Nationality: Chinese. Born: Yang Dechang, Shanghai, China, 1947; moved to Taiwan with family, 1949. Education: Graduated with a degree in engineering, 1969; earned master's degree in computer science, University of Florida, 1972. Career: Returned to Taiwan, 1981; worked in television before making his directorial debut, 1982.
Films as Director:
"Expectations" episode in the omnibus film In Our Time
That Day, on the Beach
Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian (A Brighter SummerDay)
A Confucian Confusion (+ sc, production designer)
Yi yi (A One and a Two) (+ sc)
By YANG: articles—
Interview with Jonathan Romney, in Time Out (London), 3 March 1993.
"Edward Yang à Paris," an interview with Serge Grünberg, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1996.
On YANG: books—
Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, London, 1991.
Jameson, Fredric, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space inthe World System, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992.
Browne, Nick, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau, editors, New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, Boston, 1994.
On YANG: articles—
Rayns, Tony, "The Position of Women in New Chinese Cinema," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 1987.
Nornes, Markus, "The Terrorizer," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1989.
Chuah, T., in Illusions (Wellington), no. 19, Winter 1992.
Rayns, Tony, "Lonesome Tonight," in Sight and Sound (London), March 1993.
Rayns, Tony, "Yang's Comedy: On the Set of a Confucian Confusion," in Sight and Sound (London), July 1994.
Horguelin, Thierry, "Taïwan années 90," in 24 Images (Montreal), September-October 1994.
Guérin, Marie-Anne, "Berlin Express," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1996.
Chiao, P.H., "'Mahjong': Urban Travails," in Cinemaya (New Delhi), Summer 1996.
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Along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wan Jen, Edward Yang stands as one of the most recognized of Taiwan's "New Wave" directors. Part of a torrent of talent that flooded international screens with innovative Chinese-language features from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China in the 1980s, Yang's work is New Wave in a number of different interpretations of that term. Yang's films resemble European New Wave directors' work because of his commitment to formal experimentation within fiction narratives. This is coupled with an interest in the use of film as social commentary and cultural critique. The films Yang directed in the 1980s, in particular, have been favorably compared to the work of Antonio Antonioni because of their "high modernist" exploration of the barren, urban landscape, and the alienation of the individual in contemporary, bourgeois society, as well as their focus on psychologically complex, female protagonists to investigate these themes dramatically.
Also, as was the case with the French New Wave, the Taiwanese New Wave (and, more recently, contemporary Chinese-language cinema generally) benefitted from very fruitful collaborations among a coterie of talented directors, scriptwriters, producers, and actors/actresses. Perhaps the most striking collaboration in Yang's oeuvre, for example, occurred when the noted director Hou Hsiao-hsien took the lead role in Taipei Story. Hou's portrayal of Lon, a failed businessman, obsessive baseball fan, and perpetual fiance of the film's female protagonist, embodies many of the uncertainties and contradictions of contemporary Taiwanese society: a nostalgia for a past shaped by Japan and America, an ambivalence toward traditional gender and family roles, and an alienation from the political and economic vicissitudes of urban Taipei. Certainly, film director Hou's reputation for films about rural youth and changes in traditional Chinese culture and society in the postwar, post-Japanese era brings a resonance to the character of Lon that other actors could not hope to convey.
Like members of the European New Wave of the 1960s, Yang has a love/hate relationship with American culture, using it for complex intertextual textures (for example, the use of Elvis Presley as a musical and visual presence in A Brighter Summer Day), and aesthetically working against Hollywood through the use of "dead," "negative" space in which "nothing happens" in empty urban landscapes and aggressively long takes. However, despite these similarities, Yang is also a decidedly Taiwanese director, with a commitment to documenting the peculiarities of contemporary Taiwan and situating its society within a global economy and culture. In this respect, Yang's cinema operates as a bridge between Taiwan and the rest of the world. Because of the director's commitment to formal experimentation and interest in finding a niche within a global film culture of festivals and art cinemas, many of his films have done poorly domestically, although they have been lauded internationally. Ironically, as he brings a critical eye to contemporary Taiwan for audiences abroad, that sharp vision has often gone unappreciated at home. Yang's attempt to visualize alienation succeeds all too well and tends to alienate the uninitiated viewer, while winning the praise of intellectuals educated to appreciate a modernist sensibility. Although Yang now has his own production company, several of his earlier, more challenging films were financed by the government-operated Central Motion Picture Corporation, allowing for a freedom of experimentation without the pressing demands of the domestic marketplace.
In most of Yang's oeuvre, women embody the key tensions of modern Taiwan. That Day, on the Beach uses an elaborate narrative structure composed of a frustrated, inconclusive murder investigation and a series of flashbacks to paint a portrait of Lin Chia-li, a woman who escaped the pressures of a traditional, patriarchal household only to find herself again trapped by an empty marriage. Although a corpse that may or may not be her husband prompts her interior investigation, the real substance of the film goes beyond a simple critique of Chinese patriarchy. It looks at contemporary Taiwan, its own uncertain national identity, precarious place in the global economy, and divided political culture through the life of a woman who is both the victim and beneficiary of these monumental social changes.
Taipei Story continues in the same vein. Chin, an unemployed mid-level administrator who has moved into her own apartment against the wishes of her traditional father, must decide whether to marry her fiance, Lon, or move on with her upwardly mobile, female boss, leaving the "old" Taiwan of Lon and her family behind. The final scene, in which Chin is framed against the massive picture window of her boss's new headquarters in an eerily empty office building—a signifier of modernity—as Lon lies bleeding to death in another part of the city, again dramatically portrays the emergence of a new Taiwan in the character of a woman freed by the death of her more traditional lover.
This same theme has an even more bloody enactment in The Terrorizer. Chou Yufen, a writer married to a doctor, Li Li-chung, is cured of her writer's block by the anonymous phone calls of a young Eurasian girl, bored during her recovery from a wound sustained during a youth gang street battle, who tells her that her husband is having an affair. Armed with this lie, Chou Yufen writes a story about her plight and leaves her husband. Passed over at the hospital and misunderstood by his estranged wife, Li Li-chung commits suicide (perhaps after killing his new boss and his wife's lover). In New Wave fashion, the details of his death (or even the fact of his death) remain indeterminate. However, as in Yang's earlier films, as the central, male character fades away, the female characters emerge. However, Lin Chia-li, Chin, Chou Yufen, and even the marginal "White Chick," as the Eurasian girl is called, represent a new world tainted by a vacuous modernity, stripped of affect, and literally deadening.
In his work on The Terrorizer, Fredric Jameson sees the film as combining a modernist and postmodernist sensibility to explore the interpenetration of traditional, national, multinational, and transnational spaces, and thus the hybrid identity that marks contemporary Taipei. It is debatable whether this film marks a significant break with Yang's earlier, "modernist" work or not. However, it is useful to look at Yang's more recent A Brighter Summer Day and A Confucian Confusion as moving in a different direction from the director's work in the 1980s. Keeping Yang's characteristically complex and convoluted narrative structure, the former explores youth gangs in postwar Taiwan and the later looks at contemporary "yuppies" in modern Taipei. Unlike his earlier efforts, A Confucian Confusion is a comedy (albeit a very dark one). Despite the move away from the serious, woman-centered dramas of the 1980s, however, Yang maintains his commitment to examining carefully Taiwan's experience of modernity, taking Taipei from the margins of the globe and putting it within an international framework that makes local issues poignant for a world audience.