EDWARD YANG’S TAIPEI STORIES At Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (March 7) to March 16. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
Never pass up an opportunity to bring a great movie home.
Eight years ago, when the laserdisc format was coughing up blood for the very last time, I found myself picking through a bargain bin of Hong Kong discs at a store in the basement of the Chinatown Centre.
There, shoved behind a dozen or so John Woo titles, was a battered copy of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (March 14, 7:30 pm). The full-length version, with English subtitles. For $15.
Figuring that a DVD couldn’t be too long in coming – after all, it seemed that every Chinese-language film ever produced was being spat out on the new format – I left it there.
That decision still haunts me today. A Brighter Summer Day never made it to DVD, and that laserdisc remains the only proper release of Yang’s massive, novelistic study of familial and social turmoil in 1961 Taipei. Fortunately, it screens – just once – as part of Cinematheque Ontario’s massive Yang retrospective.
In a perfect world, it would be playing for a week at the Bloor (actually, in a perfect world it would be playing for a week at one of Toronto’s late, great theatres like the University, Eglinton or Uptown 1), but in just one of the many tragic realities of Yang’s career, one screening is all we get.
Edward Yang died of colon cancer last June, aged 59, leaving behind a body of deceptively modest work that stands with the world’s finest cinema. Don’t take this as post-mortem puffery; if Yang were turning up for Cinematheque’s retrospective in the flesh, I’d be writing the same words.
Yang’s films – well, the ones I’ve been able to see, but we’ll get to that – are expansive masterworks of psychology and compassion, studying the sociology of Taiwanese culture through a latticework of characters and incidents so gracefully constructed that we never see the wires.
Nothing big ever happens in Yang’s movies: people meet, have conversations, listen to some music and go home. Maybe they go to bed together or treat each other less than respectfully in their business dealings, as in Mahjong (March 16, 4:45 pm), or endure the cultural scars of having emigrated from mainland China during the Communist Revolution, as in A Brighter Summer Day.
Or maybe they’re just caught at a personal and professional crossroads, like the unlikely salaryman hero of Yi Yi (March 15, 7:30 pm), which must now stand as Yang’s final work.
Yet somehow, something weighty and profound emerges – a kind of judgment on the way the characters are living, and on the polyglot society around them that encourages their impulsive desires and actions.
If it sounds like I’m describing a subtitled version of the everybody-hurts manipulations of a Crash or a Babel or a Things We Lost In That Fire We Had On Reservation Road, well, please don’t go there. Those are movies made with sledgehammers. Yang is more of a glass-blower.
Due to various licensing and distribution issues, only one of his films has ever received a proper North American theatrical release: Yi Yi meandered through our art houses after winning the best-director prize at Cannes in 2000, and received a glorious DVD release as part of the Criterion Collection.
The rest of Yang’s films are so hard to find that I’ve only seen two others: A Brighter Summer Day (most recently in a hideous VHS screening copy dubbed from Cinematheque's own archived laserdisc) and Mahjong, which was screened for the Toronto press last week in a print that has seen better days.
I’m not complaining, mind you. Until someone discovers a trove of pristine interpositives in some Taipei vault, and then finds a way to untangle the snakepit of their distribution rights, scratchy 35mm prints are still a fine way to experience Yang’s movies. With an audience. In the dark.