In modern Taiwanese cinema, 1982-83 was a watershed period, when the earliest developed works of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were made, ushering in the Taiwanese New Wave. These two filmmakers were born the same year (1947), but the latter began with a number of fairly mainstream features before moving towards the style and themes he would later develop with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). And although That Day, on the Beach is hardly Yang’s finest work, it marks a departure from the earlier cinema of Taiwan, which I’ve already covered examples of, in thrall to the popular cinemas of the mainland (China and Hong Kong).
Edward Yang’s debut film feels too long, but it’s trying to tell a big story — about growing up, after all, and about finding one’s place in the world. There’s an ambitious structure too: when a renowned concert pianist (Terry Hu) returns to Taiwan, the sister of her first boyfriend (played by the great Sylvia Chang) gets in touch, and when they meet they share memories. However, within these reminiscences of their childhood are embedded all kinds of memories and flashbacks, and eventually the structure becomes fractured by all these different levels of time and subjectivity, so already you can see some of the threads Yang would pursue in his subsequent filmmaking. It’s a beautifully-shot film as well (one of Christopher Doyle’s earliest projects), and for all its epic length, never feels dull or boring. That said, it’s not perfect, and aside from feeling like there’s a tighter story in there, as well as some slightly wayward sound editing, there’s also at least one actor (the ladies’ man and boss, Ah Tsai) who seems to be acting in a different film, maybe more of a soap opera — indeed, there’s a lot of melodrama bursting to get out which Yang does his best to restrain through underplaying the drama and removing most of the musical cues. Still, it’s a great debut and a harbinger of the coming ‘Taiwanese New Wave’, in which Yang would be a key figure.
Director Edward Yang 楊德昌; Writers Wu Nien-jen 吳念真 and Yang; Cinematographers Hui Kung Chang 張惠恭 and Christopher Doyle 杜可風; Starring Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉, Terry Hu 胡因夢; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director and leading actor Zhao Tao.
It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Yi Zhang 张译, Zijian Dong 董子健, Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015.