Taiwanese master Edward Yang always takes time with his films, which, in turn, take their time with viewers. They’re not enlivened by deceptively ballet-like set pieces, or thrilling explorations of the world, nor are they vast mysteries with one great turn after another. That isn’t to say Yang’s films aren’t thrilling, or ambitious, or captivating. Quite the contrary. Though Yang clearly riffs most on Japan’s arthouse darling Yasujiro Ozu, as well aping the more lived-in qualities of Michelangelo Antonioni, Yang has a distinct voice that would go on to help shape the Taiwanese New Wave of cinema in the 80s, and become a hallmark of world cinema.
Taipei Story is clearly the scrappy effort of a burgeoning genius finding his voice, soon to be dwarfed by more daring and realized work. One need not dig too far to find that Yang draws pretty heavily from his own life to inform his films, and Taipei Story perhaps personifies a duality within Yang himself played out as a decoupling in slow, agonizing motion.
We follow Chin (played by Tsai Chin) and her childhood sweetheart Lung (one of the film’s co-writers Hou Hsiao-hsien) as their own wants and faults get the better of them. Chin is a capable, independent office worker who, after leaving her job as her company is restructured, asks to move to the U.S. with Lung, despite stronger prospects elsewhere. Lung is a navel-gazing hometown hero who was once a prominent youth baseball player, that can never seem to abandon anyone that isn’t Chin. Together, they apply pressure on one another, until they simply cannot be together.
Right off the bat, we can be clear that Lung is the problem, though that does not make Chin any less frustrating. Lung is so immune to leaving their city of Tapei that he goes out of his way to stall moving to America, despite having the means, and despite having a huge career opportunity. Hell, despite the love of his life asking him to do this for her. At one point, as subterfuge to delay their move indefinitely, Lung gives Chin’s father–a decaying codger who ignores and berates his doting daughter, and who will thoughtlessly take her spoon from her when he drops his on the floor–their funds for their continental voyage to save her father’s business. This infuriates Chin, who knows that her father will only squander this second chance. As one of Lung’s ex’s points out, Lung only uses pity of those closest to him in order to keep himself from actually growing up.
What makes Chin so frustrating is that she enables her loser boyfriend, who, as she points out, becomes more like her father everyday. Lung would rather toil at a pointless career as a shopkeeper, instead of leaving and exploring the world. When he recounts his stateside trip, Lung describes the most mundane, unadventurous excursion imaginable. In an early scene, he divulges his visit to Los Angeles, saying the city is just like Taipei. Though, according to Lung, he only hangs out with other Taiwanese people. He stays inside the entire time, and he records baseball games for his old coach–so his coach may also to continue living in the past with him. In fact, Lung never even tells Chin about his time in the U.S. She has to drag a similarly despondent narrative in the middle of a fight. Chin’s mistake is not realizing that Lung does not want to be there for her. She wants to move on, but she wants to do so with someone familiar, someone who she picked long ago for a future she imagined would be far more promising.
And, in that sense, Chin and Lung are the same. They’re unable to move on. On balance, which is worse? Being so consumed with nostalgia that a person is unable to move on from what is comfortable? Or being an individual with drive and aspirations, but not summoning the courage to take that leap alone? While Yang may not handle these questions with the most grace, he does give a lot of love and humanity to characters who would be far more frustrating in the hands of a less patient filmmaker.
Really though, Taipei is captured quite dynamically in this picture. For the most part, Yang prefers to keep the city busy and claustrophobic, filling the frame with a world that either traps the film’s characters, or gives them room to fester, recalling films like Red Desert–which captures the lifelessness of industrialization. Then, in nocturnal scenes, Yang is thrilled to show us life and colors, vibrantly echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s technicolor dreamscape One from the Heart. In one scene, we see two characters embraced under the glowing light of a magnificent Fuji Film sign, lavish and modern as could be. In the next scene, the dream is over. That same Fuji Film ad is visible from a crowded high rise, which feels especially mechanical under a smoggy, overcast sky. Yang knows Taipei, enough to show off his love, and enough to show off his contempt.
When I say that Edward Yang is twice personified through Chin and Lung, I refer to his biography. Yang is someone who experience serious doubts, continually putting off his passion for film–going so far as to earn a post-graduate degree in Engineering. He didn’t make his first full-length feature until he was in his mid-thirties. Taipei Story is only his second film, released when he was pushing 40. something can be said for waiting, accumulating life experiences, boning up on Werner Herzog and company, before very quickly diving into making his own films, almost all of which are set in his hometown of Taipei. That reluctance? That denial of change? That paralyzing fear of leaving anything potentially important behind? Yang lived these things so he could immortalize them on camera. Here though, Yang is not nearly as refined as he’ll come to be, often rehashing character beats that may be meant to test or pit Chin and Lung against one another, but that serve only to agitate the viewer. What Yang articulates in Taipei Story shows flashes of the emotional bravery he’ll demonstrate in his best films. Instead, we’re left with a good, sometimes really good movie that would be most other filmmakers’ strongest outing.
Taipei Story–the English title, at least–is an uncharacteristically unsubtle name for such a delicate filmmaker. Alluding to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film about the parents who are ignored by pretty much all of their kids, and who may or may not belong in their lives, Taipei Story is about two people who don’t want the same things. In that sense, the film is an anti-romance. That one must change themselves so radically, separating themselves from who they are in order to become the best version of themselves, is frightening. But can one succeed or find contentment without taking these steps?