I first saw Yi Yi, the final work of the great Taiwanese director Edward Yang, at Cannes nearly ten years ago. The movie marked his commercial breakthrough in the United States; it won the best film prize of the National Society of Film Critics’ and collected about a million in box office receipts.
Yang won the best director prize at Cannes, and I wrote about him, his background and the movie for Filmmaker Magazine in the fall 2000 edition. It was called “Broken China” (unfortunately the article was never made available in digital form). We all wondered what his next great work would be. We never found out. Edward Yang died, four years ago, from complications of cancer.
The tragedy today is not just the great films he was never allowed to make but the fact that his work remains pretty much wholly out of view here. His masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day, the four-hour version is perhaps the greatest work of the Nineteen-nineties; it turns up at art-house revivals and special programs from time to time. Except for some copies in the VCI format, it is impossible to locate on video.
Even Yi Yi, as Slate columnist Fred Kaplan explained here, has a very problematic background during the first and disastrous video iteration that came to the market. Fortunately Criterion corrected that monstrosity about four years ago. Now they’ve gone that one step further with a Blu-ray upgrade.
To commemorate the new Criterion, I’ve pieced together two different interviews I did with Yang, one at Cannes, one done later, electronically as I recall, where he talks about the film, its origins and how he became a kind of reluctant filmmaker.
My friend Jonathan Rosenbaum was among the first and finest American critics to champion Edward Yang’s work. Check out this fantastic overview that was originally published in the Chicago Reader and has been repurposed in at least one of his collections. (The critic John Anderson also wrote a very fine critical analysis of Yang as part of the University of Illinois contemporary directors’ series edited by James Naremore.)
How is the film connected to your own experiences of growing up?
Edward Yang: The film is really about things that we all share in common; the teenager who committed [a horrible act], reminded me that when I was about twenty, I suddenly realized I was lucky in that nothing terrible happened to me when I was young.
What was your own life like growing up?
Edward Yang: It really was an adventure. For instance, I was almost killed swimming. I didn’t know my friend was around. I thought I knew how to swim. I was swimming, I thought I could touch the ground. I sank, water got into my mouth and I realized I couldn’t come up. At the moment I was saying, ‘Is this the way life is going to end?’ But then suddenly my friend pushed me up from the bottom. He saved my life. We ran into a lot of troubles when were young: with school, with authorities. This was all an adventure. When we were kids, we all had the same questions.
You get the sense there’s a very personal quality to the story.
Edward Yang: Because this happened to a friend of mine, about fifteen years ago, I thought this was a great way to start the movie. A friend’s father was hit by a car when he was taking a walk. After a couple of months, the doctors gave up on him, they told the family to take him back home. When I visited the family, the doctor told me to treat him like a normal person, talk to him, treat him as a normal person, perhaps he’ll gain consciousness. You didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. When the father was alive you could tell him all kinds of lies. For anybody to have to face something like that, you have to be very honest with yourself.
The script developed fairly organically out of that.
Edward Yang: I was overwhelmed by the experience. I took down a lot of notes. It immediately occurred to me this is the best way to look at a family. Every age is represented by a member. We could look at life. By the time I told the story to a producer, they liked the story, and I started writing the script very fast. Two weeks later, I had a first draft. Everything went very instinctive.
How did you develop the story visually. I was especially interested in the mirror imagery, the use of reflections, windows and glass.
Edward Yang: That’s decided very early by the structure of the story. As far as style goes, when we have preproduction meetings, I told the cinematographer this film would be unlike the previous films. The previous two films were about young people. The subject matter was about restlessness, changes in society, changes in life, an anxiousness; so the camera was moving all the time. It was very unstable.This one is observation, from a very objective point of view. It’s very peaceful and calm. Because of that decision and that concept of [going] with the story, it developed itself visually.
Especially with the reflections, when we’re doing a moving camera, that most difficult thing is to get rid of the things that reflect, the mirrors, the glasses. You don’t know when the camera is going to show up. When you shoot in calm, stable camera position, you don’t worry about those things. You leave windows, mirrors, in the frame. We started to work on the reflections. Also the penetration and the layers of images. For this story, I needed the time. After the story is written, the structure was down to all muscle and bone.
The film feels like something else at times, theater, television or even a novel, the way you play with duration and time.
Edward Yang: The length [just under three hours] is intentionally this long. It reflects the entire structure. I think the reason we think the film is too long is all relative. In Taiwan, everybody thinks the movie should be an hour and a half because the theater wants to have the next screening [available].
When I was working in Hong Kong, they thought that everything over eighty minutes was too long.
When I first came to America, I used to wonder why there were only two screenings a night. I realized they had thirty minute breaks. I would just sit and watch movies. Then I realized, the society is so different. Nobody comes to movies during the daytime. They all work. In America, everybody goes to the movies after work, so of course, the times are staggered. Most of the films there are longer. The length of the film, it’s like playing basketball. You can’t say the guy’s too short. There are a bunch of small guards. You can’t be too tall.
