Brad Renfro wasn't the only cinematic figure neglected in the recent Academy Awards' "In Memoriam" montage: the academy fumbled even harder in its omission of Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, who died last June of colon cancer in Los Angeles at 59. The self-taught father of Taiwan's cinematic new wave and a runaway Seattle software engineer who abandoned the tech field that made his classmates wealthy for his true love of filmmaking, Yang only created only eight films during his short, multi-career life, but during that brief span the Shanghai-born, Taipei-raised auteur managed to lend an influential, helping hand in the difficult birth of serious Taiwanese movie making.
Yang's so-called old drinking buddies, screenwriter Wu Nien-chen and fellow director Hou Hsiao-hsien, were more than just sodden shoulders to cry on; they grappled with manifold frustrations of working independently in the Taiwanese film industry (described by Yang as "fragmented and run-down," with only a limited pool of experienced actors). This gang of three supported each other financially and artistically: according to Jeff Yang's account in Once upon a Time in China (Atria, 2003), Wu spearheaded the anthology In Our Time (1982), which showcased Yang's first theatrical film, and Hou mortgaged his house to underwrite Yang's second feature, Taipei Story (1985), which Hou also starred in and ended up losing his shirt for after it lasted all of four days in theaters.
Twin brothers by different mothers and both born in 1947, Hou and Yang created their breakthrough films in 1986: the former's Dust in the Wind was also surprise! written by Wu, while the latter's The Terrorizers is a handsome, cerebral urban psychological drama that flaunts new wave roots like a glittering pop offspring of Jean-Luc Godard. Inspiring critic Fredric Jameson to praise its "archaically modern" textures, The Terrorizers broke down, as writer David Leiwei Li writes in Chinese Films in Focus (BFI, 2003), the hidebound binaries of East and West as "tradition versus modernity, enabling readings that recognize both the border-transcending flow of global commerce and the reflexive capacity of residual local cultures."
It's easy to read Hou's and Yang's early works as responses to one another, a relic of their barroom-pal give-and-take back in the day, and some might view Yang's masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), as simply a rejoinder to Hou's critically acclaimed, box office record-breaker City of Sadness (1989), though it was made amid far more hazardous conditions 1989 was the year the bottom fell out of the Taiwanese market for locally produced films, and audiences turned to Hong Kongmade entertainments. A few critics might even tag Yi Yi: A One and a Two as Yang's greatest feature for its warm, humanist blend of The Terrorizer's postmodern urban landscape, Yang's evocative roundelay of reflective surfaces, and the gentle gaze he levels on its quietly deteriorating family, headed by a software company manager pater familias, played by Yang's old friend Wu, and a mother in the throes of spiritual crisis (Day's Elaine Jin).
For its unseen but subtly telegraphed depths, referential richness, and the sheer breadth and long-shot scope of its four-hour running time, Day nonetheless deserves the praise lavished on it. Much like City, writes Emilie Yueh-Yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis in Taiwanese Film Directors: A Treasure Island (Columbia University Press, 2005), Day's "local history turns the lock on long-suppressed ideas," convincingly plunging the personal into an epic sphere.
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