On the various lists of the greatest films of the 21st century, it is almost unavoidable that one would see a poster featuring the back of a young boy’s head, with a title that sounds strangely simple yet enigmatic: Yi Yi (which translates to ‘One One’ literally in English) The family drama featuring the life of a middle-class family in contemporary Taipei, is often hailed as one of the crowning jewels of Taiwanese, and even that of Chinese-speaking cinema. Its director, Edward Yang, has only completed seven features in his career, yet he is often viewed as one of the most talented auteurs in Asia, and even worldwide.
Apart from Yi Yi, most Western audience are probably most familiar with his 4-hours long epic drama A Brighter Summer Day (1991), set in the 1960s White Terror period when the island was under martial law. This masterpiece helped draw the attention of Western film critics to Yang, and in 2016 a 4K restoration funded by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation was released on the Criterion Collection. As one could observe from Yang’s filmography, his “Taipei Trilogy”, which consists of A Confucian Confusion (1994), Mahjong (1996) and Yi Yi (2000), all shot in the 1990s after A Brighter Summer Day, reflect the director’s growing confidence and mature skills in his control over ensemble cast often made up of relatively young and inexperienced actors. Moreover, the fact that these three features were screened in competition in major film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin certainly enhance the auteur’s reputation among international critics.
However, until last year the early stage of Edward Yang’s career has remained mostly in shadows compare to the huge amount of attention given to his later works by film critics ,thanks to the extremely poor quality of home media release available. Even die-hard cinephiles who wish to go through the auteur’s filmography by sequence tend to start with Terrorizers (1986), Yang’s breakthrough work in the international scene which was released on Blu-ray on its 30th Anniversary in 2005. That Day, On the Beach (1983) and Taipei Story (1985), become titles that were dismissed as works of less significance, products from the immature stage of Yang’s career. This consensus may have remained unchallenged except for the restoration efforts taken in recent years, revealing the hidden treasures of cinema that offers a lovely surprise to Yang’s fans on the 10th anniversary of the director’s death. The restored versions of Yang’s first two features as well as Yi Yi were shown in film festivals, as well as receiving a limited theatrical release in Taiwan.
I have always heard of Yang’s name, yet my first encounter with the director began last year during the Hong Kong International Film Festival, when a series of screenings of his films were held. Unfortunately, by the time I have heard of the screenings, almost all tickets were sold out aside from Yi Yi (on 35mm film) and Taipei Story (4K digital restoration). Thus, my initial contact with Edward Yang began in a slightly unusual sequence, watching his last film and his second film with barely a day in between. This allows me to pay attention to subtle details between the two features, as well as tracing the recurring motifs of the auteur which persist throughout his entire career.
Taipei Story is an unusual collaboration between Yang and another Taiwanese New Wave auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien, who starred in the film as well as contributing to the screenplay together with his long-time collaborator Taiwanese writer Chu T’ien-wen and Yang. Another interesting fact was that Hou even sold his house to finance the film when Yang failed to find investment. The collaboration offered a rare look into the intimate friendship between the auteurs, who later represent varying styles of the movement respectively. Taipei Story (with the Chinese title drawn from the traditional idiom meaning childhood sweethearts), depicts the increasing tensions of a young couple, whose relationship embodies the conflicts between clashing ideals in 1980s Taiwanese society, which was torn between traditional Chinese culture and Western values while trying to escape from its dark past of White Terror. The couple, played by Hou and Yang’s first wife Taiwanese singer Tsai Chin, were both amateur actors. Another notable member of the cast was Wu Nien-jen, who played a small supporting role here, beginning a long collaboration with Yang that finally led to his leading role in Yi Yi 15 years later.
One of the most memorable aspects of Taipei Story (and all Yang’s films to be exact) is its representation of space and the symbols behind. The beauty of Taipei’s buildings and boulevards are captured by Yang with the precision of an architect (who was once accepted into the architecture school of Harvard). The vibrancy of the city, buzzing with life and more significantly, the influx of capital followed by a changing lifestyle of increasing pace that threatens to eliminate those who are unwilling or unable to adapt, which in the case of Hou’s character Lung, both. Lung is a old-fashioned merchant who is slowly suffocating from the expectations of his girlfriend Chin (played by Tsai Chin), a modern independent office lady who seeks to escape her patriarchal family and views marriage as her outlet to freedom followed by immigration to America. Chin lives in her own flat, decorated in the exquisite taste of petite bourgeoisie, representing personal space for her as contrast to her father’s oppressive, traditional Chinese household. An especially memorable detail captured by the camera is during the scene of a family dinner, with Chin observing her father silently as he takes her spoon without a word when he dropped his on the floor, while her mother is preparing the dishes the kitchen. The rigid family hierarchy is reflected to the audience in one short scene, demonstrating Yang’s strength in the economy of narrative.
