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985) and City of Sadness (1989), two films that went right to the heart of that elusive, oddly fractured thing called Taiwanese identity.

If Hou has chosen to examine Taiwanese identity largely through the filter of the past, Edward Yang has tended to stay fixed in the present, his 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day being a notable exception. Yang has often been lazily tagged as a lesser Hou, but if their paths have crossed more than once (they were great friends during the early days of the New Wave but are no more, and Hou starred in one of Yang's finest films, the 1985 Taipei Story), they're nevertheless quite different as artists. Unlike Hou, Yang has always foregrounded his actors (Yang produced his first play in the early '90s and runs an ongoing acting workshop), concocting knotty narrative thickets from which his characters try to disentangle themselves. Where Hou often sets his work in the countryside or in small towns, the action in Yang's films is almost always keyed to the sleek, uninviting surfaces of modern Taipei. There's a singular form of tension that runs through his oeuvre, from the early explorations of urban anomie (That Day, on the Beach [1983], The Terrorizer [1986]) to the epic tragedy of A Brighter Summer Day to his nervy mid-'90s experiments in comedy (A Confucian Confusion [1994], Mahjong [1996]). Yang always carefully splits his focus among an array of disappointed characters, and as they drive past Taipei's soulless skyline or measure their dreams against their realities while they sit in their functional modern apartments, a contemporary brand of fatalism starts to sink in: How can I ever get in sync with the rushing world around me? Mahjong may have its shortcomings, but it also contains one of the most piercing moments in '90s cinema—a sudden, surprising cut to the Taipei cityscape at night, accompanied by the sound of a humiliated teenage boy quietly weeping.

Yi Yi (A One and a Two), Yang's newest film—which earned him the Best Director award at Cannes in May—opens this month at Film Forum in New York, following its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. For anyone who knows Yang's earlier work, Yi Yi might seem a trifle becalmed, a grand statement about Life from a middle-aged director who has given up his youthful hubris and anger. But even though the content comes alarmingly close to Movie of the Week material—there are births and deaths, there are disappointments and realizations, there's a wedding at the beginning and a funeral at the end—Yi Yi never loses its delicate balance between common middle-class experience and the individual perceptions of its six principal characters. It's also one of the most sheerly beautiful portraits of a city ever put on film , all the more wondrous for being so apparently offhanded. You may not even notice the exquisite timing of a first kiss on a desolate street corner: As adolescent lovers tentatively embrace, the traffic light overhead goes from green to red, in one long, achingly poignant take.

The story centers around the Jian family, whose nervous, thoughtful patriarch N.J . is played by the great writer/director /TV star Wu Nien-jen. Wu, who has written for Yang and Hou and directed a quietly devastating autobiographical film called A Borrowed Life (1994), also happens to be a great actor. It's a tall order for a performer to translate thought into on screen action, but it's close to impossible to convey the sense of an intelligent man bewildered by the flux of life. We're so used to the twin clichés
of soulful pouting and agitated raving that Wu's delicacy here seems nothing short of miraculous: his comical stillness as he observes a fracas between his brother-in-law's old girlfriend and new wife at a banquet, the pause he takes before he knocks on his old sweetheart's hotel room door, his blend of amusement and concern about his eight-year-old son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Yang wrote the part for Wu, and it's his presence that keeps the film firmly anchored, giving the more flamboyant players (Elaine Jin as his troubled wife, Min-Min, Chen Xisheng's lovable screw-up brother-in-law, A-Di) and the nonprofessional child actors (Chang, Kelly Lee's doelike Ting-Ting) plenty of breathing room.

Everyone in Yi Yi is going through a life passage—Min-Min and A-Di 's mother is slowly dying; A-Di is feeling squeezed by the demands of two domineering women, a new baby, and unpaid bills; Yang-Yang is learning the way the adult world works; Min-Min is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Ting-Ting takes her first romantic steps with the estranged boyfriend of the girl next door; N.J. himself is beset by his failing computer hardware firm and the haunting repercussions of a chance meeting with his old girlfriend Sherry (Ke Suyun). Yang's genius here lies in the way he intertwines these uncertain moments to suggest that there is nothing else in life, that we are always in the midst of a passage of one sort or another, no matter what our age. One of the loveliest characterizations in Yi Yi is Issey Ogata's Mr. Ota, a courtly, middle-aged Japanese game designer who may or may not join forces with N.J.'s ailing firm (his partners eventually team up with Ato, which makes cheap knock-offs of Ota's computer games). Every scene between N.J. and Ota is a tonic—two sensitive, disillusioned but quietly hopeful men hitting it off instantaneously as they communicate in broken English. The wonderful Mr. Ota embodies Yang's own position toward his material and his characters: tough but gentle, unafraid of life's harshest realities and impossibly patient with their enactment.

Kent Jones is a critic and film programmer who lives in New York.