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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Mar 11 1998
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"Edward Yang: A New Day in Taiwan"
Sleek, eerily uninhabited high-rises. Pop music blaring in minimalls and restaurants. Cheap framed prints of American movie stars on apartment walls. Disgruntled employees on shooting sprees. Corporate greed and casual sex. Broken marriages, empty lives, murder, suicide. Yep, Taipei looks more like L.A. every day, and filmmaker Edward Yang has been brilliantly mapping every nuance of Taipei's headlong hurtle into the future. Since all of his work has flown under the radar of U.S. distribution, the PFA's complete Yang retrospective, running Saturdays through March 28, is the Bay Area's first chance to see Yang's films since their initial festival rounds.

Yang practically invented modern Taiwanese cinema in the mid-'80s, simply by being one of the first to depict Taipei's merciless, alienating Westernization in films like Taipei Story and The Terrorizer, then by reclaiming Taiwan's past in his masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day.

You have to peer closely to find much that's actually Taiwanese in his characters' lives -- almost everything is borrowed from other cultures, including, in a sense, Taiwan itself. Millions of mainland Chi-nese fleeing the 1949 civil war ended up there, hoping to someday return to their homeland. They're still waiting. A Brighter Summer Day (March 21), his 1991 four-hour epic, is about those waiting families. His only period story so far, it's one of the great Really Long Movies. At once an intimately detailed portrait of teen-age gangs battling for turf in 1961 Taipei and a vast canvas illuminating Taiwan's previous decades of turmoil, A Brighter Summer Day is a sublime experience -- enormously complex (with over 80 featured characters!), beautifully acted, and with a look so silky you can feel the summer breeze. Yang vividly captures the spirit of a time and place where a paranoid Guomindang government and American rock 'n' roll -- the film's title is a reference to Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome To-night?" -- vie for the hearts and minds of frustrated, rebellious schoolkids.

The recent financial collapse of Asia is one result of the maelstrom created by the mad rush for money, but for Yang, the almost unbearable, cash-crazy tension he builds in both 1984's Taipei Story (March 14) and 1986's The Terrorizer (March 14) almost inevitably has to end in violence. The "plot" of The Terrorizer is often conveniently summarized something like "a young girl's prank phone calls create chaos in the lives of several people." In fact, the prank in question is just one knife of many that each character rams between the ribs of another, each act drawing blood, betrayal, or both. Not unlike Atom Egoyan, Yang creates a growing mosaic of seemingly random lives, building detail while withholding information from us just long enough to upend our assumptions, leaving behind a landscape of devastated souls. Your own soul will be more than a little devastated after an evening of Yang's potent work.

-- Tod Booth

See the Pacific Film Archive entry in Reps Etc. for times and a complete schedule.

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Tod Booth

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