Emotional Engineering

Film still for Emotional Engineering

Edward Yang's new panoramic, multi-strand slice of Taiwanese city life A One and a Two... is a uniquely insightful, purely cinematic form of melodrama. Nick James wishes the west could make films as exquisite and artful

The scene is a Taipei wedding just after the ceremony. The party spreads out amid tranquil greenery. Photo smiles are freely sprung, but the jovial air vibrates with more than the usual tension. Manically effusive in a red bow-tie and cummerbund, the groom laughs too loud (this is Taiwan, remember) and the young bride, cunningly draped in white, seems swollen as much with indignation as with unborn child. When the immediate family repairs to the hotel to set up the reception party, a hedge of pink balloons is still being puffed into place.

We begin to work out who is who. There's a small, placid, sad-eyed boy of eight whom taller girls love to pester. The imperturbable middle-aged man of compact build in a discreet grey suit is the boy's father. His wife seems composed but distant. His daughter, a slim teenager in red, attends to her careworn grandma, who is sitting apart. Then the murmur of preparations is broken by a newcomer. A woman in a black dress carrying a briefcase insists on seeing grandma. Soon she is wailing a plea for forgiveness, calling herself unworthy, referring to "that pregnant bitch" as she is half-pushed, half-dragged from the room.

You have to be alert and very observant during the opening minutes of an Edward Yang film. Few, if any, concessions are made to the expectations raised by western cinema. There are no close-ups, you're not nag-narrated by voiceover, no one will explain plot points in the dialogue, and none of the cast will be well known to you. Yang's films are as rich in domestic trauma as EastEnders, but his melodrama is nothing like soap opera. It's a process of tender, sensitive, gradual adult revelation; a cinema that seeps steady doses into your system until you're overwhelmed by its poignancy.

A One and a Two.../Yi Yi won Yang the Best Director prize in Cannes 2000 and has gone on to attract high praise around the world, becoming the first of Yang's many films to be distributed in the US. Watching it for the second time in the same week that I'd seen previews of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Bridget Jones's Diary - two Miramax-assisted British films - it's undeniably the contrast that strikes home. Regardless of whether the Mira Brits are effective in their own right, I can't help wishing some British cinema would go as much against the prevailing grain. For the only rough western equivalent to the panoramic, allusive films made by Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien - directors who came out of the 80s Taiwanese 'New Cinema' - would be the Robert Altman of, say, Short Cuts (although French director Robert Gu├ędiguian's La Ville est tranquille is also in the same ballpark). But Yang's best films, A One and a Two... and A Brighter Summer Day (1991), make Altman look lightweight. I can think of no clearer indictment of dumbed-down Britain than the fact that A One and a Two... has to rely on a limited release by ICA Projects, while in the US it's fairly well known. It should be a must-see film for anyone who claims to be interested in what cinema can attain.

The pivotal figure is NJ Jian -the man in the grey suit in the opening scene (played by Wu Nianzhen, himself a writer of note in Taiwan and the writer/ director of 1994's A Borrowed Life). NJ is a disillusioned computer engineer who works with the groom A-Di, a brother of NJ's wife Min-Min. He wants out because no one, least of all A-Di, takes his sense of integrity seriously. A-Di is impulsive, foolhardy, superstitious, untrustworthy and debt-ridden -which explains why he's marrying Xiao Yan, the new office girl he made pregnant, instead of Yun-Yun, his devoted long-term girlfriend. It is Yun-Yun who upsets grandma at the wedding, so NJ has to drive his mother-in-law home to the family apartment where she'll shortly be found unconscious beside the rubbish bins.

Having dropped grandma off and then taken his son Yang-Yang to a burger outlet because he won't eat the banquet food, NJ is about to board a lift back at the reception hotel when the doors open on Sherry, the sweetheart he jilted nearly 30 years before. She now lives in the US with her American husband, she tells him, handing over her card. They part politely, but shortly after, as NJ waits again for the lift, she comes back, upset, demanding to know why he didn't turn up "that day". He has no sensible answer. But this event parallels Yun-Yun's story.

Meanwhile grandma has had a stroke and is already in hospital by the time NJ and family get back to their apartment. When she's eventually brought home she's still in a coma. Ting-Ting, NJ's teenage daughter, believes it is her fault. While watching her new neighbour Mrs Jiang's daughter Lili embracing local boy 'Fatty' (who is very thin) on the street, she left a rubbish sack on the apartment balcony which her grandma must have then tried to take down to the bins. Min-Min can't cope. The doctor's suggestion that she speak to her mother every day to aid the recovery process exposes the bleakness of her own life. She moves out to study at a temple, leaving grandma to a hired nurse and the rest of the family. Yang-Yang too has nothing to say to grandma because, he says, she already knows what he's thinking.

This lengthy exposition gives some indication of the novelistic complexity of A One and a Two..., but it barely covers the first hour of its near-three-hour running time. Though the film is packed with incident, it's mostly of the everyday, emotional variety. Scenes are often viewed at a distance, through windows, half-closed doors, slender openings, in reflections or even from way off. Ting-Ting's balcony scene, for instance (which happens during the credits), contains just three set-ups. Ting-Ting, while taking the first bag of rubbish out, has just seen Lili meet Fatty by the rubbish bins. From a slightly angled mid-shot of the whole balcony we see Ting-Ting come outside where she drops small rubbish bags into a larger sack. The first cut goes to a full-on long shot of the neighbour's window, which is at a right angle to the balcony, with a huge motorway overpass system in the background. Lili's mother opens the window (on the day she's just moved in) to get a better reception on her mobile phone. The second cut is to a very long shot from the balcony's POV of Lili and Fatty below, tiny in the distance, embracing beneath the flyover. The third cut returns to the first position, where we see Ting-Ting on the balcony gazing down. Then her father's voice calls her from within and she forgets the sack. What's effective about this simple scene is that not only do you get a sense of the neighbour's neglect of her daughter Lili, but that Ting-Ting's switch from doing the chores to contemplating the romantic attachment is more of a revelation because it's divided into separate images, with the moment she notices the couple left off screen.

