Saturday, August 11, 2007

Spotlight on Taiwan, take two, part two

"Did you like the movie?"
"A bit too serious".
"You prefer comedies?"
"Not really. But it didn't have to be so sad."
"Life is a mixture of sad and happy things. Movies are so lifelike, that's why we love them."
"Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life!".
"My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies."
"How can that be?"
"It means movies give as twice what we get from daily life."
-- Yi Yi (A One and a two), Edward Yang

In April, I had planned my spotlight on Taiwan by watching films from Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. Both Yang and Hou are credited with the "New Wave of Taiwanese Cinema" (starting from the 1980's) while Tsai is considered part of the Second New Wave, starting from the 1990s. But I put the spotlight on hold until the past few weeks. Over the last few months, some significant events have occurred with regards to the two New Wave directors -- the World unfortunately lost Edward Yang who passed away on June 29. And Hou Hsiao-hsien's first non-Taiwenese film, The Flight of the Red Balloon premiered at Cannes leading his work to be judged in a newer light from his native Taiwanese works (Café Lumière was still a joint Taiwanese/Japanese venture).

Now, the first Edward Yang film that I have seen is the last film that he completed -- Yi Yi. One film is not enough to establish a proper analysis but Yi Yi is such a beautiful film that it can stand on its own.

Yi Yi (2000, Director Edward Yang): Rating 10/10

There is a poetic beauty that resonates throughout this film which shows the complicated lives of the Jian family and the people that interact with them, including their neighbours, friends, relatives and co-workers. In the hands of a lesser director, the film would have turned into a melodramatic soap opera as the topics covered include wedding, affairs, first love, relationship crisis, corporate politics and even murder. But Edward Yang ensures that all the issues and characters are handled tenderly and each character is given enough screen time so that the audience can get to know them better and understand their motives. Even at a length of 170 minutes, the film does not feel long and is a real heart warming tale.

Film Style -- Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang:

Going by Yi Yi as an example, Yang's style is closer to that of Ang Lee rather than Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. Ang Lee has handled family oriented stories in the past which is what Yi Yi is -- multiple characters are shown with screen time given to each character; there are no long takes in Yi Yi but sometimes depending on a situation, the camera lingers around a character for a few extra seconds. Whereas, both HHH and Tsai use long takes (with less edit cuts) to focus on one or even two characters in their films. The long takes allow us to soak in all the details around the characters and to fully understand their motives. Two different styles but the end result is still the same -- absorbing cinema!

Hou Hsiao-hsien:

Millennium Mambo (2001): Rating 7.5/10

One of the strongest aspects of Hou's Flowers of Shanghai was the colorful visuals which perfectly conveyed the exotic excesses of the brothels of 19th century China. With Millennium Mambo, Hou changes gears completely and portrays the club hopping life of Taiwanese youth. The film is basked in cool bluish visuals mixed with some bright neon lights as the main character Vicky (Shu Qi) alternates from clubs and bars while her boy-friend gets into fights. Shu Qi carries this film on her shoulders and the camera leisurely hovers over her as she changes clothes, walks around half-naked, makes love, gets into fights with her boyfriend and attempts to run away from him.

Vicky's character and the film's portrayal of modern youth in Taipei seems to have been the basis for the third short in Three Times. The 2005 released film contained three short segments set in three different time periods -- 1911, 1965 and 2005. Each short's visual look was completely different; the 1911 segment appears to have been straight out of Flowers of Shanghai and the 2005 segment has a similar feel to Millennium Mambo.

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