Moreover, contrast has long remained the recurring motif in Yang’s films, and in Taipei Story, it offers several sets of opposing characters representing new and old values. Chin’s younger sister, who leads a wild and rebellious life made up of parties and alcohol, serves as a symbol of the liberation that the new generation enjoys with the influx of materialism and consumerism. As Chin embarks on an adventurous motorcycle trip in Taipei at night with this group of young people after a bitter confrontation with Lung, it suggests her choice of heading towards a different path with Lung. Another more significant contrast would be Lung’s awkward meeting with Chin’s colleagues in a bar, as he attempts to explain his profession as a cloth merchant in Dihua Street, an old area known for selling traditional goods, to these white collars working in modern offices. Lung’s embarrassment in this scene is followed by his easy, relaxed state with Chin’s father on the streets and later with his handicapped childhood friend whose wife preferred playing mahjong over their child (played by Wu), as he promised to lend money to them following the code of brotherhood and masculine honor. Here, Lung’s preference to be with the lower-class ‘losers’ of the society, indicates his old-fashioned values that is doomed to perish in the new Taipei society.
An interesting point to note between the scenes would be the change in language from Mandarin to the Taiwanese local dialect, as it reflects Lung’s position between the old and new societies, with his inability to fit in with Chin’s social circle foreshadowing their ultimate breakup and his eventual destruction. Lung, played by Hou with natural ease, also stands out among Yang’s other male leads compare to those in his subsequent films. For while these tragic heroes all share the similar fate caused by their inability to fit in with contemporary society, Lung earns the sympathy of the audience despite his faults and flaws, as his sentiment for the past glory he have enjoyed as a rising baseball player in youth strikes a chord with Hou’s more nostalgic directorial style, as opposed to Yang’s intellectual, and sometimes elitist viewpoint.
Lastly, while Yang’s Taipei has long been the subject of great interest by film critics, nevertheless another geographical symbol that appeared recurring in the director’s films, and indeed among New Taiwanese Cinema, perhaps deserve more attention. In fact, if one looks at the other films directed by the New Wave auteurs, whether it’s Wu Nien-jen’s semi-autobiographical A Borrowed Life (1994), or Cafe Lumiere (2003), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature in Japanese filmed in the new century which serves as a homage to Yasujiro Ozu, the influence of Japan has certainly left a unique mark on the island’s inhabitants, despite the controversy surrounding this historical legacy.
In both Taipei Story and Yi Yi, the symbol of Japan is linked to a past of lost love and youth. While Yi Yi contains an intriguing conversation between the male protagonist NJ and his Japanese client, as well as a trip with his old lover to Atami (featured in Ozu’s Tokyo Story as well), the Japanese element in Taipei Story is much more subtle, yet nevertheless essential to the plot. For it is through the Japanese television commercials in Lung’s video recordings that Chin discovered his visit to Tokyo to see an old flame, acting as the final straw to their collapsing relationship. Moreover, the same actress Kelly Ko also happened to play the ex-lover in both films. Perhaps the casting is simply a coincidence, but it certainly reveals Yang’s continuing interest in the ambiguity of national and cultural identities that determined the actions and fate of the individuals in Taiwan, the homeland that Yang both adored and criticised with his camera.
Thus, one could observe from these two films, which represent the early and mature stages of Yang’s career, the embodiment of the clash of ideologies and values from the past and present, the East and the West. The conflict between the inner self and external environment, and the personal tragedy of individuals against the backdrop of a society in transition, is exactly what makes Yang’s films timeless treasures. With the language of cinema, which transcends the boundaries of culture and race, Edward Yang explores the ultimate question which all great artists should ask: how should one perceive and live with the relationship between individual and society?
Both Taipei Story and Yi Yi are now available on Blu-Ray from Criterion Collection.