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Where Taipei ends and imagination begins: Harvard Film Archive presents an Edward Yang retrospective

Seven features and one short offer the chance to watch the work of a great and enduring filmmaker

Jonathan Chang in "Yi Yi."Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Archive

Jean-Luc Godard famously described the characters in his “Masculin féminin” as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” The characters in Edward Yang’s films are the grandchildren of Chiang Kai-shek and Coca-Cola.

They live in an ‘80s and ‘90s Taiwan that’s rapidly democratizing and already globalized. The title of Yang’s second feature, “Taipei Story” (1985), could describe all of his films. “It took a city named Taipei just 20 years to become one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” announces a title card at the beginning of “A Confucian Confusion” (1994). The ratio of chagrin to satisfaction in that statement is uncertain. Uncertainty, emotional and otherwise, is something Yang was extremely good at conveying.


Actors Kelly Lee, left, and Jonathan Chang, top, with director Edward Yang at Cannes in 2000. GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

The seven features and one short that make up Chronicles of Changing Times. The Cinema of Edward Yang at the Harvard Film Archive offer a fascinating window on a society radically recasting itself. More important, they afford an opportunity to watch the work of a great and enduring filmmaker. Distinctive, inventive, unemphatic, at once detached and deeply felt, Yang’s films manage to be both timeless and absolutely of a particular time and place.

Yang (1947-2007) took a roundabout route to filmmaking. Born in Shanghai, he grew up in Taipei and as a child liked to make his own comic books. After getting an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, he spent a decade in the United States. He got a master’s at the University of Florida, then briefly attended film school at the University of Southern California. He applied to architecture school at Harvard. Accepted, he chose not to go, instead working in high tech in Seattle.

An-ni Shih in "In Our Time."Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Archive

With that unusual resumé in hand, Yang returned to Taiwan in 1980. A friend from USC asked him to help write a script, which was produced as “The Winter of 1905″ (1981). The star of a Taiwanese miniseries had him write and direct an episode. This led to Yang’s directing debut on the big screen with the short “Expectations,” part of an omnibus film, “In Our Time” (1982), a touchstone of what would become known as Taiwan New Cinema.


Chi-tsan Wang, left, and Chang Chen in "A Brighter Summer Day."Janus Films

The retrospective begins March 29 at 7 p.m., with Yang’s final, and best-known, film, “Yi Yi” (2000), which won him best director at Cannes. It runs through May 5. Yang’s widow, the pianist and composer Kaili Peng, will introduce “Yi Yi” and, on March 30, at 6 p.m., his magnum opus, “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), set in the early ‘60s.

In length, “Yi Yi,” at just under three hours, and “Day,” at just under four, are atypical of Yang’s work. Otherwise they exhibit so many of the qualities found in all the films. At their frequent best, Yang’s movies just seem to unfold. Sometime that unfolding can take on an origami aspect. In his first feature, “That Day, on the Beach” (1983), what initially seems to be the story of a concert pianist returning to Taiwan after a dozen years in Europe shifts to being the story of her ex-lover’s sister, that story told with flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Yang makes the complicatedness seem simple. It’s an instance of his narrative sure-handedness, as is “Yi Yi.” Its multi-generational view of a family under stress is so casually presented it’s easy to miss the intricacy of the plotting and how the various plot elements come together without seeming in any way forced. Again, unfolding: storytelling as flow reflecting life as flow.


Sylvia Chang in "That Day on the Beach."Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Archive

Situations and relations interest Yang more than incident and plot. There’s a sense of lives being lived rather than story enacted. The police shoot-out that begins “The Terrorizers” (1986) matters less as action, though it’s stirringly filmed, than as introduction to three very different couples who are in proximity to the event. One way that Yang conveys so well a multi-layered sense of social fabric — Taipei as not just a place on a map but one where actual people live — is through intertwined narratives, like that of the couples. His skill at creating emotional tapestries recalls the Robert Altman of “Nashville” and “Short Cuts,” or the Paul Thomas Anderson of “Magnolia.” There’s a key difference with Altman, though: Yang treats his characters humanely.

Danny Deng and Shu-Chun Ni in "A Confucian Confusion."Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute

Large-scale narratives would presumably involve lots of cutting. Yang prefers long takes, another way he emphasizes situation over event. Put two characters in the front seat of a car, as in the comedies “A Confucian Confusion” or “Mahjong” (1996), and Yang knows right where to put his camera: on the hood, looking through the windshield, and never cutting away from the faces of driver and passenger — or the view of Taipei passing alongside.

Yang’s also fond of long shots. The preference is as much moral as visual: The distance is a mark of respect toward the people on screen. It also relates to his use of space. You’re as aware of where his characters are — courtyards, corridors, karaoke bars, kitchens, classrooms — as who they are, and those various wheres have an uncanny spatial richness.


The most striking example of this is the prominence of doorways throughout Yang’s work. Not doors, out of which Ernst Lubitsch got such comedic mileage, but doorways: the way they’re at once about opening up space and joining otherwise divided spaces. Doorways serve to advance narrative, enrich and enlarge spatial dimensions, and, most important, provide a metaphor for choice, possibility, and connection. They’re where Yang is most at home, and his films most characteristically Yangian.

An Wang in "The Terrorizers."Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Archive/Janus Films

There’s a temptation when a director’s work is unfamiliar to many viewers to describe it in terms of other films and filmmakers. Beside Altman and Anderson, there’s how his sympathy for and interest in young people is like Steven Spielberg’s, only more so. “Yi Yi” is distant kin to “Fanny and Alexander.” “A Confucian Confusion” recalls a less sexualized version of the romantic roundelay in “Shampoo.” “Summer Day,” with its clashing teenage gangs, chimes with “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story.”

Apt though each of those comparisons may be, and the list could go on, the temptation should be ignored. What makes such comparisons beside the point is that Yang’s work is its own, literally incomparable realm, found where Taipei ends and imagination begins. Unmarked on any map, its geography is delineated on a screen.



Screens at the Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, 617-496-3211, harvardfilmarchive.org

Yi Yi, March 29, May 3

A Brighter Summer Day, March 30, May 4

A Confucian Confusion, March 31

Mahjong, April 7, April 19

The Terrorizers, April 8, April 20

That Day, on the Beach, April 15

Taipei Story, April 20, April 21

In Our Time, April 22, May 5

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.