The Taiwanese film-maker Edward Yang made only seven films between 1983 and 2000. Such was his reputation from those films that the tributes to him have flooded in since it was announced that he had died on June 29 after a long battle with colon cancer. I never saw his first film That Day, On the Beach (1983) but it’s appearance was enough for people to cause comparisons with the work of Michaelangelo Antonioni. His next film Taipei Story (1985) remains one of my personal favorites indeed It’s included in my top ten of all time as recorded on the Senses of Cinema website. That film starred Yang’s friend and colleague Hou Hsiao-hsien and together they formed the backbone of a new Taiwanese cinema that has continued to entrance international, if not domestic, audiences to this day. Hou and Yang are key figures of the cinema in the last two decades of the 20th century.
Yang’s output over that time was quite small, a mere seven features since his debut. Hou has been more prolific but Yang also spent much time as a teacher and he worked on a number of projects with his own students. Nevertheless the small number of films he made in the 90s were quite extraordinary beginning with a masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) , continuing with A Confucian Confusion (1994), Mahjong (1996) and capping iall off with Yi Yi /A One and a Two… (2000). Some have been shown on SBS but the last-mentioned film, which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes that year, is regrettably, I feel certain in saying, the only one of his films available on DVD in Australia. Its story of a family in present day Taipei delves into so many of the cross-currents and contradictions of modern Chinese society as each family member comes to the forefront in the broad canvas laid before us.
When Yi Yi was screened at the Brisbane Film Festival Tony Rayns’ program note said: “Directed with a formal precision that never masks the warmth of its feelings for the characters, the film suggests that the ways in which we deal with our problems change very little over the years, even if the problems themselves do change. Yang marshals a dozen major characters and nearly as many strands of storyline…with apparently effortless clarity. Yi Yi offers a wordly and very wise vision of the way we live now.”
Which sums up quite a lot about Yang’s achievement in one small para. I never met him and as far as I know he never visited Australia, at least not to present any of his films to a public audience. A pity really because he was someone special and his small output is likely to be reshown, revived and discussed for a long time to come. If you want to know just how deep and wide the reverence for him is then just google his name and you’ll find tributes by Variety, the New York Times, the Guardian and The Independent very prominent among the dozens of other references. The obit in The Independent was written by Tony Rayns and tells more of the man himself than most of the others and describes him as ‘a committed independent whose movies spoke eloquently for his wry detachment from the political and economic chaos around him.” A full scale retro is called for to celebrate a major film-maker who died, at the age of 59, far too young.