There are actually only three masterpieces in this program devoted to the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, whose death last year at age 59 was a terrible loss for contemporary film culture (even if it didn’t warrant a mention during the Oscars’ annual roll call of departed talent). The odd film out would be Yang’s 1983 debut, That Day on the Beach, a terrifically ambitious but frequently clumsy film that contrasts the romantic travails of two women (Sylvia Chang and Teresa Hu) in a narrative that’s part puzzle box and part soap opera. Though beautifully shot by a young Christopher Doyle, the film has the halting, tentative quality of a semisuccessful experiment. Yang found his mature voice shortly thereafter with Taipei Story (1985), which stars another great Taiwanese auteur, Hou Hsiao-hsien, as a former baseball star turned fabric-store employee whose marriage to a childhood sweetheart (Tsai Chin) is buckling under mutual financial and personal strain — maladies that the film suggests are symptomatic of a city in the throes of economic and architectural upheaval. The sly visual intimations of American imperialism provide grist for the cultural-studies mill, but Yang’s modernist tactics don’t include subordinating his characters to his sociological project. A similar empathy informs Yang’s high masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), which uses a real-life event — the murder of a Taiwanese schoolgirl by a classmate — as the catalyst for an epically scaled (230 minutes) investigation of the intertwined perils of personal and national identity. The film is steeped in cinematic allusions (Citizen Kane, Rebel Without a Cause, Rio Lobo), reflecting the central theme of pop-culture appropriation, but there are also scenes here like nothing you’ve ever seen before: the sequence where one teenage gang massacres its rivals during a nighttime raid ranks in every way with the darkest passages in cinema. Compared to A Brighter Summer Day, Yang’s final film, Yi Yi (2000), is mostly sweetness and light. Not surprisingly, it was the only one of the director’s efforts to secure North American distribution. This is not to suggest that Yi Yi is a minor or compromised work: The screenplay, which organizes the struggles and triumphs of an extended family around a pair of significant gatherings, is exquisitely proportioned, and the performances are exceptional, particularly that of key Taiwanese New Wave screenwriter Wu Nianzhen (City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster) as a profoundly decent computer salesman bearing the brunt of his clan’s various crises. There is a running joke in the film that Nianzhen’s son likes to take photos of the backs of peoples’ heads because he’s trying to help them fully see themselves. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Yang’s observant and deeply compassionate cinema attempted — and achieved — a similar kind of illumination. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; through Sat., Oct. 25. www.lacma.org)
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