It’s strange to think that, for years now, Yi Yi has been the only Edward Yang film that American audiences have had access to. Now the subject of the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s “A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang” retrospective, Yang is synonymous, to American film buffs, with Yi Yi, the last film the Taiwanese filmmaker made before his untimely death seven years later at the age of 60. Yi Yi, Yang’s most emotionally complex and satisfying film, is an epic modern melodrama that begs lofty questions that recur throughout director’s filmography, like what authenticity, both ideological and spiritual, means in Taipei, a tiny island capital whose trans-national culture is borrowed from various other countries.
The fact that Yang is, to American audiences, synonymous with Yi Yi is startling because Yang’s films are all about process and gestation. Like the Taipei of his films, Yang’s filmography is a body of work of and about progress, a body of themes and ideas that all come together in his swan song. In films like That Day, on the Beach and Taipei Story, Yang’s protagonists try to determine whether it’s better to tentatively withdraw from society or to enjoy both the perils and the ecstasies of fully engaging with the world outside their front door. In earlier films, this issue is more specifically a question of running away from home, as in That Day, on the Beach, or running away to America or getting married, as in Taipei Story.
But later, in films like A Confucian Confusion and Yi Yi, we learn that it’s impossible to avoid being frustrated by the very sight of impersonal, ever-modernizing city landscapes or the knowledge that marriage and travel can’t fix everything. In his earlier films, Yang’s characters succumb to that misery. In later films, his characters are more capable of taking the highs of life with the lows. And that’s a good part of why Yi Yi is one of Yang’s most accomplished works; equal parts celebration and primal scream to modern domestic life in Taipei, it’s a mosaic of angst and love. It’s the apex of Yang’s oeuvre and a self-sufficient microcosm unto itself.
While one can see the specter Michelangelo Antonioni’s influence on Yang’s films, most clearly in That Day, on the Beach, the two filmmakers are only cursorily similar. Unlike Antonioni’s misfit protagonists, Yang’s characters are continually pushing themselves toward further engagement with society at large. Flashbacks aren’t employed in That Day, on the Beach as a means of reminiscing about the past, but rather to get a fuller understanding of characters’ present circumstances came to be. Over the course of the almost three-hour film, Chia-li (Sylvia Chang) explains to an estranged friend the events that led to and followed the disappearance of her husband De-wei (Ming Hsu). Chia-li’s relationship with her husband is characterized by an abiding sense of unfulfilled loss: He works late and sees a mistress while she tries to answer De-wei’s caustic putdown, “Do you know what happiness is?”
There was no way that De-Wei and Chia-li could have resolved their problems, nor even for them to have become self-sufficient individuals. As Chia-li explains, De-wei simply disappeared, though it’s unclear whether he died or ran away. He and his wife drifted apart because there was no way for them to be happy. Or, as one character says in one of the film’s more clumsily declarative lines of dialogue, “Imagine that you grew up in a very peaceful, story book world. The way I grew up taught me that it’s a world without love. Perhaps you’ll find a moment or two of passion—but there’s no love.”
The same is and isn’t true in Taipei Story regarding the fruitless relationship between central protagonists Chin (Tsai Chin), an aspirant architect, and Lon (filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien), her lover and a former baseball player turned textile factory owner. There are plenty of singularly beautiful images throughout the film where the two characters luxuriate in their own depression, like a particularly memorable shot of smoke gracefully escaping Lon’s cigarette (Lon’s butt is tellingly not pictured as the smoke rises into the night sky). But unlike Chia-li and De-wei, Chin and Lon take responsibility for creating the loveless-ness that characterizes their lies. For example, Chin is literally an active participant in the construction of her environment. And that takes a serious toll on her: Throughout the film, Chin tries to regain the life force she’s invested in man-made things, whether it’s her buildings or her relationship with Lon.
Lon is the more attractive member of Taipei Story’s central couple. He’s too overwhelmed by knowing that he’s responsible for his own unhappiness to do anything about it. In fact, Taipei Story might as well end with Lon telling Chin that “marriage is not a panacea” and that leaving Taiwan would effectively solve nothing. While that’s not where the film’s story ends, Yang could have just as easily ended with Lon telling his wife that they’ll never be completely happy together.
Keep in mind that both That Day, on the Beach and Taipei Story are films set in the Taipei of the mid ’80s, when the city was on the verge of monumental urban expansion and redefinition. The city’s physical landscape didn’t necessarily get livelier, but, according to Yang, its residents certainly learned that being frustrated with living in Taipei is just as likely as being frustrated anywhere else. In A Confucian Confusion, a cabal of artists and people working in the “culture” business sleep around and accuse each other of sleeping around, which basically amounts to the same thing. Because once you become really comfortably jaded, there’s nothing else to do but each other.
The emotional upheaval that typifies A Confucian Confusion’s group is the price that they must pay for the creature comforts of living in contemporary Taiwan. Everyone in the city is afraid that they’ll be unduly influenced by the yuppies that influence Taipei’s culture (“Don’t ever underestimate people in the arts. They work on your emotions, fuck with your mind”). But Yang’s cognoscenti are mostly just dupes themselves. Several of them have conspicuously American names (the American-named Akeem, Molly, Birdy, and Larry stand apart from characters with more traditionally Chinese names like QiQi, Feng, and Ming), showing how pervasive foreign influence is on their own thinking, and the most cogent political stance that the group takes is when one lone voice among the confused hive mind says, “I have no principle but one: Whatever works for our future.”
In A Confucian Confusion, “the future” only exists in the form of immediate self-gratification. That single-minded and deeply amoral attitude leads to great complications: You need to make a flow chart to keep track of who’s having sex with whom by the end of the film. By contrast, the future is not a factor in Yi Yi because the present is the most pressing concern for the film’s protagonists.
In Yi Yi, the members of a Taiwanese family each wonder how they can give themselves a greater sense of perspective. While his mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin) histrionically considers, “How can I be so little? I live a blank,” stoic but beleaguered father N.J. (TV personality Nien-Jen Wu) wonders what good he is as a provider in a world where his job requires him to just look “honest,” as one colleagues puts it. “So honesty is an act,” N.J. yells. “And friendship? Business? Is anything real left?” At the same time, teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) tries to bond with a boy at school while reconciling the difference between his observed behavior and her high expectations. And younger brother Yang-Yang (the irrepressible Jonathan Chang) tries to take photographs that will get people to see the world the same way that he does.
Yi Yi is very much a film about characters stuck in place and hence are often just doing what they can to make do. N.J. is frequently occupied with taking care of his family in some form or another. He rarely has time enough to let his mind wander. He likes talking to Ota (Issey Ogata), a prospective business partner from Japan, because they both dream of taking risks in their business practices but are ultimately incapable of realizing those dreams. Yang focuses on N.J. the pragmatist because N.J. the idealist rarely exists in the material world.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ota and N.J. still have their dreams and their aspirations, but they also have their responsibilities, which they also enjoy in their own ways. The quiet but memorable scene where N.J. takes Sherry (Su-Yun-Ko), an old flame, to a local McDonald’s for dinner is just as tender as the scene where Min-Min and Sherry hold hands and reminisce about their first date. In Yi Yi, Yang acknowledges the bittersweet nature of his characters’ search for grace in a mundane setting. I wish Yang had had more time to make films. But the ones he did make are a major boon unto themselves.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective “A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang” runs from November 22—27. For more information, click here.