LONDON — During the heyday of the Taiwan New Wave during the 1980s and early 1990s, there was never any other filmmaker working on the island like Edward Yang. And there certainly isn’t now.
Yang leaves a huge gap not just in East Asian cinema but also in international cinema as a whole. No single director springs to mind who combined his laser-like analysis of contempo Asian society with a deep, basically optimistic humanism that was just reaching its maturity when he died at the age of 59. Though all his movies were set in Taiwan, he was that industry’s one and only international filmmaker.
I knew Yang on and off for 20 years. I first met him in 1980, when he had yet to shoot a foot of film: His family home in Taipei was being used as a set for an episode of the groundbreaking TV series “11 Women,” produced by Sylvia Chang, and we had a long chat as we watched a mutual friend directing. (Yang also contributed one of the best segs in the se ries, so long that it was broadcast over two evenings.)
I saw him for the last time at Cannes in 2000 when “Yi yi” won for direction: We reminisced over dinner about the “old days” and at the end of th festival had a final quiet drink during which he was clearly moved by the award.
Behind his ever-present grin, with his mouth stretched all the way up to his eyes, he was an intensely private person, concealing a lot of hurt during his sometimes bumpy career, a deep dislike of government (especially Taiwanese) bureaucrats and a belief that he never received quite the broad acclaim he deserved. In the rewriting during the past decade of the true story of the Taiwan New Wave, he was often given less than his just deserts.
Yang himself was very different from the image that many of his films give. Though an avid film buff, it was only one of many interests. He was equally absorbed by graphic art (especially manga and animation), classical music (both his wives were musicians), technical knickknacks (he was a computer programmer in Seattle before he made movies in Taiwan), and, especially during the 1990s, theater. (His “A Confucian Confusion” sums up this era.)
I saw him regularly in Taiwan during the 1980s and also on the festival circuit. Sometimes he was agitated, sometimes self-absorbed, sometimes relaxed, but he was always courteous, even at official gatherings, which he hated. When his first — and in many ways, most personal –feature, “That Day, on the Beach” was snubbed at the 1983 Golden Horse Awards in favor of a conventional crowdpleaser, I vividly remember Yang was first on his feet to applaud a colleague.
But so varied were his interests that he had a problem focusing on any one project and drove many producers nuts. During a career of some 20 years or so, he left behind only seven features, one seg of a portmanteau feature, and two vid-shot works.
Thanks to his fluent English, he moved in Western society with an ease that no other Taiwanese filmmaker possessed. During the 1980s, as the New Wavers established themselves, he was damned by Taiwan’s old guard as a Westerner in Chinese skin.
They actually had a point: Yang brought a truly international eye to the island’s society — especially the conflict between Confucianism and modernism, art and business — that was unique to his generation, at a time when most of his colleagues drew on a limited basket of local memories.