In 1997 — three years before Yi Yi would introduce Edward Yang to most of those who know him at all, and ten years before Yang succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 59 — Barbara Scharres staged what was at the time a complete retrospective of his work in Chicago, prompting a pretty magnificent piece from Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Reader. He begins by imagining a "new kind of cinema" that would, as opposed to the predominant mode of proposing "various escapes from modern life," instead "lead us back into the modern world and teach us something about it." And in 1997, he was "discovering clues about this new kind of cinema in two very different places, chiefly through the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Iran and Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang in Taiwan."
Needless to say, several intriguing paragraphs follow in which he compares and contrasts, pairs up and delineates these four figures until, eventually: "The most novelistic of the four directors, Yang is also in some ways the most challenging: his complex plots typically incorporate several crisscrossing narrative strands; he dares us to keep track of them all. Of the four he's also the one most fully engaged with the problems of contemporary urban life, and the one most preoccupied with the relationship between his characters and both architecture and objects." A Brighter Summer Day (1991), he argues, "belongs in the company of key works of our era: Kira Muratova's The Asthenic Syndrome; Béla Tarr's Sátántangó; Kiarostami's Close-Up, Life and Nothing More, and Taste of Cherry; and Hou's trilogy — City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, and Good Men, Good Women…. Indeed, Yang's film surpasses these other masterpieces in its novelistic qualities, richly realizing a physical and social world as dense with family, community, and other personal ties as any John Ford film, and furnished with more sheer physical presence (including characters, settings, and objects) than any other fiction film I know of from the 90s. It took Yang four years to prepare — much of the time apparently spent training his superb cast, which is mainly composed of nonprofessionals. In fact, this film is so uncommonly good that Yang's other very impressive works pale beside it."
Again, Yi Yi had not yet been made. A deeper analysis of A Brighter Summer Day follows, leading into several solid paragraphs on other films in the oeuvre. All in all, a highly recommended read. For the moment, though, here's Richard Brody in the current issue of the New Yorker on A Brighter Summer Day: "In the nearly four-hour span of this vast Proustian memory piece, from 1991, Edward Yang meticulously delineates the anguish of young people in Taipei in 1959 and the gang violence that pervades their lives…. Yang's methods bring a melancholy tenderness to his recollections; he films long takes of action intricately staged in real time with a rueful, contemplative reserve, and, as in Proust, the physical objects to which he pays close attention — an American tape recorder, a radio from China, a Japanese sword, a flashlight stolen from the movie studio — both signify and effect the endurance of the past."
"In all of his films, Yang examined the world through the cloudy prism of modern Taipei," wrote Godfrey Cheshire in the Voice when we lost Yang in 2007. Let's have Cinespect's Ryan Wells interject here for a moment: "Usually when the talk moves to Yang there’s a very personal, melancholy longing for what could have been, all the while cherishing even more what we’ve been given. It’s very classic Yang, that pit you get in your stomach."
Back to Cheshire: "Born in 1947 in southeastern China, he was brought to Taiwan by parents fleeing the Communist revolution." Yang studied in the States and "worked briefly as a researcher in Seattle before an art-house encounter with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God sent him back to Taiwan determined to be a filmmaker." His "Urban Trilogy" — That Day, on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986) — "drew comparisons to Antonioni and Godard for their intricately austere and stylistically adroit dissections of contemporary anomie. After the disappointing reception of the five-years-in-the-making A Brighter Summer Day, Yang shifted course. His next two films, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), tried to give a comic spin to the director’s characteristic concern with the flux and disarray of life in Taipei. Though they suggested to some critics that Yang’s gift was not for comedy, the films led to the brilliant synthesis of Yi Yi (A One and a Two)… Though surely not intended as a summing-up, Yi Yi managed to combine the critical acuity of the Urban Trilogy and the affecting expansiveness of A Brighter Summer Day with the philosophical whimsy of his previous two films. A vision of family (and city) life as a mesh of precarious privacies, the three-hour bittersweet comedy won Yang a Best Director nod at Cannes as well as the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics. It also earned Yang something he'd long deserved: a hearing with American filmgoers."
"The fact that Yang is, to American audiences, synonymous with Yi Yi is startling because Yang's films are all about process and gestation," suggests Simon Abrams in Slant. "Like the Taipei of his films, Yang's filmography is a body of work of and about progress, a body of themes and ideas that all come together in his swan song. In films like That Day, on the Beach and Taipei Story, Yang's protagonists try to determine whether it's better to tentatively withdraw from society or to enjoy both the perils and the ecstasies of fully engaging with the world outside their front door…. In later films, his characters are more capable of taking the highs of life with the lows. And that's a good part of why Yi Yi is one of Yang's most accomplished works; equal parts celebration and primal scream to modern domestic life in Taipei, it's a mosaic of angst and love. It's the apex of Yang's oeuvre and a self-sufficient microcosm unto itself."
