“We live three times as long ever since man invented movies”. This is a quote taken straight from Yi Yi, the seventh and final film by Edward Yang. And it’s a statement that rings true especially when you watch any of his works. Because to experience his films is to rediscover big insightful truths scattered through realistic portraits of urban living. Yang was one of the brightest Taiwanese directors of the late 20th century, a humanist who was deeply concerned with the societal problems and transformation around him, and who tried to capture it with narratives sprawling in scale but intimate in detail.
To understand his work, it must be viewed as one from a filmmaker at a crossroads. Born in Shanghai, raised in Taipei and having spent a big chunk of his youth studying in America, Yang was influenced by two conflicting worldviews. Taipei was the common backdrop for his existentialist tapestries, a hyper-globalized city that went through incredible economic progress but was full of uncertainties.
Yang became one of the pioneers of the New Taiwanese Cinema, a movement that tried to depict those big societal transformations in modern Taiwan through meditative portraits of everyday life. From the uncertainty of urban living and the clash between tradition and modernity, to capitalism and family dynamics, Yang always raised lofty questions about our postmodern world and human nature.
Ranking the catalogue of one of the most consistent filmmakers ever feels like a pointless endeavor, a disservice to such a brilliant output of films. Edward Yang never made a bad movie, leaving us with seven features that all stand as valuable filmmaking of its own. But by doing so we can bring some much-deserved spotlight to one of the most criminally underrated storytellers of the last thirty years, so up next are his films ranked from good to best.
7. Mahjong (1996)
Mahjong is probably Yang’s most globalist movie, one that paints Taipei as a true postmodern and multicultural city. As usual, the film has a layered narrative establishing a web of interconnectivity between its characters. The central theme focuses on how consumerism and economic development has reshaped Taipei’s youth into a generation of immoral gold diggers. From a rebellious teen gang to power-hungry American businessmen and debt-collecting gangsters, every character in Mahjong is driven by greed.
In their world, everything is exploitable, and relationships, sex and beliefs are reduced to simple transactions. In a sense, this movie feels like a pessimistic projection of the future. And just like in Mahjong, the traditional Asian puzzle game, people are petty, superstitious and selfish. The film makes a point in that economic prosperity does not always lead characters to happiness, and their unhinged greediness often leads them on a downward spiral of despair.
The world is filled with contradictions and cruel twists of fate, but Yang offers a glimmer of hope in the form of an unlikely romance between Luen-Luen, the most level-headed member of the gang, and Marthe, a French foreigner. These two characters prove to be the much-needed moral compasses of the story. At the end, even in the bleak and aimless urban living, Yang shows there’s still room for hope as long as human connections are preserved.
6. A Confucian Confusion (1994)
A Confucian Confusion might be the biggest outlier in all of Yang’s work. It proves to be a complete tonal shift from his usual meditative tone and dramatic emphasis as a fast-paced, cynical comedy. But through these fresh lenses, the movie touches on a lot of his recurrent themes by following a group of individuals struggling to define their own identities.
This ensemble of misfits works in the entertainment business, from actresses and shareholders to theater directors and TV hosts. And each one of them is fake, hiding their inner rage in a facade of outward conformity. Gossip is their bread and butter, and in their world, even financial statements can be romantically endearing. The movie focuses on the contrasts between appearance and reality, and the hypocrisy of hiding your true self for the sake of public perception. From job careers to unstable relationships, Yang makes a point in that being dishonest with your peers and with yourself is a sure way to unhappiness.
One of the characters is a pretentious writer known for his nihilistic novels who is going through an existential crisis. The movie is interposed with lines from his latest novel, which exposes the impracticalities of Confucian principles in the postmodern world. During an argument with his wife, the writer resents the shallowness of fiction, claiming that viewers should be challenged by it and not comforted in layers of cosmetic escapism. “The best way to fight hypocrisy is not by death, but by living honestly!”, he claims. And if anything, Edward Yang lived by that rule by relentlessly searching for universal truths.
5. That Day on the Beach (1983)
That Day on the Beach is a film about the loss of innocence, broken dreams and disillusionment. It is a sprawling narrative spanning several decades that threads together an intimate coming of age story. It is mind-blowing to see how well-crafted and mature it is considering it was Edward Yang’s debut feature, but it already shows the same concerns that run through the rest of his career.
The movie begins with two childhood friends who meet again after more than a decade. Through different layers and time skips, the film chronicles the life of Jia-li, from her childhood years up to her young adulthood, as she comes to terms with the harsh realities of growing up. Her life is one consistently driven by society’s expectations and the converging priorities between tradition and modernity, especially as a woman living in a hyper-globalized city.
Jia-li runs away from home after bearing with the pressures of her strict parents and the haunting prospect of arranged marriage. But soon, her idealized preconceptions about adulthood are shattered as she experiences the highs and lows of marriage, going through the motions and monotony of everyday life.
Most of the characters struggle to find a proper balance between old and new, neglecting their family while being consumed by their jobs. As a result, relationships drift apart and they are left with nothing but a void. Yang perfectly captures the overwhelming demands and cyclical nature of modern life, but also how in the face of emptiness, there’s still room to appreciate the little joys that come with it.