The films of the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang have long been favored by cineastes and film critics but audiences seldom get to see Yang’s movies, especially on the big screen. His works include the influential 1985 drama Taipei Story, a film that not only presented Yang to the international film festival circuit but also helped kick start a movement that became known as Taiwan New Cinema.
The chances of seeing Taipei Story are improving. The film was released in United States theaters this year, 32 years after its Taiwan release. It enjoyed a run in one theater, BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York, and will soon be released on disk by The Criterion Collection, which already sells Yang’s classic A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and his final film, Yi-Yi (2000).
And the Hong Kong International Film Festival is screening all Yang’s feature films in a retrospective to mark the 10th anniversary of the director’s death from cancer. Among the films are his accomplished debut, That Day at the Beach (1983), the thriller-inspired Terrorizers (1986), the manic A Confucian Confusion (1994) and the sardonic Mahjong (1996).
Taipei Story was the first film to explore how modernization affects the lives of urban Taiwanese, and how internationalization changes and otherwise interferes with traditional Chinese values. It was a film that set the tone for more than a decade of cinematic exploration of the Taiwanese identity. A City of Sadness (1989), by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, was another. This film charted Taiwan’s complicated history as a Dutch possession, a Japanese possession and then as the refuge of President Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists after they lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists.
“Taipei Story was important to Taiwan New Cinema at the time, especially among critics,” says an authority on Chinese cinema, Derek Elley. Elley owns the Chinese film review website Sino-Cinema. “Yang’s circle all joked that it was Edward’s ‘Wim Wenders film’, as he was deeply influenced at the time by New German Cinema, especially Wenders. It originally closed after four days and Yang re-cut it. But it put Yang on the map in the West, as it was the perfect festival film.”
In Taipei Story, Hou went in front of the camera to play a former baseball player marginalized by Taiwan’s rapid modernization. “Yang said at the time that Taipei Story dealt with ‘emotions and dilemmas which only previously existed in highly developed Western societies,’” Elley says. He quotes Yang as saying: “Taipei Story is how I felt about the city at the time; its past, its present and its future.”
The director-to-be studied electrical engineering in Florida and Elley believes Yang’s time away from Taiwan affected his view of the island. “Taipei Story is also about how rapid development in an Asian city affects relationships, and his own development as someone who’d spent years in the West and was rediscovering his Asian roots,” Elley says. “It’s about a very select section, a yuppie class, in Taipei society, not Taipei people in general.”
Hong Kong International Film Festival artistic director Li Cheuk-to says reflections on urban life run through all of Yang’s films. “He also looks at the tension between modern and traditional values,” Li says. “The full retrospective of the filmmaker’s work shows the variety as well as the continuity of his films as he evolved through the decades.”
Yang’s growth as a filmmaker is also evident in his body of work. “There may be a lot of humor in A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong but it is rather bitter and sometimes quite black,” Li says. “Only in his last work, Yi-Yi, does Yang come to terms to terms with his anger and frustration, and becomes fully mature as a generous and compassionate artist.”
The Taiwan New Cinema movement died out in the late 1990s and filmmakers on the island now focus on commercial and teen fare. Li says no-one has followed Yang’s lead. “His analysis was way ahead of its time and proved to be so correct in hindsight,” Li says. “Too bad no other Taiwanese director can follow his footsteps in diagnosing Taiwan with a similar degree of success.”
The 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival runs until April 25