Academic journal article CineAction

Edward Yang: A Taiwanese Independent Filmmaker in Conversation

Academic journal article CineAction

Edward Yang: A Taiwanese Independent Filmmaker in Conversation

Article excerpt

The films of Edward Yang (Yang Dechang) offer a perceptive critique of modern urban society from a unique point of view: contemporary Taiwan. Taiwanese society has been subjected to several waves of foreign influence: 50 years of Japanese occupation, from 1895 to 1945; Kuomintang dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist refugees from the Chinese mainland who followed him in 1949; and a US military presence at the height of the Cold War. The end of martial law in 1987 marked an easing of government and self-censorship, as well as new cultural and economic exchanges with the West.

Yang was born in Shanghai in 1947. His family moved to Taiwan with the Nationalists in 1949. After studying in the United States for a year in 1974, and a subsequent eight year stint in the Seattle computer industry, he returned to Taiwan and began his filmmaking career. Since 1983, he has directed six feature films. He has been a teacher at the National Arts Institute, in the drama department headed by filmmaker Stan Lai. Yang has also directed theatre in Taiwan.

Along with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou on the mainland, Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai in Hong Kong, and his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, Edward Yang is one of a group of filmmakers who have brought Chinese film to international prominence. Unlike the others, however, he has not received recognition outside of Asia. Apart from the following he has in Japan, perhaps the only regular audiences for Yang's films have been international film festival-goers. Distribution at home is dismal for Taiwanese art house films.

We recently took the opportunity to interview Yang during the November 1997 retrospective organized by the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The interview has been supplemented with paraphrases from Yang's introductions to his films, from question and answer sessions, and from a panel discussion. To distinguish these varying sources, the direct first person responses have been set in italics. Thanks to Barbara Scharres of the Art Institute of Chicago Film Center for her cooperation and assistance, and to Anna Roosen-Runge who transcribed the tape.

The Birth of the Taiwanese New Wave

Edward Yang absorbed European film culture while growing up in 1960s Taipei. The Kuomintang imported innumerable European films in order to bolster cultural and trade relations with allied countries in its campaign for diplomatic recognition. According to Yang, Taiwan got all the European art house films: Bresson, Fellini, Godard. In 1974, he went to the United States to study film at the University of Southern California, which he described as having adversely affected his development as a filmmaker. They taught film as very much a part of mainstream culture, but he wanted to be different. His self-confidence undermined, Yang dropped out of film school but stayed in the US designing computers in Seattle. There, in an art house cinema, Yang saw Werner Herzog's Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), for him the perfect anti-film-school film, and he was remotivated. All my friends are billionaires now in Seattle. If it wasn't for Herzog, I would be a rich man today!

I have a friend, Yu Wei-cheng, whom I met when I was going to USC and he was going to a trade school in LA for filmmaking. I quit my computer job and went back to Taiwan when he asked me to write a script for him. A whole bunch of us started together on that project: The Winter of 1905 (1981). Now that I look at it, it was very fateful. It was my first project, and the first for the editor Chen Bo-wen, for the sound engineer Tu Du-che, for the producer Yu Wei-yen and for Tsui Hark as an actor. Tu Du-che is now the best sound engineer in Asia, and Chen Bo-wen is the best editor in Taiwan.

And it was almost the first project for Christopher Doyle. (1) But we had to hire a Japanese DP. Then when I began That Day on the Beach (1983), I insisted on having him as the DP even though he had done nothing before. …

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