First Film Series: Edward Yang’s That Day, On the Beach
This is another entry into our series covering the first film of a great director. Read Curtis’ article on Knife in the Water (1963) and my article on As Tears Go By (1988) if you want to catch up on the previous entries from this series.
The entry into our series will cover Edward Yang’s first feature length film That Day, On the Beach (1983). Before Yang directed his first feature he had previously worked as a TV director, a screenwriter for the Hong Kong TV movie called The Winter of 1905, and then as a writer-director for the the Taiwanese New Wave anthology film called In Our Time (1982). Yang directed the short called Desires (alternate title: Expectations) which was a touching short film about a young woman’s experience while going through puberty.
Compared to the other film makers from the Taiwanese New Wave, Yang was very much interested in contemporary moments and situations and in particular, the lives of upper-class Taiwanese men and women, families, relationships, and their experience in late-capitalism. Even the one period-piece film, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), managed to touch on contemporary issues that Taiwan was facing at the time. Yang’s first film then perfectly fits this description of his work and in many ways shows us many of the themes and types of character he will return to in later films.
That Day, On the Beach is an impressive first film by any standard. The story is simple but the way it is told is complex and is what allows it to transcend the melodrama genre. Yang constructed a fractured narrative about the dissolution of a bourgeois couple living in contemporary (for its time) Taipei. The acting and performances in the film are what you would find in most of Yang’s other films, that is, very restrained but still emotional and effective. The narrative is framed through a series of flashbacks brought about by a lunch-date between two old friends, Lin Chia-li and Tan. They both recount the events of their lives from the last time they met which eventually leads into a narrative within the framing narrative about the death of romance.
I don’t know if I have seen such an unromantic depiction of married life in film before this one (with the exception of the married couple in The Terrorizers (1987)). The two friends catching up had different experiences with romance and love in their life. Tan, a famous concert pianist, was once engaged to Chia-li’s brother but then broke off the marriage because he parents were opposed to it. Chia-li married for love but her marriage has become the exact opposite of what she imagined. I’ve never thought of Yang as a feminist but this film has without a doubt an anti-conservative statement on marriage and the independence of women in late-capitalist society. Tan enjoys her life and is successful because she didn’t follow her heart; Chia-li did and now she is paying for it.
Tan wanted to meet up with Chia-li to figure out what happened to her long lost love but instead was given a look into the dissolution of a her friend’s marriage. Yang’s film follows the casual nature of a conversation and veers off in unexpected ways like most conversations between two old friends catching would. This why I would label the film as a fractured narrative; it follows the beats of a conversation and delves into new territories and diversions that does away with conventional tropes of most narrative cinema.
Like his later films, That Day, On the Beach has a novelistic quality that is hard to produce in the film medium but when it does work, it works magnificently. Many critics and film makers try to completely distance cinema from literature which in one sense is good because they are different ways of telling stories. But, they both tell stories and Yang’s novelistic films (That Day, On the Beach, A Brighter Summer Day, and Yi Yi) are like reading a great novel; his stories completely absorb the spectator and you can’t put the film down until it’s finished.
This film is a great debut from a great director that is (as I have written many times) grossly underrated and nearly unknown in the West but thankfully more people are seeing his films and recognizing his greatness.
R.I.P. Edward Yang.