The holiday movie season arrives this week like an avalanche. As always, the sudden abundance means a daunting array of choices for those lucky souls with the time for movie-going. But for the critic, the task of providing recommendations is unusually easy for once. The two best movies opening this weekend will play local art houses, and both come from far-flung locales--one from Taiwan, the other from a distant galaxy called the 1960s.
The Taiwanese entry, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two) arrives having just won Best Foreign Film of the Year awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. While the accolades are richly deserved, they indirectly touch on an unhappy paradox in recent cinematic history. From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, Taiwan enjoyed a boom in artistic moviemaking that was rivaled only by the similar renaissances in Iran and mainland China. Unfortunately, due to a snarl of legal and financial complications that defy easy synopsis, Taiwan's upsurge went largely unseen by American audiences. Until the past year, neither of Taiwan's two leading directors, Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, had ever had a film commercially distributed in the United States.
American film critics with access to international festivals were luckier in being able to follow Taiwan's burgeoning cinema. I became a fan after discovering Hou's work in 1985. In 1992 at the Hong Kong Film Festival, I encountered Yang's stunning four-hour epic of '60s gang-fighting teens, A Brighter Summer Day, which I still regard as the greatest modern Chinese-language movie. In 1996 I was happy to be able to present the film at Durham's Carolina Theatre as part of the Carolina International Asian American Film Festival.
Yang and his colleague Hou are an interesting study in contrasts. While Hou speaks only Chinese, rarely leaves Taiwan and makes austerely beautiful films that often reflect on Taiwan's history, especially its Chinese roots, Yang is the consummate cosmopolitan. A fan of NBA basketball, Japanese comics and Woody Allen, he spent 12 years in the United States, including earning a graduate degree at the University of Florida. (He has frequently spoken to me of his fondness for the American South.) In three dramas made after his return to Taiwan in the early 1980s, and two comedies that followed A Brighter Summer Day in the '90s, Yang mused on the small seismic shifts that are taking place as Taipei's complex culture merges into world culture. One might even call him a cinematic poet for the era of globalization, with its alternately traumatic and serendipitous ironies.
It's worth stressing that a long intellectual itinerary led Yang to the felicities of Yi Yi, because one of the new film's virtues is a deceptive conventionality that can make it seem a lot less complex and hard-won than it is. Running three hours, yet so steadily engrossing that its end arrives before you want it to, Yang's story chronicles the ups and downs of an ordinary Taipei family (mom, dad, sis, kid bro, plus assorted relatives) as its members endure everything from business challenges, injury, first love and possible infidelity to religious crisis and the encroachment of mortality.
Alternately funny and poignant, the film sometimes dances close to the lures of melodrama and sentimentality, yet it emerges as unselfconsciously beautiful, humane and heartwarming in a way few movies manage with such unquestionable genuineness. At the same time, Yi Yi easily repays multiple viewings because its most impressive and subtle accomplishments transpire far beneath its ingratiating, carefully drawn surface.
With a flurry of comic lyricism, the tale opens at a wedding where 40ish paterfamilias N.J. (Wu Nienjen) encounters his long-unseen first love in an elevator and notices that there's still a spark between them. She's a musician who's been living in America, but the fact that his company is trying to forge a deal with a Tokyo concern gives N.J. the chance, as the story unfolds, to go to off to Japan for a few days with his old flame and consider starting anew.
The other members of N.J.'s family eventually have their own Rubicons to cross. While his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is frazzled to the point of seeking the spiritual guidance of a guru, daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) gradually develops a crush on a boy who turns out to be seriously unhinged. Meanwhile, 7-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang)--who wins this year's cute kid award--explores the world through the lens of his own camera and a mind that can't help turning every experience into a philosophical quandary.
Various other relatives occupy the comedy-drama's periphery, and a crucial one gives the story its dead-silent center. Rendered comatose by an accident, Min-Min's elderly mother is returned home with doctor's instructions that the family members talk to her frequently to stimulate her senses. What does one say to an old woman who shows no signs of consciousness? The dilemma adds to existential puzzlements faced by four people who not only don't speak much to each other but don't seem especially adept at facing themselves. To talk to Granny, each must construct a narrative that he or she can listen to and live with.