Yang's script structures insist on such quiet revelation. Each scene peels off like the skin of an onion, giving away only so much at a time. When you get to the core you feel as if you know precisely what it's like to live in the Jians' seemingly average Taipei apartment block. As a former engineer and one-time prize-winning cartoonist, Yang prefers to produce scripts of careful shot descriptions backed by comprehensive psychological character profiles, using collaborators to turn these into the conventional screenplays producers need to raise money. The script's architecture is so strong you feel you understand how each compartmentalised life fits with the others and the way each character achieves a means of escape back into the personal when necessary. Yang keeps sympathy with everyone, without judgement. For instance, though A-Di is shown to be the antithesis of NJ, he is at least a man of action. He makes things happen, even if they are mostly ill thought-out, and the chaos in his wake is churned up with the best intentions.

Music is used adroitly to access the inner life of this model middle-management family and its neighbours (and to give a further clue to the pervasive all-American influence in Taiwan evinced in such fast-food outlets as NY Bagel). Lili plays her mournful cello facing the wall, Ting-Ting plays 'Summer Time' on the piano to her comatose grandma as puberty awakens, NJ sings along to 'Baby It's You' while listening on headphones and bonds with the Japanese games designer Mr Ota at a karaoke bar. The compromise between solipsistic concerns -NJ's hankering to start his life over with Sherry, Ting-Ting's burgeoning puberty, Min-Min's flight to a temple, Yang-Yang's attempt to begin to understand the world -and communal responsibility (taking out the rubbish, talking to a woman in a coma) could hardly be more perceptively drawn than by Yang's insistence on master shots that by maintaining a certain distance give as much weight to the environment as to the characters' state of mind.

Both NJ and Yang-Yang seem to be partly autobiographical. Like NJ, Yang himself was a computer engineer - in Seattle having given up film-making after a year at USC's film school. Only when he'd turned 30 did he decide he'd made a mistake (after seeing a screening of Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God), returning to Taiwan in 1981 to write the script for a friend's movie. NJ's son Yang-Yang, as his name would suggest, is A One and a Two...'s auteur figure. Through his struggles with girls and teachers he also supplies most of the comic counterpoint (and this is, at times, a very funny film). Given a camera by NJ, he makes photographs of invisible mosquitoes and the backs of people's heads that are mocked by his teacher as "avant garde". The film's most transcendent moment is his too, when the girl he idolises (the teacher's pet, called "concubine" by the others) stands gorgeously lit and framed by an audio-visual presentation of an electric storm.

There's a lot of mature philosophising in the dialogue as grandma's stroke proves the catalyst for an all-round reassessment. This collection of individuals is coming to the end of one phase of their lives each feeling helplessly alone in the face of the threats and opportunities the future holds. The strong friendship NJ strikes up with Mr Ota, whose designs could solve his company's problems, proves more important to his well-being and life choices than any business arrangement. Meeting Ota -with English as the intermediary language -and sharing their mutual mistrust of the consumer industries and love of music helps NJ to make sense of the way his life has come apart since A-Di's wedding. Ota is the magician of the story; he knows the position of every card in the deck. Yet even he has been burned.

To some extent, then, NJ and his family are suffering the typical aftermath of the Asian economic meltdown. It seems no accident that Yang should make such a mature, reflective and controlled film at such a time. If the frantic social satire of his A Confucian Confusion (1994), which mocked Taiwan's obsession with consumerism as the Tiger economies cranked into top gear, proved an apposite barometer of an economy out of control, the sobriety and tender grief at the passing of harmony in the much more successful A One and a Two... are surely pointers to the means of slow recovery.

That's not to say that the film lacks anger. Only that compared with Yang's other major achievement A Brighter Summer Day - a doom-haunted 60s period epic about a teen crime passionel half remembered from a real incident in Yang's youth (echoed here in the relationship between Lili and Fatty) - A One and a Two...'s sense of a Taiwanese identity crisis between native and mainland Chinese populations and US and Japanese mercantile influences is put more profoundly in a global, perhaps even universal context through the film's use of an 'ordinary' technocrat's middle-class family. Yang still sees Taiwan's insistence on drilling its youth to study science and engineering rather than the humanities as an imposition and a weakness. His quarrel with government agencies and Taiwan's film-funding mechanisms has been almost perpetual, stretching back to the days of military censorship. Now that Taiwan has no film industry to speak of, the struggle is even fiercer.

Yang's way round this in the mid '90s was to form his own company with friends and make use of the young talent he uncovered through his teaching post at the National Institute for the Arts. Since then he has built enough of a network for this director with a self-confessed "very strong will" to persist in film-making under the direst of circumstances. For the moment Yang remains faithful to Taiwan because he says "the costs are rather low." Whether the international critical success of A One and a Two... would tempt him to work in other contexts remains to be seen. He has the example of US/Taiwanese director Ang Lee's more mainstream career with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the one side, and the more rarefied trajectory of Hou Hsiao-Hsien with Flowers of Shanghai on the other. If he remains true to form, we can be certain Yang will plot a path of his own along the edge of the abyss.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012