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Desire/Expectations: The Films of Edward Yang

Shiang-chyi Chen and Shu-Chun Ni in Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion (1994)

Between his masterworks A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Yi Yi (2000), Edward Yang cowrote and directed two fast-moving yet melancholic ensemble pieces that explicitly addressed his alarm at how quickly and profoundly rapid globalization was affecting the people of Taiwan, most acutely in the booming capital, Taipei. New restorations of A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), both rarely screened in the U.S., have prompted Film at Lincoln Center’s Florence Almozini and Tyler Wilson to put together Desire/Expectations: The Films of Edward Yang, a retrospective opening on Friday and running through January 9.

“The situation in all of Asia is terrible now,” Yang told Shelly Kraicer and Lisa Roosen-Runge in 1997. “It’s not an economic problem, it’s not a financial problem, it’s not a political problem, it’s a serious cultural problem. A Confucian Confusion is the first and so far only attempt at self-reflection: at examining what is wrong with trying to head into the twenty-first century with a fourth century BC ideology.”

In the sheen and glean of offices overlooking Taipei’s skyline, Molly (Shu-Chun Ni) expresses little interest in either running her ad agency or marrying Akeem (Bosen Wang), the scion of high-powered corporate players. But she does enjoy bossing around her assistant, Qiqi (Shiang-chyi Chen), an old friend engaged to another old friend, Ming (Wei-Ming Wang). Molly’s sister, the host of a conservative talk show, is separated from her husband, who used to write bestselling romance novels but is now obsessed with imagining what Confucius would make of what’s become of the world.

An ego-tripping playwright and a conniving lawyer married to an aspiring actress further complicate an entangled web of seduction and backstabbing. Surveying Yang’s oeuvre in the Notebook in 2011, Jesse Cataldo called A Confucian Confusion “a farce that progresses glacially over a remarkably dense two hours, which repeatedly threatens ridiculousness but never succumbs, grounded by the same insistent mournfulness that has inflected all of Yang’s films.”

Mahjong is set in a grungier Taipei, a city populated by “crooks or dopes,” as the petty gangster Redfish puts it. You’re either one or the other, and the gang of four Redfish leads is determined to swindle every other wheeler-dealer, foreign or domestic, who passes through. Mahjong is Yang’s “angriest and most provocative film, and also probably the one that’s elicited the most anger from viewers,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1997. “Alternating between the abrasive and the poignant, the sad and the terrifying, Mahjong offers a demonic tour of modern life that culminates in one of the most shocking, dramatically powerful murders I’ve ever witnessed in a film.”

Chronologically, the FLC series begins in 1982 with The Winter of 1905, written by Yang but directed by Yu Wei-cheng and starring Tsui Hark as the Buddhist monk, artist, and teacher Hong Yi. Yu and Yang had studied film together at USC. When Yang, born in Shanghai and raised in Taipei, grew disillusioned with cinema, he worked for a few years as a computer engineer in Seattle, where a screening of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) rekindled his cinephilia. His screenplay for The Winter of 1905 caught the eye of Sylvia Chang, who asked him to write an episode of a miniseries she was producing.

Later in 1982, Yang wrote and directed a short story, Desire, also known as Expectations, for the omnibus film In Our Time, an early landmark of what came to be known as the Taiwanese New Wave. Set in the 1960s, Desire/Expectations focuses on a young woman’s sexual awakening, and for Sean Gilman, writing for the Notebook in 2020, Yang’s “patience with the narrative and attention to the smallest details of setting and performance stand out from the other, more conventional films.”

That Day, on the Beach (1983), the first feature for both Yang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, stars Sylvia Chang and Terry Hu as old friends reuniting after thirteen years apart. “There’s a mystery,” noted David Bordwell in 2016, “but, as in L’avventura, the disappearance sends out ripples that reveal social pressures and psychological states. There are flashbacks, both fragmentary and extended; there are flashbacks within flashbacks; there are multiple narrators, replays of key events, and floating voice-overs—all in the service of probing the ways in which patriarchal authority stunts young people’s lives.”

Hou Hsiao-hsien, that other titan of the Taiwanese New Wave, and pop singer Tsai Chin, Yang’s first wife, play a couple drifting apart in Taipei Story (1985). “For all the alienation and cultural rootlessness found in Yang’s vision of modernity, this depiction of a society shackled to age-old habits of filial piety signals the director’s unwillingness to romanticize a Confucian past littered with its own skeletons,” wrote Andrew Chan in 2017. “Though Yang was already approaching his forties when he made Taipei Story, the film registers as the muffled howl of an angry young man resigned neither to the reassurances of tradition nor to the enticements of modernity—a howl that would become full-throated with his next film, the ferociously postmodern Terrorizers (1986).”

Writing for the Village Voice in 2016, Michael Atkinson called Terrorizers “a pre–Claire Denis–Michael Haneke–style urban weave of unease, duplicity, lostness, and poisoned serendipity. Yang himself called it a ‘puzzle,’ but don’t search for a tidy endgame; the story strands are glimpsed in inconclusive bites, and confounding connections arise suggesting another film altogether, or at least other off-screen stories, that we’re not privy to. In every case, these maddened Taipei residents are battling the sense of being caged—perhaps by the city itself.”

A story centered on rival teen gangs in the Taipei of his youth had been simmering in the back of Yang’s mind for years when he finally sat down with a team of cowriters to map out the sprawling network of around a hundred characters that became A Brighter Summer Day. “For non-Taiwanese viewers,” wrote Godfrey Cheshire in 2016, “the world Yang conjures can have the paradoxical effect of seeming foreign yet also oddly familiar. Surely the anxieties and confusions of youth give it universal emotional touchstones. Yet, especially for viewers who recall the Eisenhower/Kennedy era, there’s also an almost dreamlike uncanniness to the ways Yang summons a time when surly young rebels were wild for American rock and roll, Japanese comic books, and John Wayne movies. Perhaps more vividly than any other movie, A Brighter Summer Day immortalizes the moment when teen pop culture went global, forging an effervescent but lasting bridge between East and West.”

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, the sublime Yi Yi wanders contemporary Taipei, moving from one member of the Jian family to another and back again. In 2011, Kent Jones wrote that “Yang has set his city symphonies in a variety of emotional keys—the doleful lament of Taipei Story, the gridlike coolness of Terrorizers, the comic hysteria of A Confucian Confusion, the carefully modulated fury of Mahjong. In Yi Yi, he brings all of these moods together, never allowing any one of them to take precedence over another. Which is to say that this is a grand choral work, with a panoptic majesty and an emotional amplitude worthy of George Eliot or late Beethoven, whose ‘Song of Joy’ is quoted with the greatest delicacy in Kaili Peng’s piano score.”

Peng, Yang’s second wife, was by his side when he passed away in 2007 at the age of fifty-nine. He’d been battling colon cancer for several years, all the while working on several projects that were never completed. FLC will screen remnants of one of them, The Wind, an animated martial-arts adventure inspired by Yang’s friend Jackie Chan. From January 19 through 28, the American Cinematheque will present six of Yang’s features at the Aero and Egyptian Theatres in Los Angeles.

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