The film's mastery, however, lies less in its plot or characters than in the subtlety of its design and execution. Yang fortunately has never fallen prey to Hou's brand of hyperformalism, but that's not to say that form doesn't carry much of the meaning in his films, merely that he's more delicate about it. In interviews he has said that he wanted to reflect on the different ages of a person's life, but rather than following one character through many years, he created different characters representing the whole spectrum of age. That's a neat corollary, too, for the philosophic motives that inform the film at every level: balance, wholeness and a perspective that emphasizes the long view of individual, family and social life.
Yi Yi, in fact, is a supremely humane and wonderfully accessible movie that could equally be appreciated on an almost abstract level. The ways that Yang balances every opposite (young/old, happy/sad, individual/family, love/disappointment) are quite amazing in their resonant thoroughness, just as his skill at interweaving innumerable plot strands and moods without calling attention to their seamlessness recalls that, before turning to filmmaking, Yang was an engineer who considered going into architecture. Beyond that, there's the sheer skill and truthfulness he's able to conjure in scene after scene, moment after moment, of the film's unfurling.
A Brighter Summer Day perhaps remains the masterpiece Yang is most likely to be remembered for. Made when he was in his 40s, it has the jagged energies and lunging ambitions of an artist still gripped by the demons of his youth but suddenly in the full possession of his own powers. Yi Yi is a more relaxed and mellow film, a contemplative work by an artist who has crossed the threshold of 50 and realized that he has achieved a measure of contentment and philosophic perspective. Both films, though, feel deeply personal, which separates them from Yang's estimable but more intellectual other features.
Yi Yi is the seventh of Yang's features yet the first to make it into the U.S. marketplace. I have the feeling it won't be the last. Though belated, it provides American audiences a wonderful introduction to the work of one of the world's great filmmakers.
Among the things that struck me in seeing A Hard Day's Night for the first time in many years: You never hear the word "Beatles" at any point in the film. Opening credits aside, it is withheld entirely until the end of the TV concert which climaxes the movie, when the group takes one of its trademark from-the-waist bows and a gigantic BEATLES sign lights up behind them. We then see the name twice more in quick succession (on publicity photos and on the helicopter that, in the film's epiphanic final shot, transports the band heavenwards), yet it is that first appearance that has the impact of a spiritual coup.
Such a withholding touches on the primordial significance of naming, and in turn on the fact that, though commonly regarded as an uncommonly successful pop group, the Beatles were, in essence, a religious phenomenon. The name, the thing that the most directly connects the worshipper to the adored (the four-in-one), appears only at the end, to fix and seal the drama of ecstatic longing. Until then, and forever after, the real name remains private because it belongs to the individual fan alone; inscribed on the heart, it is uttered subvocally at every moment of the film, "Beatles ... Beatles ... Beatles ... "
Likewise, the Beatles themselves utter a private language. The word, of course, is love, same as it was 2,000 years ago, same as it ever was. Yet inasmuch as every word is a betrayal, a shell, the band relays their meaning in nonsense, puns, jokes, funny voices, and of course, songs and singing that still sound like the very definition of joyous, youthful exaltation. (Never mind what the calendar says; the real Harmonic Convergence happened in 1964, on the radio.)
A Hard Day's Night by all rights should have been little more than a shoddy knockoff. Shot quickly in the spring of '64 for $500,000, it emerged as an instant classic due to a combination of elements and talents (including director Richard Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen) that may as well be described as miraculous. Seen today, it's very much an artifact of its time. I hadn't recalled how extensive the World War II references are, or that McCartney's obnoxious grandfather is an IRA man--"a soldier of the Republic," as he cussedly puts it.
Technically, the film belongs to that brief but glorious moment in the early '60s between the arrival of the lightweight, mobile 35mm camera and the predominance of color; its sinuous black and white gives us the Beatles at their most iconic and mod. While A Hard Day's Night shared an era with Breathless, The 400 Blows and other masterpieces made under the same technical circumstances, Lester's film is perhaps best equipped for immortality. It's my hunch, at least, that long after the work of Godard & Co. have become the cinema's Dead Sea Scrolls, the Beatles will still be its Living Word, as fresh and ineffable as any four voices ever uplifted in harmony.