Twice What You Get from Daily Life: The (Meta-)Cinema of Edward Yang
Edward Yang was one of the greatest directors of the late 20th century — a filmmaker who, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, spearheaded the first movement of the Taiwanese New Wave and helped put his country on the map as one of the world’s foremost national cinemas. Perpetually focused on the intersection of small histories and capital-H History, a masterful explorer of the intricacies of interhuman relationships and the act of communication, he set the majority of his films against the backdrop of Taipei, a city where he could navigate the convergence of traditional values and the effects of aggressive globalization. Edward Yang also had a constant interest in questioning representations and mediums. His protagonists delve into artistic endeavors, and they are sometimes seen through screens or are engaging with them. Yang uses these moments to construct a larger, often critical, discourse about cultural products and cinema itself, approaching the mediality of moving and static images with explicitly meta-cinematic insertions, while also using techniques such as subjective angles and Brechtian devices to underline his point of view.
Yang’s explorations of meta-cinematic elements begin in his second film, the now-cult feature Taipei Story (1985) (a nod to Yasujirō Ozu’s timeless Tokyo Story). The film explores the relationship between Ah-Chin, a woman pursuing an ambitious career to escape her modest upbringing, and Lung, her hapless boyfriend who is trapped by his bad habits and failures. Hou Hsiao-Hsien –– Yang’s close friend and fellow practitioner of slow-burning, meditative cinema — plays Lung. It’s hard to distance yourself from this knowledge. Hou’s presence acts as an invitation to consider the character’s thoughts and actions from a two-fold perspective. As Lung and Chin’s visions clash, oftentimes silently (he is stuck in the past, while she is fixated on the future), we often see him engrossed by the television screen, watching reruns of old baseball matches. He’s a failed player, a thought that haunts him, so the screen acts as a support for his sublimated, impossible ideals. As his increasingly impulsive and erratic behavior leads him to a violent confrontation, Lung winds up stabbed, bleeding to death on a trash-strewn sidewalk. He glances at an abandoned TV set, which turns on by itself, playing a vintage newsreel of Taiwan’s first big win at the Little League World Series. By breaking the film’s naturalistic tone with a magical realist insertion, Yang does more than to simply signal Lung’s impending death, he also distills the character’s worldview, one that is based on unfulfilled fantasies and moments of past glories, moments that are mummified by film, easily becoming objects of fixation.
In his third feature, The Terrorizers (1986), Yang begins analyzing different artistic mediums and their connections to real life. In fact, two of the film’s main characters are artists: a young photographer obsessed with a girl that he snaps pictures of near a crime scene (a reference to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up); and Zhou, a depressed novelist suffering from writer’s block who is in a strained marriage. As their lives slowly intertwine by a series of small coincidences, Zhou recovers her inspiration and pens a novel based on the events seen throughout the film. However, given The Terrorizers’ construction –– which follows fragments of characters’ lives as they slowly converge –– the spectator knows much more about the underlying reasons for the chain of events than she does. As she gives a televised interview describing the contents of her latest book, the scene feels uncanny, even eerie, a sensation amplified by the fact that Yang decides to show the interview by filming a close-up of a TV set, then jumping back to a series of identical screens.
The most poignant meta-cinematic moment in The Terrorizers arrives halfway through the film, when Zhou fights with her husband Li. Yang frames her with her face turned towards the camera, her eyes downcast for most of the scene, as she talks about feeling hurt and isolated. Suddenly, employing a Brechtian device, she raises her eyes, gazes straight into the camera, and starts to address the spectator. She chastises her husband for not understanding her emotions and bemoans that their relationship has gone sour and her life is little more than a routine, while also implicitly directing the very sentiments towards the viewers, who are judgmental voyeurs used to being served a type of cinema that is easy to decode and enjoy. “You don’t understand. That’s the biggest difference between you and me,” she concludes, underlining that a series of scant, scattered scenes are insufficient to truly understand a character –– or anyone at all for that matter.
The same type of shot, but with a somewhat different aim, is replicated in A Brighter Summer Day. Yang’s 1991 masterpiece is a hagiographic study of expat communities in 1960s Taiwan, exploring the intricate social phenomena caused by the flight of Chinese refugees from the mainland’s recently instituted communist regime. Here, in a sequence that begins in media res, lead female character Ming gazes straight into the lens during a camera test for a film shoot. Rather than using the shot as a means to directly address the spectator, Yang applies it to convey the subjective view of the film’s casting director. As she asks Ming questions about herself (“Are you thinking about something sad?” “Can you tell me about it?”), one can’t help but associate the director’s bodiless voice with his or her own, implicitly questioning their expectations for the character onscreen –– one that is mischievous and hard to predict in spite of her apparent implacability. While Ming silently cries in front of the camera, the viewer can only speculate what her true feelings are – as is the case for Zhou in The Terrorizers.
