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Filmmaker Edward Yang, who died last week of colon cancer at the age of 59, exemplified both the protean creativity and the problematic dissemination of Taiwanese cinema in recent decades. Beginning in the mid-1980s, all areas of Chinese filmmaking enjoyed an unprecedented efflorescence. Yet while mainland filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai found a ready path into American art houses, Yang, like his great contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, faced a host of business and cultural obstacles to U.S. commercial distribution. The result was that one of modern cinema’s most fascinating careers passed largely unseen by American cinephiles.
Surely the greatest casualty was the fourth of Yang’s seven features, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), an electrifying four-hour epic of teenage rebellion and social turbulence set in early-’60s Taipei. Its title taken from Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and its story compounded from a lurid period crime and Yang’s own youthful memories, the film fused a startling degree of emotional frankness with a coolly expansive analysis of family and political tensions. Though a masterful accomplishment from any number of angles, it was passed over by the Cannes and New York film festivals, yet emerged as one of the most critically esteemed films of the 1990s. It has never been released in the U.S., either theatrically or on tape or DVD.
In all of his films, Yang examined the world through the cloudy prism of modern Taipei. Born in 1947 in southeastern China, he was brought to Taiwan by parents fleeing the Communist revolution. After receiving his secondary education in Taipei, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Florida and worked briefly as a researcher in Seattle before an art-house encounter with Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God sent him back to Taiwan determined to be a filmmaker.
It was an auspicious moment, with the first stirrings of the movement that critics would eventually call the New Taiwanese Cinema. After a made-for-TV short, Yang produced three features that quickly established his name on the international festival circuit. Dubbed the “Urban Trilogy,” That Day on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985), and The Terrorizers (1986) drew comparisons to Antonioni and Godard for their intricately austere and stylistically adroit dissections of contemporary anomie.
After the disappointing reception of the five-years-in-the-making A Brighter Summer Day, Yang shifted course. His next two films, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), tried to give a comic spin to the director’s characteristic concern with the flux and disarray of life in Taipei. Though they suggested to some critics that Yang’s gift was not for comedy, the films led to the brilliant synthesis of Yi Yi (A One and a Two), his last film and the first to gain a U.S. release.
Though surely not intended as a summing-up, Yi Yi managed to combine the critical acuity of the Urban Trilogy and the affecting expansiveness of A Brighter Summer Day with the philosophical whimsy of his previous two films. A vision of family (and city) life as a mesh of precarious privacies, the three-hour bittersweet comedy won Yang a Best Director nod at Cannes as well as the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. It also earned Yang something he’d long deserved: a hearing with American filmgoers.