Goings On

The Wide, Wide Range of Sylvia Chang

On Film / The Daily — May 24, 2018

In a career spanning more than four decades, Taiwanese actress, filmmaker, playwright, and singer Sylvia Chang has directed fifteen films and appeared in over ninety, working with the likes of King Hu, Edward Yang, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Johnnie To, Stanley Kwan, Ang Lee, Jia Zhangke, and most recently, with Bi Gan, on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a critical favorite at the just-wrapped Cannes Film Festival. It’s too soon, of course, for Journey to be included in the series of fifteen films starring or directed by Chang currently running through Sunday at New York’s Metrograph, but the sheer variety of the program is remarkable, emphasizing the range of her many talents. As Sean Gilman points out in the Notebook, Chang has “played waifish ingenues and hard-nosed career women, exasperated mothers, bohemian artists, bourgeois matrons and ass-kicking cops. As a director, she’s brought special focus to women’s changing roles in domestic and family melodramas, creating sophisticated works that straddle the line between mainstream and art house.”

Tomorrow sees a screening of Chang’s 2015 feature Murmur of the Hearts in which an estranged brother and sister find their way back to each other as they share memories of the fairy tales their mother told them. Writing for Cinema Scope, Shelly Kraicer finds that the “gorgeous cinematography” by Ming-Kai Leung “and lush soundscape create a palpably beautiful environment of nostalgia, longing, and mystery where past, present, fantasy and reality mingle to impressive effect.”

A highlight on Saturday will be King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (1979), a ghostly mystery adapted from a Song Dynasty folk tale. King “knew exactly what he wanted and he would not compromise,” says Chang, recalling the year-long shoot in South Korea in Daniel Eagan’s interview with her for Film Comment. “But he was not very difficult on the set because he allowed us to do the acting, he allowed us to give.”


That Day, on the Beach (1983), also screening on Saturday, is an early landmark film in what would become known as the Taiwanese New Wave and the first feature for both director Edward Yang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Thirteen years of Taiwanese history are seen through the memories of two women in Taipei. “Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers used to hang out and exchange their ideals and aspirations,” Chang tells Martin Tsai, who’s put together a “Sylvia Chang Primer” for the New York Times. “To me,” adds Chang, “that truly was our golden age.”

On Sunday, New Yorkers can see Chang in an early breakthrough role in Li Han-hsiang’s The Dream of the Red Chamber (1977), an operatic adaptation of Cao Xueqin’s classic 1791 novel; a recent performance in Jia Zhangke’s decades-leaping triptych, Mountains May Depart (2015); and Chang’s own 20 30 40 (2004), centering on three women navigating the challenges of their respective ages.

In an appreciation in the Village Voice, Fariha Róisín writes that, while “Hollywood knows little about how to write Asian women, Sylvia Chang has been shaping a declarative, cliché-free career, putting complex Asian women characters up on the screen.”

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