To round off our celebration of Asian Heritage Month, we look at three of Edward Yang ’s finest films and at what makes them so powerful in their complexity and so long-standing in their impact.
Edward Yang was only 59 years old when he passed away in 2007, but his lasting impact on film, both in Taiwan and around the world, was already firmly cemented in the decades prior. Taiwanese cinema began to shift in the early 1980s from romantic melodramas and kung-fu action films to more realistic, grounded portrayals of the country’s cities and the people who inhabit them. Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, was one of the leading figures of this so-called Taiwanese New Wave movement. Whilst, of course, the works of each director vary, there are striking similarities in each film released during this time, from the meditative ruminations on Taiwanese life to the subtle but complex portrayals of the populace. Yang’s ability to create a time and a place so effectively, however, is more or less unrivalled; three films of his – Terrorizers (1986), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), and Yi Yi (2000) – show this wide-ranging ability best, all with different narratives, characters and themes, but all presenting complex tapestries of Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.
All three of these films focus on Taiwanese people and their relationships and interactions with one another, be it in close-knit family groups, with friends and lovers from almost-forgotten pasts or simply passing strangers in the street. Terrorizers, in particular, is the perfect example of the latter, focussing on coincidental interactions between three groups of people in Taipei. The interactions are often so fleeting and so – for want of a better word – insignificant that they perfectly conjure up the passing, brief nature of life. The film moves along at a drifting, patient pace, never forcing sentiment from emotional moments nor melodrama from moments of action. It also gives us deep characters that feel lost and invisible within Taiwanese society. Yang’s crowning achievement, A Brighter Summer Day, similarly focusses on people and how actions influence everything, either inadvertently or on purpose. The film, clocking in at a staggering 237 minutes, is able to breath even more life into its characters than Terrorizers, as well as focussing on a vast number of themes, such as Westernisation, identity and violence within society.
All of these films benefit, perhaps most of all, from Yang’s ability in shooting people within places. In Yi Yi, multiple scenes of dialogue are filmed from inventive angles far away from the characters, capturing them whilst they speak with the city whirling around them, an immersive urban landscape proceeding through its daily rhythms without notice of the characters in question. Through this, Yang posits that there are countless dialogues happening throughout Taipei, the one that he is capturing just a single moment amongst a plethora of others. Using the city environment further still, a notable shot from Terrorizers sees one character silently staring at the cityscape of Taipei from a floor high up in an apartment block. The city itself is reflected in an open window, signalling the ever-present nature of the surrounding world and how it is as much a character as the people themselves. Like Tsai Ming-liang, Yang relies heavily on ‘slow cinema’, often utilising static camerawork to present the audience with an unintrusive path into the world on screen.
Not only does Yang capture the city of Taipei so effectively, he also succinctly captures specific eras of Taiwanese history and culture, most notably in A Brighter Summer Day. Focussing on a teenage murder case which shocked society in the 1960s, Yang captures this moment of history quite spectacularly, breathing life into every character and every choice that they make. The slow spread of Westernisation is an underlying current throughout the film and the bubbling themes of gang violence and loss of identity are clear from the start right through to the end. There is a tangibility in everything told on screen here, almost to the point that all of Yang’s films – not just A Brighter Summer Day – feel like engrossingly rich history lessons as much as they do fictional stories.
Whilst Yang’s films are solely set in Taiwan, there is a universal relatability to all of them. Whether it is the human tales of families and their unique dynamics or the search for identity amidst a rapidly changing world, people from all around the globe can find connections with his films. Terrorizers, A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi: all different in the specific stories they tell but all sublimely and intricately stitched together pieces of cinema that demand repeat viewing. The complexity, beauty and challenges of life have never been captured better by a director than the late, great Edward Yang.