Directed by Edward Yang. Taiwan.

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Every now and again an article appears entitled ‘The End of Cinema’ or something similar. Even perceptive critics like Susan Sontag and Jean-Luc Godard have penned pieces to the effect that never again will we experience the wonderful early 1960s when, it seemed, every week produced some new masterpiece of European cinema, or the preceding decades when Hollywood was at its greatest. Although I find myself sympathising, even agreeing, when I read such articles, invariably I have been proved wrong. I thought that the death of Tarkovsky in 1986 was ‘the end of cinema‘, but since then we have had for example the late, great films of Kieslowski, masterpieces from old hands like Rohmer and Rivette, terrific one-offs like Rosetta and The Dream Life of Angels, and some wonderful offerings from the unlikely -sounding countries of Iran and Taiwan. And it is the latter, in the form of Edward Yang’s new film A One and a Two, which has produced what for me is the most magisterial celebration of cinematic art for years.

A One and a Two(called Yi Yi in the original and, surprisingly, released under that title in the U.S.A.), does not introduce any amazing new cinematic techniques. It is in no way revolutionary like Citizen Kane or A Bout de Souffle. It is simply a ‘family saga’ scripted and directed by Yang, but of such a superior quality that it fully stands comparison with Ozu’s Tokyo Story (with which it shares a location). And, like Tokyo Story, the Western viewer becomes so totally absorbed in the characters that the fact that it is in an Oriental language with subtitles is hardly noticed, nor is the almost 3-hour running time.

Some critics prefer Yang’s 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, although for me that film is a little too specific to Taiwan; A One and a Two is more universal, showing life as experienced by the urban middle class around the world. Set at the present time, its references to the troubled economies of the Far East (especially of Japan) should cause no problem to the well-informed viewer. Nor should the mention of, for example, Yahoo! and AOL. The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, with a birth about halfway through. The central character, a middle-aged man known as NJ, is a partner in a failing computer firm (Yang was a computer engineer in earlier life). His worries are compounded by a succession of events: his wife seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown and wants to go on a Buddhist retreat, his mother-in-law (who lives with them) has just had a stroke and is comatose, his 15-year-old daughter is having dating problems, as well as fearing that she is responsible for her grandmother’s stroke, and his 8-year-old son is incessantly bullied by the bigger girls at school. To cap it all, he is suddenly confronted by an old flame who demands to know why he didn’t turn up for their last date nearly 30 years earlier, and who wants to resume the relationship!

The mother-in-law is unconscious for almost the whole film, and the nurse advises the rest of the family to talk to her about what they have been doing each day. All find this difficult (the young boy cannot speak to her at all), and the film can be seen as Yang showing us what the family members should have been telling the old woman. Eschewing the usual Hollywood cliches of close-ups and musical signals to tell us what we should be feeling, Yang holds the camera at some distance throughout, moving it and cutting only where necessary, and often leaving some kind of barrier, such as a half-open shutter, between the viewer and the action. Much use is made of reflections in mirrors and windows. With shots lasting up to several minutes, and a large group of characters sometimes on screen, the choreography is superb, particularly in sequences like the wedding reception which are actually extremely funny. The acting is impeccable, including the children even though one can tell that they are precisely carrying out the director’s instructions as to, for example, how many steps they should take before coming to a halt.

Some key scenes are set in Tokyo, where NJ converses (in English) with a Japanese businessman with whom he hopes to strike a deal, and who expresses a rounded view of life, such as the importance of music and the arts, which one senses is also Yang’s view. NJ has also arranged to meet his old flame there, and their awkward encounter is crosscut with a similar and simultaneous one back home between his daughter and a local boy. In both cases it is the male who backs off from anything intimate.

By the end of the film the family’s problems have not been solved; they have merely moved on, as in life. And I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed at the end of the final funeral scene, when the young boy reads out a speech he has written. It is as moving as the post-funeral scene in Tokyo Story where the daughter-in-law finally breaks down.

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has disproved the belief of cynical distributors that young moviegoers are incapable of enjoying a subtitled Chinese film. Ang Lee’s epic was enjoyable enough, but it cannot begin to match the perfection of the admittedly very different A One and a Two. It is a pity, therefore, that Edward Yang’s masterpiece has (at the time of writing) had to rely on a small minority distributor in the U.K. The 100-plus audience at the Wednesday afternoon screening I attended were clearly enthralled throughout; please could it be brought to a wider audience? And could the so-called ‘culture’ programmes on radio and TV deal occasionally with the best film of the week (in this case of the year), instead of the trivial banalities of the most-hyped?

Alan Pavelin

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