When you think of a contemporary new-wave cinema movement often hampered and harassed by a repressive government and hostile establishment media, the country that first comes to mind is likely to be Iran. But don't forget Taiwan, suggests the Taiwanese new-wave filmmaker Edward Yang. In his view, the movement that he helped to launch some two decades ago, and that has gained a prominent place in world art cinema primarily through his own work and that of Hou Hsiao-hsien, has never found favor in its home country. The international triumph of his latest film, Yi Yi (A One and a Two), for which he won the best director prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, seems unlikely to change his reception or reputation at home, Yang believes. Yet at least, as the first of his seven feature films to receive commercial U.S. distribution, it may finally bring him recognition in North America as one of the significant filmmakers of our time.
Born in 1947 in Shanghai, China, Yang emigrated with his family to Taiwan in 1949 after the communist victory on the mainland. He studied engineering in Taiwan and at the University of Florida, and briefly enrolled in the University of Southern California film school before taking up a job in the computer industry in Seattle, where his parents had settled. In 1981, after (as he notes below) Taiwan suffered the shock of the U.S. opening diplomatic relations with mainland China, he returned to Taiwan to write a screenplay for a friend's film, and remained to write and direct his own works. These include That Day, On the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985), The Terrorizer (1986), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), A Confucian Confusion (1994), and Mahjong (1996), before Yi Yi.
Yang's central concern is with present-day life in Taipei, Taiwan's capital city, with its complex collision and blending of Chinese tradition and global modernity aptly encapsulated in his term Confucian Confusion. His focus is on family life, on how different generations (and genders) negotiate social transformation and the new values of commercial life and popular culture. His narratives develop slowly and turn on small incidents or odd coincidences, eruptions of desire and willful testing of social codes. Yi Yi, the most evocative and fully realized exploration of his themes, is a nearly three-hour film with the density and texture of a realist novel of manners. It concerns the Jian family, headed by NJ (Wu Nienjen), a middle-aged businessman in a computer firm facing a crisis over finding new products to market. Events fly out of control from the start at his brother-in-law's wedding when the groom's old girlfriend shows up and disrupts the celebration. Soon NJ's elderly mother-in-law suffers a stroke, his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) experiences a spiritual crisis that leads her to a religious retreat, and his teen-age daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) get involved in private emotional struggles of their own. NJ confronts his own life paths not taken when the girl who loved him in his youth, and whom he rejected, reappears as a sophisticated woman married to an American business executive. Comic and poignant, Yi Yi delicately delineates the moral and emotional climate of contemporary society for which Taipei serves as a microcosm. Edward Yang spoke with Cineaste about his career, his new film, and his contentious relations with Taiwanese media, during the 2000 New York Film Festival.--Robert Sklar
Cineaste: What led to the emergence of the Taiwanese New Wave?
Edward Yang: By the time I had a chance to make films, Taiwan from a political viewpoint was at the lowest point in its history. In 1979 Jimmy Carter recognized mainland China as the official government of China. That was a big blow to Taiwan's self-confidence and self-esteem. But for my generation, that low point was actually a high point. It encouraged us to have confidence, to rely on ourselves. I chose to go back, because there was a chance for me to participate in a friend's filmmaking project. That was fateful. It was part of the sudden maturing of a generation. We knew we were going to take over. There was a big burst of creative energy because all the old formalities had gone to pieces and now it was a brand-new world. Nothing really stands, so let's do something. That's the best chance for creativity. Taiwan New Wave cinema started from that awakening.
Cineaste: What was mainstream filmmaking like in Taiwan before the New Wave, and how have things changed in Taiwanese film culture since you began your career?
Yang: The Taiwan film business was very much like China's. It was for propaganda. They spent millions and millions to make a film, say, about a certain national hero. It praises a guy who sacrificed his life to save a bridge during the war and protect the nation. It was very Stalinistic. The film business had a very gloomy image. To this day film people still treat their own profession as propaganda. They love to manipulate opinion, especially now that it's a so-called democratic society.
Cineaste: Do you feel that you're creating a portrait of Taiwan in your films?
Yang: I think so. Part of it is economic. It's cheaper to set a story in the present time, because I don't have to build sets. I can use everything that's right there, and work efficiently with much less cost. If we're sensitive enough, we can put the subject matter into the reality around us and basically tell a story even more effectively. Instead of saying that I have to be a social critic, if you're conscientious enough in that situation, that will be the end result. Instead of putting a label on myself, if I tell an interesting story, that's the best way to express it.