Today Alt Screen's posted a "heartily laudatory blogroll," an awesome (in the truest sense of the word) roundup on Yi Yi. And the occasion for all this is, of course, A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang, a complete retrospective which begins tomorrow at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and runs through Sunday. The US theatrical premiere of the (relatively) newly restored A Brighter Summer Day happens on Friday and the film will be screening through December 1.
Update, 11/22: Two of the film in the series, "made a decade apart," notes Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail, "showcase Yang's brilliance at mapping out criss-crossing lines of fate in complex multi-strand narratives. The Terrorizers (1986) keeps us guessing for some time how the lives of its characters — a young Eurasian prostitute, the photographer who's obsessed with her, a troubled husband and wife, and others — will eventually intersect. The film provides the patient viewer with some answers, but its conclusion raises even larger questions as to the reality of the story we've been watching. Postmodernist flourishes aside, The Terrorizers cuts deepest in its depiction of frustrated longings and stifled ambitions; it's a bummed-out ballad of bad vibes that should speak to the misanthropic side of many a city-dweller. Mahjong (1996) sketches a (mostly) comic portrait of Taipei as a end-of-the-millennium global boom town, setting an international cast of characters — a naive young Frenchwoman, a pompous British businessman, a cheerfully cynical American madame — in motion alongside an assortment of native Taiwanese strivers, hustlers, and hoodlums. Mahjong is a wild ride of a movie marked by extreme tonal shifts: at times it feels like a brittle social comedy, a slapstick farce, an ultraviolent gangster flick, and a dirty-realist art film were tossed in a blender and the resulting mixture was hurled at the screen by an angry monkey. Some of the mood-and-tempo changes don't completely come off, and the performances are uneven, but the film's energy and inventiveness keep it highly watchable throughout."
Updates, 11/23: "Dragon-chasing cinephiles will now find A Brighter Summer Day a very different beast from your Jeanne Dielmans, your Satantangos, your Out 1s," writes the L's Mark Asch. "[A] decade before everybody started comparing quality serial television to 19th-century social novels, Yang's film — which namechecks War and Peace — was a teeming human ecosystem of love and death, pop and politics, densely but accessibly plotted and subplotted, with on-the-nose dialogue, Chekhovian props and running gags, and tidy arcs for concentric rings of supporting characters."
"The Urban Trilogy films aren't accessible in the manner of Yi Yi or Brighter Summer Day but make explicit the depths of despair that are implicit in those large-canvas works," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "On the other end of the dramatic spectrum is comedy A Confucian Confusion (1994), a roundelay of affairs set over two wild days and nights that deals with the strange bedfellows, quite literally, of creativity and commerce — often difficult to differentiate. Yang's simultaneous spooling out of multiple narrative threads, as always, poses a constant challenge to the viewer, who must work to catch up. And this series is the rare case when playing catch-up is vital."
Update, 11/26: In the New York Times, AO Scott notes that the title, A Brighter Summer Day, comes from an Elvis tune and that the film itself, "at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early 60s, like East of Eden or Rebel Without a Cause. Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, A Brighter Summer Day also belongs to a tradition that stretches from I Vitelloni to Mean Streets and beyond. But this film, completed in 1991 and only now receiving a proper American release, is much more than the sum of its references and associations. Colored by Mr Yang's memories of the world he grew up in, it is one of those movies that, by slow accretion of detail and bold dramatic vision, disclose the structure and feeling of an entire world."
Christopher Bell at the Playlist: "If you love cinema, you'll love this movie."
Update, 12/1: For Bomb, Colin Beckett notes that "even as Yang expanded his frame, the social criticism remained secondary, though not incidental, to his novelistic attention to character development, and his humanist concern for the fate of individuals. His characters, even the loathsome caricatures who populate the 90s comedies, are too complex to serve as vehicles for broad cultural themes, and too self-aware not to notice the role life has assigned them—most of the social commentary in these films comes directly from their lips rather than some contrivance of Yang's."
Update, 12/8: Jesse Cataldo here in the Notebook: "Within such a diverse and continually developing canon, it's not unusual that two of Yang's least heralded films are also two of his most important, lying at a significant stylistic juncture: after he'd begun porting his newfound novelistic expansiveness onto a modern day setting, before he'd perfected it. These, both featured at Lincoln Center's recent career-spanning retrospective, are A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), borderline farces that are by turns funny, bittersweet and downright stomach-turning. In short, they're classic Yang, although with a slightly diminished sense of character and scope."