Sunday, July 01, 2007

In Memory of Edward Yang (1947-2007)

Courtesy of GreenCine Daily, Taiwanese director Edward Yang passed away earlier today at age 59. Best known in the U.S. for his 2000 masterpiece, Yi Yi, which is this writer's choice for the best film made thus far this decade, Yang directed only seven features and an eighth segment for a portmanteau feature over his three decade career. Yang was born on November 6, 1947 in Shanghai. After moving to Taiwan shortly after the 1949 revolution on the mainland, Yang and his family (like fellow master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) moved to Taiwan. Yang would later spend time in the United States, where he studied electrical engineering and thereafter filmmaking at USC (where he dropped out), before returning to his adopted homeland.

Having returned to Taiwan, Yang, along with Hou, spearheaded the "Taiwanese New Wave," which yielded a number of the finest films made over the course of the past twenty-five years. After contributing to In Our Time (1982), Yang released the seminal That Day, On the Beach (1983) a year later. However, it was with the director's 1985 Taipei Story, starring Hou himself, that Yang was established as one of the greatest directors of the late twentieth century. In Taipei Story, one of the three or four best films of the 1980s, Yang asserted his place as the contemporary heir to the 1960s cinema of alienation, introducing a formal rigor (one might be tempted even to see his engineering training as a formative influence on his technical precision) that has elevated Yang among his international art cinema colleagues.

After 1986's The Terrorizer, a strong film by any measure, except for perhaps against the films that preceded and followed it in the Yang's oeuvre, the director's next film was A Brighter Summer Day, which was in the opinion of many (myself included) the director's best, and, not to sound like a broken record, one of the very best films of its or any decade. As it happens, I was fortunate enough to see A Brighter Summer Day during my undergraduate years - spring of 2001 - though it did take something of heroic effort to attend the film: it screened one night only in Chicago, which at the time was three-and-a-half hours away from home. Knowing that it might be my only chance to see the picture (having discovered it through Jonathan Rosenbaum) I drove the seven hours round-trip on a school night to see Yang's sublime masterpiece. Suffice it to say that it remains one of my most precious film-going experiences.

Following a pair of comedies in the mid-90's, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), the director made the third supreme masterpiece of his career, Yi Yi. To summarize, quoting myself from an earlier post,
'Yi Yi contains more than virtually any other film ever made. What is meant by [this] is not excess, but rather the full scope of existence: comedy and tragedy, happiness and sadness, feeling and empathy, the physical and the metaphysical, art and life. Indeed, Yi Yi represents nothing more than it does a prayer, offered on the part of its maker for its many characters who continue to make the same mistakes in their lives, generation after generation. After all, the literal translation of the title is 'One One,' intimating precisely this sort of repetition, which is likewise picked up in the names of the younger generation's protagonists, Ting Ting and Yang Yang. The latter, a clear stand-in for the director, becomes a photographer in order that he might show people the half of life that they do not normally see: in this case, the backs of their heads. His engagement is thus art, as his older sister, who repeats the same romantic mistakes as her father, chooses to speak to her comatose grandmother, who thusly becomes a stand in for god. At one point she even breaks from her coma (her silence) to comfort the young girl, even if it remains unclear as to whether this represents a literal occurrence. Either way, Yang's is a film that intentionally confronts as much of life as possible, offering open conclusions to the eternal questions it raises.'
Surely few filmmakers have ever made films that approach Yang's in terms both of their formal richness and in their depth of insight. Though film lovers everywhere should mourn the fact that we will never get the chance to see a new masterpiece by Yang - though for many, myself included, the difficulty in securing some of the above titles will mean that the joys of his work are still to come - the corpus he has left is one one of greatest we have ever been blessed with. Edward Yang will be greatly missed.

1 comment:

dan said...

A visionary not even appreciated in his home country of Taiwan. Sad. Much too early to die.

db

Larry Gross observes, “I think Yang was one of the world's most radically gifted film makers of the last two decades. In his own work and as a practical matter in his career, he lived out a link between Chinese culture and the sophisticated practices of Western and Japanese cinemas that was indispensable to where the three Chinese cinemas, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Mainland have gone. There would absolutely be no Ang Lee, for instance, without Ed Yang. And Ed Yang played the role for Hou Hsiao Hsien of the brilliant student who partially educated the master about developments in the West. (In modern literary history, Ezra Pound played a roughly comparable role in the "education" of the already-established William Butler Yeats, helping him among other factors to go from being a very good poet to a great one.) Frederic Jameson's long essay on The Terroriser (1986) is one place to start in the assessment of Edward Yang. But there was a bunch of movies that never got released here,Mah Jong, A Confucian Confusion, were sophisticated black comedies about sexual-and-social issues in contemporary Taiwan that presaged the masterwork that was Yi-Yi ... A Brighter Summer's Day was his foray into Hou's favored genre of dealing with criminal youth gangs,.. I have never seen that one but those who have claim it as one of the great masterpieces of recent decades. One hoped after the international profile that Yi-Yi achieved at the ‘99 Cannes Festival that Yang would explode on the world wide scene, but obviously now that's not going to happen. Interestingly, if I’m not mistaken, one of the central characters in his first movie (coincidentally Chris Doyle's first Chinese work as a DP) That Day at the Beach, succumbs to cancer at a terribly young age. A huge huge loss to world cinema.”