Cineaste: Do you have a viewpoint that you could put in words, or do you leave it to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions?
Yang: I wouldn't intentionally put in my viewpoint. I want to bring up something as naturally, as neutrally as possible, and let viewers have their own viewpoint. That's my intention in all of my work--otherwise it would be propaganda. If I feel something, I would much rather portray it from a neutral position, the universality of being human.
Cineaste: In other words, you're not saying that what occurs in your films are specifically Taiwanese cultural phenomena, it's more like something that could occur in any country?
Yang: I think some of the topics are quite universal, and others quite local. Cultural influences and practical reality sometimes have enough force to make people in a story respond the same way. In that case, I would be very conscious about portraying something interesting about Taiwanese society, because the response is a little different from that in other societies--so that when viewers from other societies see the film, they will notice the difference. I would rather treat my stories that way, rather than using costumes and grandma (tang ruyun) and ting-ting (kelly lee) share a quiet moment in yi yi (a one and a two), edward yang's portrait of contemporary taiwanese family life. other traditional elements to impress someone other than our own people with exotic feelings about it.
Cineaste: Yi Yi has received the most enthusiastic response in Europe and North America of any of your films. Why do you think that's so?
Yang: I was pleasantly surprised by so much positive response to this film. Perhaps it's just that I've been in this business a long time. From the beginning I just focused on trying to build a credible reputation for the quality of my work. I sweated through many years, and it's time to graduate. There's a lot of luck in getting recognized at such a high level. Maybe it's my turn this year. It'll be some other filmmaker's turn next year. It's like a commencement and I got the diploma. It's like I've been told, OK, you're ready to work at the next level. I'm glad that it happened later in my life than earlier.
Cineaste: Somebody wrote that you got the best director prize at Cannes, but maybe you should have won for best screenplay. Was your screenplay completely written out? Did you do any improvising or change anything with the actors?
Yang: Everything. To me writing and directing go hand in hand. You can't separate the two responsibilities. Writing, from the very beginning of the idea, is like the blinking of a light bulb in your head, and until completion the whole production process is writing, one way or the other. Shooting is writing, editing is writing, preproduction is writing, and auditioning for the cast is also writing. Improvisation is also part of writing. I think I'm fortunate that I started my career not in the tradition of the industry. We had to improvise a lot, to find alternative ways to accomplish something. It makes me feel lucky that I trained as an engineer. Engineering is a practical thing. I call it basically problem-solving, and nothing else. When I started directing, this training gave me psychological readiness. You had to make a thousand decisions a day. Especially in an industry in such poor condition, you had to improvise to make something work. Even to this day, that's part of the process.
Cineaste: There's a density of character in Yi Yi that many critics have commented on. They've compared the film to series television, or to a sprawling novel. How did you create such character detail?
Yang: Something that I noticed early in my career is that the initial point of penetration is very important. It defines a lot of things. Sometimes we need to be a little bit contemplative, because once you enter the story from a certain angle you basically decide the outcome of it. Sometimes I just walk around a subject, without committing to it, until I find the right angle. In the case of Yi Yi, from the beginning I knew the structure of the story provided a great angle. I could save a lot of space and time in telling a very big story just by looking at a family, because a family represents all age groups. But I knew I was too young to treat the subject, so I let it sit until I was more aware of things going on. It just settled in subconsciously, so by the time I was ready to write the script, the first draft was finished in ten days. I enjoy telling stories, but I didn't realize this until I became a filmmaker.
Cineaste: The film has several powerful portraits of willful women.
Yang: You can find that in all of my work. Women are not as weak as we thought, especially in Chinese society. Women in Asian society are the yings, men are the yangs. Women are in the shadows, but actually they run a lot of things from the shadows. I have a lot of respect for women. Not that I particularly focus a lot of attention on women. If we look at a family as a horizontal structure, I knew that I had to add vertical elements. So Sherry, NJ's old girl friend, is basically an element of the past, and the young boy Yang-Yang is an element of the future. That creates an axis of verticals. That makes the sphere more complete. That was a conceptual thing from the very beginning.
Cineaste: Do you have a specific visual or editing style that you feel communicates your viewpoint on a story?
Yang: Not really. My philosophy is that everything is decided by the subject matter. If the subject matter needs to be tense, restless, upsetting, I would use shorter cuts and tighter camera angles. That's why the initial penetrating point is the important thing. If you detach camera angles and camera positions from the substance, things don't make sense at all. Every event has one best position to observe from. Sometimes you have so many things happening at one time in a scene that your attention is diverted in many ways, so sometimes you want to be in a neutral position, and it's better to look from a distance. You also have to be aware of the risk of using close-ups. You might lose important information if you restrict the viewer's attention to a very focused spot. We better have enough reason not to need to see the body language, the way the character interacts with the space he's in.
