SFIAAFF: Are you lonesome tonight?

Pub date March 5, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

› kimberly@sfbg.com

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 Kong–made 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. Rarely screened and unavailable on DVD (much like The Terrorizer), Day has been described as a Taiwanese Rebel Without a Cause (1955) — a true descriptor if one discounts the very specific mise-en-scène of early ’60s Taipei and the film’s dense connective web of cultural, political, and familial allusions, obligations, and affiliations, one that’s as many-tendrilled and enmeshing as that of your average multigenerational Chinese family.

Ensnared by filial duty as well as street gang politics and placed in the sweepingly de-centered core of Day is its proto–James Dean, Xiao Si’r, portrayed by the baby-faced Chang Chen (the nomadic hottie in Yang’s Taiwanese cohort Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000]). The director opens Day with Si’r’s Shanghainese intellectual father arguing with teachers about his son’s grades, and then widens his aperture imperceptibly, ingeniously onto the arboreal byways, flat-lit classrooms, vertigo-inducing corridors, and shadowy hideouts of Si’r’s world. It’s a realm in which the children of the Kuomintang live an uneasy existence much like their elders: residing in Japanese houses less than 20 years after their parents fought the Imperial army on the mainland, these Taiwanese teens listen to American doo-wop and early rock and form street gangs that parallel the battling political factions of the People’s Republic. Tanks rumble by as brownouts underline the sense of rupture.

Resembling in its panorama and chapterlike parts such historical epics as Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), Day unfurls like a scroll, peppered by the shouts and orders of parents, peddlers, and teachers, and peopled with pungent characters like the Tolstoy-reading, romantically heroic hood Honey and his guilelessly calcuutf8g survivor of a sweetheart Ming — as well as Si’r’s bookish father, who’s torn from his self-absorption when taken into custody by the secret police. All bear the marks of severance from one’s past, papers, homeland, and other familiar signposts of identity. The quiet, troubled, and piercing irony that Yang applies to the scene of Si’r’s father’s arrest, one in which his children repeatedly play Presley’s "Are You Lonesome Tonight" in order to translate the lyric "Does your memory stray to a brighter summer day" to sing at some future sock hop haunted by the specter of Honey’s death — shades of the Jesus and Mary Chain — makes this teeming opus worth turning over again and again in your own memory. It’s like a battle hymn to a faltering family, or a love song to the death of innocence.


The Terrorizer

March 14, 9 p.m.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two

March 20, 7 p.m.

Pacific Film Archive

A Brighter Summer Day

March 19, 7 p.m.

Clay Theater

>> Complete Asian American Film Fest coverage