The Taiwanese-born filmmaker Edward Yang, who passed away this past June at the age of 59, stood on the verge of possibly revitalizing cinema. In 2002, Sight & Sound magazine -- disappointed with the results of its every-ten-years poll of the all-time great films, conducted a new poll consisting exclusively of films made in the past 25 years, from 1978 to 2002. The entire top ten was made up of older films from the 1970s and 1980s, except for Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990), Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994) and Yang's Yi Yi (2000). Yang's film was the only one from the 21st century to make the list, and since it was the only one of Yang's films to receive theatrical distribution in the West, that means that it's the only one that a majority of the voters had ever seen.
Yang completed only seven feature films and one short "segment" in his all-too brief career, and I've only managed to see two of them. Yi Yi topped my list of the year's best films the year I saw it -- and stands a good chance to do the same on my upcoming best-of-the-decade list. I also managed to see A Brighter Summer Day (1991), in its full four-hour version, thanks to a website called www.superhappyfun.com that sells a DVD-R dupe of an old laserdisc for only $16. The picture is scratched and the subtitles leave a bit to be desired, but this film is even more complex and intriguing than Yi Yi. Set over the course of most of a year in 1961, A Brighter Summer Day deals with a subculture of Mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan after the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949. A printed introduction explains that their children are now living in a state of uncertainty and have taken to forming street gangs for a sense of safety and control.
From there, Yang's narrative jumps back and forth between many subplots. It's difficult to track them all, especially given his taste for medium and long shots, as opposed to close-ups. Even so, Yang's masterly storytelling skills usually find recognizable cues for each sequence, and the world he creates here is so vivid and complete that we're never lost for very long. Perhaps the main thrust of the story, or at least the one that's the most emotionally engaging, has to do with a gangster's school-age girlfriend. He has gone into hiding and a younger, inexperienced gang member becomes smitten with her. They cut class together and wind up next door, at a movie studio, where she wins an audition based only on her looks. They form an endearing bond, but his friends warn him never to let a girl become the cause of any bad blood.
Other characters flirt with singing careers, putting on little shows that become both a source of income and frustration for the various gangs. Our two singers, one pre-pubescent (with a high, Frankie Lymon-type voice) and one post-pubescent, have American songs translated phonetically; the Elvis song, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is the source of the movie's title. That song is just one coveted artifact that re-appears throughout the movie and doesn't specifically originate in Taiwan. A samurai sword, a flashlight, a radio, and a tape recorder also become important, almost characters by themselves. The arc of the movie as a whole suggests dislocation, people adrift between patriotism and something grayer and more elusive. The older characters, when they appear, either stubbornly adhere to Taiwanese traditions or have grabbed onto something else, such as Christianity. Other adults are weak and powerless. The children seem to understand all this, but can't comprehend how to crawl out from under it. And despite a murder -- inspired by a real-life incident -- the film still has a few glimmers of hope.
Yang's film doesn't waste a single second of its four hours, and taken as a whole, reveals a beautiful, intricate, masterful tapestry that is as accomplished in its grand, quiet way as is The Godfather trilogy. That brings us to Yi Yi, which is a lot closer in spirit to The Godfather -- without the bloodshed -- in that it focuses on a family over the course of a few months; it begins at a wedding and ends at a funeral. Like A Brighter Summer Day, it deals with sad truths; an old woman falls into a coma, and when her family members come to visit her, they find they have nothing to say. Only the youngest, Yang-Yang, seems intrigued by the wonders of the world. He realizes that, as humans, we can only ever know half of the truth because we can't see behind us. So he uses his new camera to photograph the backs of people's heads to capture the other half of the truth.
That seems to me a good way to sum up Yang himself. In my review, I described two kinds of directors, those that control every aspect of their imagery, like F.W. Murnau, Stanley Kubrick and the Coen Brothers, and those that look for an emotional flow, like Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks or Clint Eastwood. Like that great poet of American cinema, John Ford, Yang belonged to both categories. He was reportedly preparing with Jackie Chan an animated movie, The Wind, which Chan has announced that he hopes to finish. Hopefully his remaining six films, That Day, on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985), The Terrorizers (1986), A Confucian Confusion (1994), Mahjong (1996) and a segment of the Taiwanese New Wave anthology film In Our Time (1982) will make their way to the U.S. in retrospectives or on DVD so that we may get a more thorough sampling of this master filmmaker, taken from us far too soon.