By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It is a familiar Yangian construct — the unexpected reunion with a ghost of the past — and in the Yang of old, the uncertainties surrounding NJ and Sherry’s relationship would have remained uncertain. But Yi Yi, which in many ways feels like the work of a filmmaker who has come to terms with much in his own life, ends with NJ’s matter-of-fact admission that, given the chance to live his life over again, he wouldn’t change a thing. It’s a scene that echoes powerfully back to the ending of Yang’s first feature-length film, That Day on the Beach(1983), in which a concert pianist who has spent most of her adult life wondering what became of herhigh-school love after he was forced by his parents into an arranged marriage, learns that he has died of cancer. The final scene of the movie is a flashback to the young man, Jia-sen, on his deathbed, as he speaks words that now seem like Yang’s own premature eulogy:
What a violent contrast
Everything here is so cold
But my heart is hot and beating hard
With some strange, formless energy against that icy wind
What makes it work so hard I wonder?
But, I’m happy enough
You know? Content
Just keeping this small life going so long
Is something worth celebrating in itself
I first met Edward Yang at Cannes in 2005, where we found ourselves serving on different festival juries, and since he moved to Beverly Hills later that year it was my privilege to share a few meals with him. In person, he cut a memorable figure — tall and lanky, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a robust laugh (which, thankfully, survives on the commentary track of The Criterion Collection’s excellent Yi YiDVD) that could catch you by surprise no matter how many times you’d heard it. Though he would make no subsequent films, he spoke enthusiastically of many projects in various states of development, including The Assassination, about a political murder in 1930s Shanghai; Genius, the story of a child prodigy that would once again have drawn on Yang’s enormous gift with child actors; a Seattle-set crime drama based on the true story of a policeman with mafia ties; and The Wind, an animated martial-arts fantasy to be produced by Jackie Chan, on which Yang was actively working at the time of his death.
So, Yang goes to his grave not having made enough films and, more tragically, having been too little recognized for the ones he did. He is emblematic of an entire generation of directors whose work, given the demise of campus film societies and the decline in attendance at museums, cinematheques and art-house theaters, is scarcely shown outside of the film-festival circuit and — in Yang’s case — has little benefited from the explosion of the home-video marketplace. (As of this writing, only Yi Yiis widely available on DVD in the U.S., while several other Yang titles can be obtained in atrocious VHS or VCD versions.) It was said he could be difficult, which I take to mean that he was exacting and uncompromising. Certainly, I doubt he would have threatened Ang Lee’s status as Hollywood’s favorite Asian bedfellow. Now, Yang has been laid to rest in a fitting place: the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, which includes among its eternal residents Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster and, more significantly, the directors Billy Wilder, Lewis Milestone and John Cassavetes. Like them, Yang was a giant figure in cinema, even if it will take some years yet before that is duly noted. In the near future, long-overdue retrospectives will be mounted and, when moviegoers turn their heads in the right direction, a master will stand revealed.
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