Cineaste: How did you make the change from engineering to film?
Yang: Actually I was quite passive. Parents always want you to be in technology, so that when you graduate you can get a good-paying job, and they feel secure. If you're interested in the humanities, they think you're going to starve. On college-entrance exams I did too well. I qualified for the higher echelon in education, which led me into engineering, and I felt terrible. I wanted to retake the exam and do worse. Reality takes you in another direction. After I got my bachelor's degree I entered graduate school in the U.S. and studied electrical engineering again. I went into the newest and hottest program, the Center for Infomatics Research at the University of Florida, which I think was the first information technology program. I figured I would get a degree while seeing the world. There were so many exciting things happening--rock and roll, the Vietnam war, hippies, smoking dope, free love, protests on campus. It was a very interesting time. After I got my masters degree, my advisor said, 'OK, now on to your Ph.D.' I said I was going into films, and he said, 'You're crazy.' So I went to USC, and then I realized I didn't have talent at all. I didn't have what it takes to get into the film business, so I dropped out. I recognized that I better not dream this dream because I didn't have what it takes. I found a job in Seattle at a research laboratory that contracted to do classified defense projects in microcomputers. I was among the first generation of designers and applicators for microcomputers and microprocessors. By the time I turned thirty I was pretty well established, with a team of seven or eight guys working on some very interesting projects. Later on I made the association that designing is like writing, and I realized that this background helped me a lot. After a couple of years as an engineer, of course, the routine bored me. One night, I was driving after work in downtown Seattle, and I saw a billboard outside a movie theater with the words, German New Wave, and the title, Aguirre: The Wrath of God [a 1972 West German film directed by Werner Herzog--R.S.]. It made me curious, so I went in. I was fortunate. I came out a different person. That two hours just blew me away. It restored my sense of competence that I could be a filmmaker. This is what I thought a film should be. Film school would never teach you to make those kind of shots. That was one of the crucial moments of my life. I had turned thirty, I thought I was getting old, and three more years passed before I got the chance to work on a film project with a friend who asked me to write a script for him. I went back to Taipei, and also visited Hong Kong for the first time, and the film was shot in Japan. I got an offer to write and direct a made-for-TV movie in Taiwan, so I didn't go back to Seattle. After ten years my mom was still calling and asking, 'When are you coming back to your regular job?'
Cineaste: What has been the response to Yi Yi in Taiwan?
Yang: It hasn't played there. I don't have any say in distribution. Distribution in Taiwan of locally made films just doesn't exist any more. The negative image that the media has given to Taiwanese films really has settled in on the general public. I'm not a hero. I'm pictured as the bad guy who killed Taiwanese cinema because my work would never sell, because I'm only interested in film-festival awards. Filmmakers don't have time to deal with these things. I'd rather spend time thinking about my scripts. I'd rather spend time with the people who finance my films, or telling them how to market them. Distributors in Taiwan no longer put their money into production because they lost so much making the wrong products. Distribution has lost all credibility about doing its own job. These business people belong to the past. They don't understand the new market or the new films.
Cineaste: Do your films make money?
Yang: I think just about all of them have, if not in Taiwan. When you add everything up, none of them is in the red. This has worked in line with my early philosophy, which is to distribute mainly overseas. To make a film in Taiwan the costs are rather low, and we can find markets. The arithmetic is actually very simple, although in Taiwan the media misinform the public about this. I hope that the positive international response to Yi Yi will somehow reach the Taiwanese people. The media can't continue to paint a dark picture of something so bright. They're in the way. It's like censorship. To me, it's worse than the actual censorship of the past. I hope internationally there's pressure on them to be more liberal--especially the government. Film has created a very positive and progressive image of Taiwan, of which I feel proud. I hope that the government can straighten out a few things so that filmmakers in the future will feel encouraged, instead of discouraged. I'm a strong-willed person, so it doesn't really affect me, but many others couldn't handle these damaging blows. Sometimes it tears everybody apart. It creates mistrust of others, instead of what it was like in the early Eighties, when we banded together to form a force. The media know they can take us apart individually. In the past people were thrown in jail. That was stupid, because it wasn't necessary. All you have to do is paint a dark picture and nobody will hear what you're saying. This is what they're practicing right now. It's much worse. It calls for much more courage to stand up to them now.