The entire subplot concerning the film studio, which stops short of being a film-within-a-film, serves as a means to reinforce the realistic qualities of A Brighter Summer Day. By contrasting the film’s garish and contrived plot –– which is being shot in a studio close to the protagonists’ school, who frequently break in –– with his own effort, he criticizes a specific type of big budget, escapist cultural product that is symptomatic of societies traversing historical traumas. (In fact, most of what the film’s younger characters do in their spare time counts as escapist: attending concerts, shooting pool, and engaging in illegal activities and gangs.) Whilst also paying a subtle homage to pre-New Wave cinema in Taiwan, Yang simultaneously creates a counterpoint to his own narrative and aesthetic approach. His is one that’s shot on location, with natural lighting, using no extravagant costumes or makeup, instead relying on naturalistic performances and dialogues recorded in long, single shots — all of which convey a sharp, even scathing critique of mainstream cinematic practices, an approach that also adds a far more serious tone to the narrative than the script itself. During the course of the film, protagonist Xiao Si’r gradually becomes disillusioned: he is expelled; his relationship with Ming falls apart; and his family is in the midst of a slow unravel, as his father breaks down after a stint in jail. While dejected, he visits the studio and bumps into the director, who asks about Ming, who’d vanished from the set after her screen test in spite of her “natural” performance. Si’r, having gotten to know more about the girl’s true character, reacts impulsively. “You can’t even tell real from fake. How can you make movies? Do you even know what the hell you’re shooting?,” he says. With these lines, Yang distills not only Xiao Si’r’s profound disenchantment with Ming, but also his own view on mainstream movies.
In Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000), Yang’s last and most accessible work, the director traces a few months in the life of a middle-class Taiwanese family. The film returns to some elements first witnessed in Yang’s early explorations of mediality. The main protagonist, N.J., is played by director Nien-Jen Wu (whose character espouses a melancholic and humanistic worldview that is not unlike Lung’s; Wu had also previously played small roles in Yang’s previous films), prompting the same slight distancing effect. The visual leitmotiv of a screen-within-a-screen also appears, as characters are seen through surveillance camera footage, even though the application is innocuous rather than menacing. For instance, one such playful scene shows Yang-Yang, the family’s youngest son, bolting away from a store after committing a petty theft. His puckish character, whose name hints that he’s the director’s avatar, is constantly seen pondering the world around him. During one of these ruminations, specifically about vision, which is fundamental to spectatorship and cinema (“Daddy, I can’t see what you see, and you can’t see what I see. […] I can only see what is in front of me, but not what’s behind. So I can only know half of the truth?”), leads Yang-Yang to snap an entire film’s worth of photos capturing the backs of people’s heads. The photos are naive, even funny in their absurdity, but his mission is noble, not unlike that of a cineaste: to help people see what they cannot.
However, the most poignant meta-cinematic element lies in one of the film’s myriad subplots, in a scene that subtly foreshadows one of the characters’ fates and makes a thought-provoking statement on the effects of media consumption. (After all, the film arrives after a decade in which the influence of extreme violence, as observed in movies, television, and video games, on teenagers was a hotly debated topic.) When teen daughter Ting-Ting has her first date with Pangzi at the movie theater, the two discuss the relationship between life and film. The boy believes that movies are enjoyable because they’re lifelike, enabling viewers to experience situations and emotions that they’ve never actually lived through, pinpointing the act of murder as an example. “We never killed anyone, but we all know what it’s like to kill.” he says. By contrast, Ting-Ting seems to champion life over art (“Well then, who needs movies? Stay at home and live your own life!”) to Pangzi’s appraisal of cinema’s mimetic qualities, subtly indicating not only the immense differences between the two, whose relationship falters soon thereafter, but also, in a more generous sense, points to the Platonic philosophical paradigm between mimesis and diegesis. The conversation is, in effect, a prophecy: towards the end of the film, we discover that Pangzi has indeed experienced the act of killing, as he has murdered a teacher who had been having a tryst with his ex-girlfriend. In typical Yang fashion, he frames the scene as a news item on a television set that’s being watched by Ting-Ting. Beyond critiquing the media’s sensationalist approach, what is striking is that the murder’s reconstruction is represented with video game characters, implying that Pangzi’s brutal gesture was not an ingenuous act, but rather one that was inspired by the media.
Although his career was tragically cut short by a fatal illness, Yang managed to create a compact, articulate, and complex body of work in the span of seven feature-length films. He explored cinema’s role in the life of spectators — both the fictional ones within his films and the actual ones who are watching them. Oftentimes, his discourse is critical: cinema (or other kinds of videographic and photographic objects) are seen as a means for escapism and soft manipulation. They are illusory items onto which people project their fears and alter-egos; alternatively, it’s also a medium and, by extension, a phenomenon that can never be fully understood. What keeps his discourse from being exclusively critical is the character of Yang-Yang: in his naïve yet profound thoughts and actions, he traces a slight contour of what cinema could achieve if used sincerely.