Edwards Yang’s seventh and final feature, 2000’s Yi Yi, was the only to receive U.S. distribution—but even if Yi Yi was the only work of Yang’s that you’d seen, you sensed the loss when news spread of the Chinese director’s death from cancer complications in 2007, aged 59. Lincoln Center’s eight-film Yang retrospective is an opportunity to catch up.
A multi-generation drama concerning Taipei’s middle-class Jian family, as seen through the eyes of the businessman father (Nien-Jen Wu), eight-year-old son (Jonathan Chang), and 13-year-old daughter (Kelly Lee), Yi Yi was a quiet epic, graceful without putting on airs, moving without manipulation, and capable of revealing something recognizable about life to a broad range of viewers. (I saw it with my father, who doesn’t know Antonioni from Adam, and I don’t think we’d agreed on a movie so easily since Cabin Boy.)
Yang, born in Shanghai in 1947, followed his parents—and Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat—to Taipei when he was two. He grew up there, in the new Republic of China (a/k/a Taiwan), and spent his filmmaking career taking stock of the city during its cash and concrete booms, developments he saw impinging on the life of its families and the hearts of its lovers. Yang became the artistic barometer for a culture fragmented between Japanese, Chinese, and American influences, torn between Confucius and Elvis.
Despite creative yearnings, dutiful son Yang first studied practical electrical engineering in the U.S., working in a research lab in Seattle for seven years before returning home to make films: “I had to do something I liked before I got real old,” he once told a critic.
And thank God he did. Yi Yi plays Lincoln Center, along with a premiere weeklong run for Yang’s other acknowledged masterpiece, 1991’s four-hour period epic A Brighter Summer Day, which scrupulously re-creates 1960, the period of the author’s youth, and a murder case that stunned the island nation.
The earliest material in the series is Yang’s contribution to the seminal 1981 made-for-Taiwanese-TV omnibus film In Our Time, the latest an assemblage of finished scenes from Yang’s proposed but never completed animated martial-arts epic based on the life of Jackie Chan. There’s 1982’s That Day, on the Beach, Yang’s first feature, which is marked by a nimble, ambitious flashback-within-flashback-within-flashback structure. This tale of soured marriage inaugurates Yang’s so-called Urban Trilogy, followed by Taipei Story (1985; starring Yang’s compatriot in the Taiwanese “New Wave,” Hou Hsiao-Hsien), in which a sundered couple is pulled in opposite directions—he mired in nostalgia, she moving on—in a film at once mournful and electric with cryptic images from a nocturnal city’s life (a massive Fuji sign as the flashing refrain; a dance-floor power outage as “Footloose” pumps over the PA). The trio concludes on The Terrorizers (1986), a city-sickness movie of curt, Bressonian cutting and ambient threat. The Urban Trilogy films aren’t accessible in the manner of Yi Yi or Brighter Summer Day but make explicit the depths of despair that are implicit in those large-canvas works.
On the other end of the dramatic spectrum is comedy A Confucian Confusion (1994), a roundelay of affairs set over two wild days and nights that deals with the strange bedfellows, quite literally, of creativity and commerce—often difficult to differentiate. Yang’s simultaneous spooling out of multiple narrative threads, as always, poses a constant challenge to the viewer, who must work to catch up. And this series is the rare case when playing catch-up is vital.