Without doubt one of the modern masters of cinema, BFI presents The Films of Edward Yang.
Edward Yang was a profoundly unique filmmaker. Born in Shanghai, he grew up in Taiwan, originally studying as an engineer before moving into filmmaking. His films consistently present deep questions surrounding the nature of human existence, the subtle interactions between people, the relationships between friends and family, the negotiation of the environment, the urban landscape and the loss of innocence. He has often been referred to as a ‘poet of the city,’ analysing the environment and relationships of urban Taiwan in nearly all of his films. As the BFI Southbank embarks on a season of his work, Being With a Friend: The Films of Edward Yang, i-D met with Hoping Chen, a writer and influential documentary producer in Taiwan, now living in London, who knew and worked with Yang.
How did your work with Edward Yang come about? Whilst I was still studying at Fu Jen University, I attended an intensive script writing course just at the time when the Taiwanese new wave was blossoming with filmmakers like Hsiao-hsien Hou, Nien-Jen Wu and Edward Yang. It was in fact the very same year that Yang was making his first feature Day on the Beach. I was doing well on the course and the other tutors recommended that I meet him as my writing was quite similar in style to that of his films. That’s how it started. One day he rang me and we met up for coffee. He told me that he was working on a film with possible investment and that he would like to work with me. I was so thrilled, it was like a dream come true. I always knew that I wanted to write, it was the only thing that I was good at. As a young person I think your work seems to be more instinctive, and to have somebody whose work I admired approach me was really encouraging, although I think back now, and I realise I probably wasn’t ready.
What were your most inspiring memories of working with him? Definitely the experimental project that we did together, I Remember You. I wrote the original script and sent it to him. He wanted to develop a script based on the character that I created, a fresh faced new graduate girl coming out of school, starting work in a big department store, surrounded by all sorts of people and an ugly reality. We decided that I would continue to write without a schedule or time limit, that I would be free to write depending on mood and emotion rather than narrative, whatever came to mind. It was quite an unusual way of writing a script, but it suited me really well. I was so shy at the time and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to strangers, so there was no way that I could survive in the rat race of the film industry. We would meet up just once a month, when I had something to show him, and from that time I got a lot of inspiration from writing, and he would always encourage me.
What inspired you to write for cinema? As a child, I always enjoyed the experience of sitting in a dark cinema and crying. It was a natural development from my college days, where I chose film and photography as I wasn’t a fan of commercial television. I think it is something to do with creativity. Some people enjoy being moved. I enjoy feeling that emotional intensity and I also have a desire to create that. At the beginning of my career, I always wanted to create something tragic rather than comic, but I think maybe people want to create more comedy as they get older. I had the ability to write in a visual way and that’s what attracted filmmakers like Edward Yang, maybe they could see in my writing the potential to visualise, not just to write dialogue.
Which of Edward Yang’s films do you most admire? I love the first short film that he made, Guang yin de gu shi (In Our Time) (1982). It was a compilation film of which his was the second episode, entitled Expectation. It’s about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl. A young boy comes into her life and it’s the first time that she begins to feel the affection of a man. It’s all quite abstract in terms of the emotions of a teenage mind but on the surface, nothing really happens. He describes that abstract feeling so well. In Asian culture, if you describe something like sexual awakening, it’s not necessarily about a sexual act, it’s about feeling something, about noticing a difference. I saw that film before I met him and I really felt that I knew exactly what was happening to that girl. The other film that I love is Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (2000.) I watched it in Paris after he won best director in Cannes. We had lost contact for nearly ten years by this stage. I felt that in this film there was everything that he had wanted to say in all his other films. He had finally got there, it was so complete and mature. Earlier this year I went to see his film A Brighter Summer Day (1991) restored and re-edited into a 237-minute version by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. It was very emotional for me. During the four hours I saw my friends in the film playing different parts and I realised that, for a very brief second, there was a shot of my late husband and I had forgotten about it before I went to see the film. He was sitting on a big ice cube, where the secret police were torturing political detainees. I was crying, again, in the cinema.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m currently writing a script for my first feature as a director. I recently completed a film editing course at the National Film and Television School and have been working as an editor for documentaries, fiction and experimental films in London. For me, writing and editing are the same, only one happens in pre-production and one happens in post. I think if you can do both, you will have really mastered the skill of telling stories.
Being With a Friend: The Films of Edward Yang at the BFI Southbank runs from September 27th – October 9th
Text: Joe Cohen