Asian filmmaker aims at city dwellers. Veteran of Taiwan's `new wave' still makes waves with films on urban life
WHEN William Holden rode across the screen in the 1953 American western ``Escape From Fort Bravo,'' he didn't know his performance would help launch Taiwan's ``new wave'' of filmmakers more than 25 years later. But sitting in a dark Taipei theater in the early 1950s was a wide-eyed six-year-old Chinese boy. He couldn't take his eyes off Holden, as the actor exuded his wholesome charm. That little boy today recalls the ``cowboys, cavalry, pretty girls, circling the wagons, having to fight their way out - it was a lot of fun. It was the excitement that you don't see in everyday life. I went to school the next day and was telling all my classmates about the story for so long that I lost my voice.''
Film writer-director Edward Yang laughs as he recalls his early infatuation with ``Fort Bravo,'' and how that single motion picture sparked in him an interest in film that continues today. ``At a young age, two things really affected me a lot. One was comic books. The other was films. We were really poor then. Movies were about the only entertainment besides radio, pop music, and comic books,'' he says.
The ``new wave'' rose to prominence in Taiwan during the early 1980s. These new directors, including Yang, were Taiwan's Chinese baby-boomers. Their films were introspective and used new actors, defying both the often propagandistic film fare of mainland China or the glitzy consumer-oriented pizazz of Hong Kong's flicks.
While most of this new wave of filmmakers crested by mid-decade, and now have faded into frothy foam, Yang continues to make waves of his own. Film critics have called him the ``ambassador of cinema for Taiwan'' and ``an original.'' They compare his work to that of Antonioni.
Relaxing on a couch during a visit to the United States, Yang fits the image of a modern-day director. Black horn-rimmed glasses and black short-cropped hair against white: white floppy jacket, white T-shirt, white Calvin Klein jeans, white socks, white tennis shoes. The image is self-conscious, self-contained, self-controlled.
He claims to talk very little. ``I make films because then I don't have to speak as much. I'm a pretty bad talker,'' he says in fluent English. ``Words to me are very difficult.'' But when the subject is film, the conversationalist in him comes to the fore, and the excited little boy of the early 1950s returns, as if on cue.
``Film is a 100 percent commitment,'' he says, his voice rising. ``Even when I'm asleep and I wake up, I think of ideas.'' He becomes more animated: ``I relax when I'm inspired. I get excited to tell my scriptwriter or friends about my idea.'' He leans forward. ``That's rewarding. That's the most relaxing thing for me.'' He speaks faster. ``Working on the script is the tensest moment. I try to fit everything into a puzzle.''
Yang's most recent and acclaimed films have urban themes. ``That Day, On the Beach'' (1983) is peopled with characters reminiscent of Yang's boyhood friends. ``Taipei Story'' (1985), which he refers to as his ``love affair'' with his city, is a film in which Taipei, is actually the central character. ``The Terrorizer'' (1986) deals with people living in their own small worlds, and the tragedy such a self-centered existence can lead to.
His films - all English subtitled - usually employ intricate plot structure and paint a stark picture of urban dwellers. This is not surprising from a director who calls himself a ``city rat.''
``My interest in film is in urbanized surroundings and relationships,'' he says. ``My target audience I like to talk to are urbanized people.''
``The Terrorizer'' focuses on mostly young urbanites who have stopped caring for one another. The film is high drama, and its psychological trauma and, in the end, physical violence leave a strong impression on moviegoers. ``I'm trying to get the message across that if this [individuals becoming more and more isolated] continues, some innocent people will get hurt. It's my way of sounding the alarm.''
Yang, who has been called Taiwan's most intellectual and Westernized director, is very much a product of his country's new generation. This generation came of age, as he says, ``without the constant fear of war and having to move.'' Born in Shanghai, he and his family moved to Taiwan when he was very young. In the early '70s he came to the US, as did many of the island's educated elite. He attended graduate school and became a US citizen. He returned to Taiwan in 1981.
Although working on two new scripts, Yang says it is difficult in Taipei today to plan very far ahead. Instead of giving the island's population more freedom, the death last January of Chiang Kai-shek's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, has brought governmental decisionmaking to a virtual halt, he says. ``Everything is in transition right now,'' he adds.
Each of Yang's previous films had a contemporary setting; one of his new projects, however, is set in World War II. His work, as always, is going slowly. ``I read and write very slowly. That's why from a very young age I turned anything I could into an image.''
Film festivals including those in Cannes (France), Locarno (Switzerland), and London have praised Yang's work. But he says he wishes international film critics would reserve judgment ``for five to 10 years, when I hope to have a collection of films which can speak more clearly and completely about me as a filmmaker. I hope I will have made [a] comedy by then.''