The final resting place of Edward Yang is in the celebrated Pierce Bros. cemetery in Westwood, Calif.; his closest neighbor is Ruby Keeler, the ’30s film star who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. (“You’re going out a nobody, but you’re coming back a star… .”)
It might seem an odd placement, because Yang was the polar opposite of a Hollywood celebrity: an Asian filmmaker, the quintessential iconoclast and film rebel. On the other hand, like a Keeler character, he was blessed by good timing.
Yang began making films when the world around him was ripe for his arrival. As part of the Taiwanese New Wave of the early ’80s, he helped reimagine his country’s cinema, and his country in the process, at a time when both were desperately in need of it. He eschewed the romantic mush audiences were used to in favor of naturalism, biting social commentary and a neorealist’s eye. Born in Shanghai in 1947 and relocated by his parents to Taiwan in 1949 (as part of the Nationalist Chinese evacuation), Yang, who died in June of colon cancer, was a member of his newly fashioned country’s first generation, as well as one of a handful of similarly gifted artists — Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wu Nianzhen among them — whose art would be a reaction to, and byproduct of, a national ethos that was antithetical to art.
These are the rough facts, the hardware of Yang’s filmmaking, although they have little to do with the elevating greatness of his films. In getting at what made Yang great, though, one has to consider the helping hand he got from Taiwanese history and from Taipei, his muse/city, a location from which Yang cannot be separated any easier than Michelangelo from Florence or Vermeer from Delft.
Yang’s first feature, the epic “That Day, on the Beach,” was followed by two startlingly original films — “Taipei Story” and “The Terrorizer,” which not only reinvented Taiwanese cinema but established Yang as a world-class director. But the elements of what Yang always saw as his nation’s “Confucian Confusion” (the title of his 1994 black comedy) would coalesce in “A Brighter Summer Day,” the 237-minute, 1991 tragedy that many consider his masterpiece (its only rival being 2000’s “Yi yi” ). Working off a scandalous, real-life murder case, Yang fashioned an operatic teenage melodrama that lanced the boil of Taiwan’s unbridgeable generation gap — the parents of this Chinese diaspora nursing the impossible fantasy of reinvading the mainland, and in the meantime crushing the dream-life of their children.
Yang would go on to examine further, and in ruthless detail, the society in which he grew up, one that would become drunk on the economic boom of the ’90s and in which a natural artist like Yang (manga and music were his first loves) could be diverted from the frivolous (creative expression) and toward the serious (electrical engineering). In the process, Yang nearly became just one more soul-victim of a government-endorsed, near-Spartan ethic that derides the artistic and exalts the martial. Instead, he moved to Seattle, worked in computers, saw Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and decided to make his own movies.
That Yang had been educated as an engineer accounts for much of the precision with which he constructed his narratives — “Yi yi,” that novel-in-film-form, is a Swiss watch of a movie; its people are relay switches through which the emotional information of life courses, meeting the occasional burnout, misfire or moment of light and ecstasy. It may be the humanity rather than the mechanism of his films that remain Yang’s legacy, but the way the films work, in tandem with what they say, supports the message that while people might constantly thwart each other’s happiness, they indeed do possess goodness. Yang’s art makes us feel better about ourselves, simply because we are humans, and other humans are capable of creating — and even reacting to — the kind of films made by Edward Yang.
Goodness as an art
Although never preachy, Yang was a moralist; his films are an affirmation of what we know intrinsically to be good or bad but which occasionally we need to have proved. Ambition, self-aggrandizement, untruths and cruelty aren’t just unpleasant concepts, they foil the very things that make life worth living. Goodness is an art and, Yang tells us, there are many kinds of artists. They might include Yang Yang, the kid genius of “Yi yi,” or Qiqi, the good girl of “A Confucian Confusion,” whose talent is making people believe her, and as a result is disbelieved. Such cynicism was Yang’s bugaboo, and he made the feeling infectious.
When we were on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival, critic Dave Kehr and I met Yang at a party at the 2000 Cannes Film festival; we’d just seen “Yi yi” and we both spontaneously said something to Edward along the lines of “You’re in.” We had no right to say it — there were three other people on the committee who weren’t in the room. But we knew those three people well enough to know they had the good taste to agree with us. And that the film was so good there would never be an argument. Yang could do that, make one believe in other people, bring them together under a common cause, even if, in this case, the cause happened to be his own film.