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Yang Finds His Stories, Success in the Universal

The Taiwanese movie director is receiving acclaim for 'Yi Yi,' a leisurely paced fable about family life, reopening in L.A.

February 02, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes success can come at the beginning of one's career, other times much later on. Director Edward Yang has known both.

From his first feature-length film, "That Day on the Beach" (1983), he was hailed by film critics as a founder, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien, of Taiwan's New Wave in the early 1980s. Then he had a series of ups and downs with several films.

His latest feature, "Yi Yi" (A One and a Two), has enjoyed unprecedented recognition--a best director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, followed by best foreign-language film awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and best picture of the year from the National Society of Film Critics. The film played briefly in December and will reopen today in Los Angeles.

"The Chinese title 'Yi Yi' means, literally, 'one-one.' I had the English title first, a one and a two, the count-off for a piece of music, because I thought it went with the story," explains Yang during a recent stopover in Los Angeles. "And then I had to give it a Chinese title, and I wanted the simplest Chinese title, so nothing can be simpler than yi yi, which is the first phrase in the Chinese dictionary."

He gives a small laugh. "And it fit. The story is about individuals in a family and how we basically repeat each other's experience."

Born in Shanghai and raised in Taiwan, Yang came to the U.S. in the 1970s to study engineering. It was a very practical choice, but later, while working in the computer industry in Seattle, he saw Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and remembered how much he loved film.

"Basically it's not the style or the beauty of the images that influenced me," Yang, 53, recalls. "It was the spirit of filmmaking of Mr. Herzog that was never before seen." In 1981, when a Chinese friend asked him to write a feature film, he jumped at the chance and moved back to Asia.

In his own films, Yang has explored postwar Taiwan in all its fragmentation, showing a society striving for Western modernity but tripping over (and also held together) by the Chinese past, by tradition. In fact, the very title of his 1994 film, "A Confucian Confusion," speaks to that recurrent theme.

A leisurely paced, slice-of-life saga, "Yi Yi" focuses on one modern Taipei family whose members are slipping, one by one, into crisis. N.J. Jian (Nienjen Wu), a middle-aged computer executive whose company is facing bankruptcy, is having a midlife crisis that begins at an in-law's wedding, where he runs into his first, perhaps only, love, Sherry (Suyun Ke).

Meanwhile, his frail mother-in-law has to leave the wedding early and later suffers a stroke. She is brought home in a coma, and the nurse encourages everyone to take turns sitting with her and talking to her.

Her catatonia becomes a kind of wake-up call to the other members of the family: Mother (Elaine Jin) runs off to join a religious retreat; Dad runs off to Japan to rendezvous with his ex-girlfriend; daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) finds the tender happiness and pain of first love; and son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) tries to find himself amid this vacuum of adult supervision.

For Yang, who writes his own scripts, the seed for the story came from a true-life drama when a friend's father fell into a coma and the family members were asked to keep talking to him, as a way of encouraging him, of keeping him alive.

"When you talk to someone close to you in that situation, you have to be very honest," Yang says. "It becomes like a prayer, and it's very difficult because you don't even know if you're sincere enough to make prayer work.

"Some people ask me why the children didn't go to their parents when they had a problem," Yang says, "but it's not just the situation of a Chinese family. Each of us has a world of our own."

And yet, even without telling each other what is in his or her heart, the individual family members weather their crises and manage to regroup at the end. As Yang says, "The family still provides a spiritual bond."

Finding New Talent

As usual, the director recruited a number of nonprofessionals for his film. Because there is a minuscule acting pool in Taiwan--most actors work in commercials and in television, since so few films are now made in that country--he is always forced to seek new talent and train them through his own workshops.

"Anyone can be a great actor," he says. "It all depends on how the director and the actor work together, given the right kind of work. The director needs to know the strengths of a certain actor, so he can try to avoid his weaknesses."

In Taiwan, you have to be resourceful to find new talent. Kelly Lee, who plays the teenage daughter, was a piano student of Yang's wife, Kaili Peng, who also composed the music for the film. Yang invited Kelly to join one of his acting workshops, then found she had talent.

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