Like many, my only exposure to the work of the late Edward Yang was thorough his final film, Yi Yi (2000). None of his other films are easily available on DVD. I was hoping the Taiwanese film festival would include Yang's 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, often cited as his masterpiece and difficult to see in its complete version. The festival was missing this work, but did include Yang's previous two films, Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986). Both were playing here last night, unfortunately the only screening of each. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see the first of these.
Reading about Taipei Story before the screening, I was surprised to see the number of critics who compared Yang with Michelangelo Antonioni. The influence never crossed my mind in regards to Yi Yi, and I'm not sure it would have come immediately to mind with Taipei Story either. I would not argue against the modern existential characteristics of the work, but watching the film I thought of Timothy Corrigan's book A Cinema Without Walls (1991) which deals with the phenomenon of postmodernity and its influence on movie culture. What we generally conceive of as modernity and postmodernity collide in Taipei Story and give the film a real fascination and beauty. Unfortunately I do not have a DVD copy to provide stills, but many of Yang's most memorable images come from this collision. The scene that stays in my mind take place on a rooftop in front of a large neon Fuji sign, the two lovers dwarfed and in shadows while classical music plays on the soundtrack. The more Taiwanese cinema I watch, the more its influence on Wong Kar-Wai becomes apparent.
A curiosity about Taipei Story is that it stars Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who would become the major director of the Taiwanese New Wave. After viewing each director over the past week, there are actually few similarities between them. Yang is a much more conventional director. There are some uses of the long take, but there are plenty of sequences with more cutting and close-ups. Yang is interested in the spaces and objects of modernity (and/or postmodernity) and trying to relate the importance of these to the characters and their world. The West also plays a major symbolic role here, not surprising given Yang's background living in the U.S. The dream of California, represented both commercially by the lead character's brother and culturally through VCR tapes of American baseball, lingers over these people's lives as an illusion that oddly lacks any real utopianism. It is simply a retreat and escape.
In this way, Yang is certainly closer to European art cinema directors of the 60s and 70s, who in fact influenced Yang to become a director. After dropping out of USC film school feeling he lacked any talent, Yang re-engaged with the medium after watching art cinema classics, beginning with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). And much more than Antonioni, it is the New German Cinema influence I see as prevalent in Taipei Story. The inspiration is not so much Herzog as Wim Wenders in Yang's attraction-repulsion to America and the later films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Yang's enclosed compositions combined with elements of classicism. Hou's performance here reminded me of Fassbinder's roles in many of his bleak urban dramas.
In a short review of Yi Yi written a few years ago, I commented: "Throughout the film, Yang uses a repeated visual motif to express his multi-character narrative in which each strand comments upon the other: the overlaying of reflecting images of windows that create dense, layered compositions. Early in the film, one character states: 'Is there anything real left?' These compositions seem to ask the same question." Taipei Story is a very different film, but it has some of these same characteristics. And although the overlapping image shot is not a visual motif here, the film does end with one of these compositions. Although the sense of connection is not as elaborate (some could say schematic) as it is in Yi Yi, Taipei Story offers up a similar tale of past, present and future colliding in modern Taiwan. The much more pronounced cynicism around the family in this early work also provides a clue to the more subtle pessimism of Yi Yi.
A couple of links to writing on Yang:
Rosenbaum's career overview
Senses of Cinema profile