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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Edward Yang

The cinematic creations of the Taiwanese New Wave are simply unforgettable, with some of its pioneers like Tsai Ming-liang still working today. However, the most prominent New Wave filmmaker from Taiwan was undoubtedly Edward Yang, who sadly passed away at the age of 59 after a long battle with colon cancer. Thankfully, his works continue to be discovered and cherished by newer generations of audiences as well as aspiring filmmakers.

Yang’s life could have been very different had it not been for the timely intervention of another cinematic genius named Werner Herzog. After graduating from the University of Florida with a Masters degree in engineering, Yang had entertained the idea of becoming a filmmaker but he was too disillusioned. While working in Seattle on microcomputers, he stumbled upon a screening of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God which successfully convinced him that filmmaking was his true calling.

After returning to Taiwan, it didn’t just signify the start of Yang’s filmmaking career but also the emergence of the Taiwanese New Wave. While speaking about the movement in a 2001 interview, Yang said: “In the beginning, it was a collective effort. Our generation was taking over and there was a new, more energetic kind of film-making. But after we made a name for ourselves we had different directions to go in, and in the last 10 years it has been pretty much individual efforts.”

In order to introduce the cinematic magic of Edward Yang’s films to audiences who are not familiar with the legendary director’s work, we have selected a collection of Yang’s projects which provide definitive insights into his artistic vision.

The six definitive films of Edward Yang:

Taipei Story (1985)

One of the first examples of New Wave sensibilities in Taiwanese cinema, Taipei Story is a brilliant examination of the overwhelming forces of modernity which facilitate an environment where urban isolation is the unspoken norm. These meditations on rapidly developing cityscapes would become Yang’s artistic focus in many of his later works.

Taipei Story follows a young middle-class woman who is desperate to break into the future promised by a modern Taipei but her boyfriend (played by legendary filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) is afraid of change. Even in this early film, audiences are provided with enough evidence to make the claim that Yang had completely mastered the poetics of space.

The Terrorisers (1986)

Another film set in Taipei, this 1986 crime drama is a sociological analysis of modern society through the intersecting lives of a wide variety of characters – ranging from petty criminals to an ambitious doctor who is married to an aspiring writer.

As a tribute to Antonioni’s Blowup, The Terrorisers also has a photographer who documents it all. The recipient of multiple awards at various film festivals around the world, The Terrorisers is yet another instalment in Yang’s extended investigation of changing cityscapes.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

The magnum opus of Yang’s flawless filmography, A Brighter Summer Day is a four-hour epic that ranks among the most sublime masterpieces in the history of world cinema. Through a beautifully melancholic coming-of-age story, Yang remembers a significant period in Taiwanese history.

Although many of the external concerns of the film are about the specific sociopolitical elements of that society which ensure that young boys end up in a cycle of juvenile delinquency, A Brighter Summer Day has managed to move audiences all across the world because of its universally recognised poetry about the fundamental alienation of the human condition.

A Confucian Confusion (1994)

Yang contextualises the ideas put forward by Confucius in many of his films but this is perhaps the most blatant intersection of those two vastly differing worlds. Intended as a satirical comedy, A Confucian Confusion might not be as poetic as some of Yang’s other works but it is definitely an essential part of his body of work.

He uses the intersecting lives of big city residents again to launch a critique of capitalism and its consequences on the social fabric. Unlike some of his philosophical films, A Confucian Confusion is more conversational and relies on caricature and irony to get his points across.

Mahjong (1996)

Another memorable attempt at comedy, Yang’s neglected 1996 gem Mahjong reflects on the pernicious impact of globalisation and neocolonialism which has slowly transformed most of the world into an urban hellscape comprised of blinding neon lights and shiny surfaces which reflect rather than reveal.

Focusing on the lives of tiny characters caught up in the machinations of a system that is much larger than them, Mahjong chronicles their battle against their own fate. It received critical acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival where it was singled out by the jury as an Honourable Mention.

Yi Yi (2000)

Both the most accessible and the most popular of all of Yang’s masterpieces, Yi Yi is a powerful drama that presents the subtly tragic lives of the members of a middle-class family who belong to different generations. Even after two decades, Yi Yi remains the greatest cinematic exploration of Taipei ever made.

For his brilliant artistic vision, Yang won the Best Director Award at Cannes but the greater achievement he managed to attain is the enduring legacy of his oeuvre whose universal appeal is best represented by Yi Yi. The film also happens to feature the cutest kid in the entire history of cinema.