How did your background outside of filmmaking impact not just this film but all of your movies?
Edward Yang: One of the things that made this decisive was the profession of the father. I was reading abut present day situation, in Taiwan, but it was one shared by many other societies. How are we going to look into the future? Technology is changing everybody’s life in all departments. Fifteen years ago, the father’s profession was an architect. I thought they deal with give and take, space, and something abstract, something conceptual, something real and practice, and it’s a very interesting profession. It’s the merging of natural science and humanity.
When I started writing the story, I thought the profession should be high technology. It’s a question every technology guy has asked himself; it also belongs to the human field. How are you going to face the future? That’s a very philosophical question. My background is technology. When you’re a kid, you realize everybody has to do a job, an engineer, an architect. Now everybody has to know the other part more so than ever before.
The form and structure allows for a kind of class roundelay, the way we perceive the different way the characters are connected and how they interact. That makes it more like a novel. We are engrossed because we are continuously trying to understand the personal connections.
Edward Yang: All the characters, each represents an age instead of a sex. Everyone of us, any of age or our life, always the happy side, that which makes us smile and also the no so happy side. This story basically does not incline to privilege either way. I think it’s very balanced. With the mother, the reason she’s so upset and uncertain about herself, I ran into these people quite frequently, especially those that appear to very clam and without excessive behavior, especially in Chinese society.
There’s something missing, and that vacuum has to be filled. She’s capable of believing only good things happen to people. For me, I have that same experience. Just like the boy has all of these questions. When you get older, you realize there’s nothing about fairness. Those experiences are the kind of things I want to share with my viewers.
The young boy, named interestingly enough Yang Yang and played by the actor named Jonathan Chang, is remarkable, so intuitive and yet relaxed and wholly believable. How did you find him?
Edward Yang: In Taiwan, we simply don’t have a very good acting pool. Very early, I started to bring new people to act in the roles. The little boy was no different, neither was the young girl. I held a workshop, I have ten or fifteen kids, and they have their exercises. I build their trust and confidence and then pick the right one. The boy’s a little different. He was only seven years old and the role was written for a ten year old. I was holding this workshop for ten year olds and I wasn’t too happy with the outcome. My casting director said, You want to look at a seven-year-old. He was so eager. I knew I took a chance, but I was happy we made the right choice. He’s so smart. After a week, he’s like, ‘The camera should go there.’
You studied art and computers, but how did that lead to your becoming a filmmaker?
Edward Yang: I went to film school for one semester but then I dropped out because I was so discouraged. I didn’t think I could ever become a filmmaker because I did everything wrong. I went back to my old professional as an engineer. This is a funny thing. I was driving around in Seattle. I saw this cinema with a weird name, and I thought, ‘What is this?’ Aguirre, Wrath of God. I went in and I came out a different guy. The film didn’t do anything that was required by film school.
In 1995, at the San Francisco Film festival, I ran into Bertrand Tavernier and Tom Luddy and I was telling them about this experience. Luddy tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Just look around.’ I turned around and [Werner] Herzog was right behind me. Basically he changed my life. I’m forever indebted to him.
How has filmmaking changed since your early days of working in independent Taiwan cinema.
Edward Yang: When I started making films, in those days we had to post-synch everything. It was much cheaper. We had to deal with the image and sound separately. We developed something unconventional. Some of the things we can’t have. I was doing A Brighter Summer Day, and I needed a procession of tanks from the army. They gave me five and I said, ‘That’s pretty short.’ So we had to keep thinking of ways to make it look like thirty or forty tanks going by.
One of the ways is altering the sound, just to create its existence. Very early, sound was such a tool, and pretty soon we realized that sound was just as important as images. You work the two together. You can see the image, without sound, that means something; sometimes you hear the sound without seeing the image, and that means something. You work the tension.
What do you want to do next?
Edward Yang: One of the projects I really want to do is about Shanghai. It’s where I was born. My connection is not only that I was there, it’s one of the most interesting and dramatic cities in the region. Taipei is not exactly Taiwan. New York is not exactly America. I watched CNN this morning. It’s about Ethiopia and Sierra Leona because of the elections. People are killing each other trying to influence the elections and I thought, My god, how could democracy become such a tool used to manipulate instead of a civilization. All of a sudden the world is divided into two halves, one is watching CNN business, the other is watching these things. The gap is widening.
If you go to Shanghai or Beijing, or the big cities, it is so different from the countryside, the majority of people aren’t educated. The majority of people don’t even know where Taiwan is. I go to Tokyo more often than I go outside of Taipei. If we keep diving our logic of thinking that every country is a democracy, the goal we’re looking for, we’re going to have more [examples of] Sierra Leone.