The Enigma of Edward Yang
A regular on the festival circuit.
In 2012, it came to pass: Sight & Sound had tallied the votes for their famous once-every-decade poll, and for the first time in half a century, Citizen Kane didn't win, being instead usurped by Vertigo. This outcome ran so counter to tradition that even non-cinema news outlets took note, though I remain skeptical that it represents any seismic shift. For my money, a more eye-catching change in the 2012 poll was the placement of the 1991 Taiwanese saga A Brighter Summer Day, by Edward Yang, which had rocketed up the rankings and landed softly in the top 100. As long as list-making is cinephilia's eternal pastime, the horse race for the number one spot (as if such an argument can be won, or is worth winning) matters less than charting how, thanks to restorations, cinematheques, and years of advocacy, a film from our not-too-distant past can get a shot at the pantheon.
A regular on the festival circuit, Yang was a championed voice of the New Taiwanese Cinema of the eighties and nineties. But for a certain subset of American cinephile, the reputation of his work was surpassed only by its scarcity. Indeed, even as it reached new peaks of canonization in Sight & Sound, Summer Day was virtually impossible to see in the U.S., available only at the right time in the right repertory house. (It finally came out on home video earlier this year). Yang was not the most prolific of directors, and he died relatively young with just seven feature films to his name. The only one officially released in the U.S. during his lifetime was Yi Yi (2000), a highly acclaimed family chronicle to rival Fanny and Alexander (1982). That leaves five films that are still rarities here in the States. As part of a series on Yang, one of them comes to Brooklyn's BAMcinématek for a week as of this Friday: The Terrorizers (1986), a drama of violence and alienation, adding up to a fragmented portrait of an artist.
An essential part of Yang's method can be seen right from The Terrorizers' opening set piece, a morning police raid on a gambling den. It's an action sequence handled obliquely. A police car moves across the frame, its siren a small element of a large cityscape. We get a shot of someone doing laundry on their balcony, either oblivious or indifferent to the distant gunshots. The image of police bullets shattering windows is preceded by a shot of one of the cops yawning. (Why not? It's still early.) No music is used to accent the tension; in fact, for all the film's guns and knives, Yang only lets music take over in moments of wistfulness. The sequence favors a static camera over motion, and its use of sound mixes the action—screeching tires, back-alley scuffles—with the heightened ambience of an ordinary day, like birds chirping or water dripping down a drainpipe. This is hardly unique in Yang's cinema: His films are keenly aware of background, of routines and cycles, of how dark events can happen on sun-dappled days. The effect is a certain remove, in which the actions of his characters are not trivialized (far from it) but placed unmistakably in the context of a larger, constantly turning world.
Thrown into motion, the characters of The Terrorizers form an interwoven quartet in Taipei, though far more is made of their isolation than any sense of unity, and names are scarcely used. A doctor with the chance of a promotion betrays a coworker; his lonely wife, a novelist, seeks inspiration for her next book; a beautiful, delinquent young woman hustles and hides from the police; and a photographer circles the perimeter, as if he might catch a moment that explains it all. Like the opening, much of the drama is indirect. Yang hangs on meditative sequences while letting major decisions—to break up, to run away, to attempt suicide, to begin an affair—simply elide from one moment to the next. By the end, a new novel will be written, and at least one person will be killed. As in Yi Yi or Summer Day, Yang evokes what critics so revere in the cinema of Jean Renoir: Even when the characters are in conflict, or do something monstrous, there isn't a villain in the bunch.
More than one critic has linked the photographer character to Blow-Up (1966), and thus to cinema's filmmaker laureate of modern urban alienation, Michelangelo Antonioni. The comparison is not inapt, even if it risks overshadowing the later film's position in its own time and place. As in Antonioni, there are stretches of The Terrorizers where dialogue is so subservient to texture that a character's presence strikes an emotional tone even as their precise motives remain elusive, allowing the themes—parallel types of violence, class divisions, corporate structures, self-deception, the role of chance—to quietly offer themselves for interpretation.
This is fitting, since the creation and (mis)interpretation of art is a central issue. The photographer becomes obsessed with the criminal as a subject for his photographs, though she turns out to be a safer object of affection as a picture than in the flesh. The novelist writes a semi-autobiographical book inspired by an event she completely misunderstands, which would make her novel's premise "false" if not for the fact that even a lie can unearth real feelings. Her insistence that it's all "just fiction, not reality" is both true and fundamentally dishonest (and raises the question of what those words mean for Yang). The Terrorizers itself feels purposefully incomplete, inexplicably splitting off into two contradictory endings: one in which the brewing violence is directed outward, another in which it's directed inward; both urge a response of disorientation and horror.
Yang would be more straightforward with his storytelling: Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day are classical by comparison, and in between he would handle comedy. The Terrorizers, as both a socially conscious drama and self-reflective meditation, tackles the potential and limitations of eyes or cameras or books or films in making sense of the world. (As if to prove its own point, the gorgeous DCP apparently was struck from a print with white, borderless subtitles, making the dialogue of some scenes hard to discern. Hopefully this is a trend that cinema will someday be able to buck completely; until then, bring your glasses). It's worth noting that the child hero of Yi Yi was a budding artist himself; memorably, he made it his mission to photograph the backs of peoples' heads, since that was the part of their own bodies that they couldn't see for themselves. That conclusion, cut from the same cloth fourteen years later, is a good deal more serene and optimistic than the irony and revulsion that informs The Terrorizers, which stands in Yang's filmography as a flawed, elliptical, diffuse, and beguiling enigma. As with any enigma worthy of the name, I don't suspect it's meant to be fully cracked.