INTERVIEW: Reality Check: Edward Yang's Living Creatures Do "A One and a Two"

by Augusta Palmer

(indieWIRE/10.12.00) --With a Cannes best director award and a U.S. distribution deal from Winstar, Taiwanese director Edward Yang has finally graduated from offbeat critics' pick to art-house contender. But despite the formality of Winstar's conference room, the constantly ringing cell phone, the bevy of journalists waiting outside, and the sprinkling of white in his hair, the 53-year-old Yang comes off as boyish rather than magisterial. Like the eight year-old Yang Yang in "A One and a Two"("Yi Yi") -- currently playing at New York's Film Forum -- Edward Yang seems unconcerned, maybe even pleased, -that he is on a different wavelength from the adults around him. He seems simultaneously comfortable in his own skin and willing to question everything around him --- qualities which few people over the age of 10 are lucky enough to possess.

In response to a question which must seem pretty tired by now: "How did winning best director at this year's Cannes Film Festival change your life?" -Edward Yang replies with a burst of spontaneous laughter, "It didn't change much in my life, as far as I know." Continuing more seriously, he adds, "It feels more like a graduation than winning the lottery. You've earned your stripes but you still have to work hard from now on."

Though Yang's films received critical acclaim since the early 1980s, U.S. distribution has proved far more elusive. His new film, "A One and a Two" -- about a traumatic few weeks in the life of a Taipei family -- may change all that. While it's certainly more accessible than some of his earlier work, "A One and a Two" still has all the hallmarks of a Yang masterpiece: a preference for the long shot, understated acting, and an intricate narrative structure built up over nearly three hours.

"Close-ups are the least effective mode of expression because they only give you facial expression, whereas any subtle movement -- in the hand, in the body, in your posture, or in the way that a person walks -- gives more information."

Many films which use the same techniques come off as stilted or ponderous, but in "A One and a Two" the story seems to flow naturally. Says Yang, "We acquire life experience through movies. Because I work constantly in films, I've begun to realize that when a film is projected on a screen, that's another way for an animal to detect its environment. Just like a wild animal in the jungle, in nature. When you present something about the living creatures which we call 'humans,' there's much more information that the viewer can sense when they see the whole, rather than just the parts. In other words," he explains, "close-ups are the least effective mode of expression because they only give you facial expression, whereas any subtle movement -- in the hand, in the body, in your posture, or in the way that a person walks -- gives more information to the viewer than just the facial."

According to Yang, using close-ups for line delivery is simply a waste of the visual potential of cinema. Yang's ideas about acting and cinematography are made concrete in the performance of Wu Nienjen (better known as a prolific screenwriter and the director of "A Borrowed Life") as the dissatisfied patriarch, NJ. Wu is able to convey more emotion and experience with his back while shuffling up a flight of stairs in long shot than most actors can give in a histrionic close-up.

Yang, who has known and collaborated with Wu Nienjen for twenty years, thinks that the veteran screenwriter's skill as a performer has always been overlooked. "Deep down he has another talent, which no one else has given him a chance to use," says Yang. "The best thing about him is his acting skill, plus his ability to understand human conditions and relationships. Those things are the hardest part of acting.

"He was so fast (as an actor) and really had a comprehension of the things I asked him to do. For instance, there's a long monologue when NJ speaks to the grandmother. I gave him the lines and he walked outside on the balcony and started smoking. When he came back inside fifteen minutes later, we were ready to roll. Just one take is all he needed. And we wrapped a couple of hours ahead of time."

In order to foster this fast, intuitive mode of filmmaking, Yang has developed a kind of repertory company. He's worked with the same editor (Chen Bowen), director of lighting (Li Longyu), and sound man (Du Duzhi), for almost ten years. It's no coincidence that Yang's way of working is almost diametrically opposed to the current Hollywood model.

"It's too easy for [Hollywood] to make money because they've built such an empire. So basically, they are not improving themselves. But the rest of the world will catch up, because I truly believe we can do much more interesting things for much less money."

"In the past, even ten years ago," he says, "I think there were much more interesting Hollywood movies. And I think that has a lot to do with the manufacturing process, which is becoming complacent. It's too easy for them to make money because they've built such an empire. It's so easy to earn the money back, to justify their costs. So basically, they are not improving themselves. But the rest of the world will catch up, because I truly believe we can do much more interesting things for much less money."

Unfortunately, it may take some time. After the removal of quotas on Hollywood films, the yearly cinematic output of Taiwan has dwindled down to a few state subsidized films. While Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien (the former enfants terribles of the island's New Cinema Movement in the 1980s) are savvy about marketing and have access to funding from Japan, younger filmmakers have been left high and dry.

"The trouble," says Yang, "is really with distribution, not with production. And, because of the problems with distribution, it's harder for filmmakers to get their money back. A few filmmakers, like myself, have broken out of that restraint. Most filmmakers need local support. I'd like to see the government do a much more intelligent job than just catering to the distributors. Because the subsidy program we worked so hard to create in the 1980s has now been handed over to the distributors."

Moreover, the government's focus on production subsidies ignores what "The Blair Witch Project" taught us: the crucial aspect of marketing. Spending more money on marketing (along with re-instituting distribution quotas) would assure that films by young directors without Yang's critical clout could actually get seen by audiences outside film festivals, rather than simply get buried at local (as well as global) multiplexes by the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Luckily for Yang and for audiences in major American cities this fall, he's been able to circumvent the local cinematic deadlock and to go on making films about his favorite subject, the city of Taipei. Unlike many of his contemporaries on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, Yang has no nostalgia for the rural past: "I don't go to the countryside. I have no time to waste on those places where nothing happens."

While "A One and a Two" presents a kinder, gentler Taipei than any of Yang's previous films, it's anything but serene. The plot includes a murder and a suicide attempt, not to mention a very pregnant bride and a mercenary religious cult. Many of Yang's earlier films (like "The Terrorizer," "Taipei Story," and "A Brighter Summer Day") were stark exposures of thinly disguised misanthropy and the impossibility of real human understanding. "A One and a Two," however, is a much more positive reflection on "the meaning of life," revealing the mysterious nature of communication and intergenerational connection without any of the saccharine plotlines usually found in so-called "family films." The darker side of city life is portrayed as just another aspect of human behavior. As Yang himself says, "That's reality. If you don't want to look at it, I don't want to talk to you. I'll talk to the whole world instead."

For indieWIRE's review of "Yi Yi," go to:

[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and a doctoral student in New York University's Department of Cinema Studies.]