Yang: Taipei Story (1985)
Taipei Story is not the original name of Edward Yang’s second film, whose Mandarin title translates to Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse, in reference to a well-known Chinese idiom. The English title is appropriate, though, for a work that situates Taiwan midway between Japan and the United States, while reflecting Yang’s clear interest in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and Tokyo Story in particular. Yang opens with a series of Ozu-like pillow shows that juxtapose the traditional and modern sides of Taipei and, like Ozu, he’s fascinated by the intrusion of American objects and consumer products into these mise-en-scenes, whether it’s a Pepsi Cola toy, a poster from the Monterey Jazz Festival, or a pair of designer sunglasses. More generally, Yang tends to build an Ozu-like serenity and then rupture it with dissonant, vibrant flourishes, such as a pink bedsheet, green nail polish, or the stabs of neon. In the early stages of Taipei Story, these details ramify more than plot, character or motivation, all of which are quickly dissolved into a series of interlocking and overlapping encounters, a bigger city symphony.
Both directors also use these features to create a melancholy meditation on postmodernity, which was incipient in Ozu’s films, but has reached its zenith by the time Yang gets behind the camera. Where Ozu evoked echoes of America in Japan, Yang is at a third remove, evoking the Americanisation of Asia that has taken place primarily by way of Japan. Taiwan here becomes a holding spot between Japan and America, setting the film’s characters adrift in a diffuse space that never quite congeals into a narrative, and plays mainly as a series of missed connections that defies any clear plot summary. Most of the characters are considering if and when to go to Japan or America, although this inchoate yearning takes different forms. One person wants to visit Harajuku and Shibuya, but concedes that “everywhere in Japan is fun”; another loves watching tapes of Japanese commercials; a third is haunted by a Japanese lover.
All of these characters feel untethered from themselves and from Taipei, caught in a dissociative flux that’s difficult to map or parse. One of them works in a company that is being restructured, and has to come to terms with a new management ethos in which personal assistants have been replaced by secretaries and line managers. The resulting sense of disorientation expands to the whole film, creating huge gulfs between people, who are allocated to separate lanes, or separate planes of space, from actual traffic lanes, to restaurant tables, to lines at bus stops, to queues for phone booths. While many such planes often occur in a single shot, they hardly ever overlap. Similarly, while people do nominally converse, Yang often offsets the dialogue by cutting to empty spaces, as if to suggest that, even in the most personal of exchanges, the residents of Taipei are elsewhere. In Ozu’s visual terms, dialogue and pillow shot have been fused, producing a sparseness, distance and melancholy that are encapsulated in Yang’s crystalline sound design, which suffuses everything with a deeply introspective hush. Even though most scenes are set during the day, this is a nocturne in spirit, dissolving the city into a shared fantasy that doesn’t entirely exist.
Yang quickly links the affective and architectural dimensions of the city, diagnosing this unique ambience via the rise of postmodern building styles. One of the main characters is an architect who has just returned from the United States. When asked, “What was Los Angeles like?” he blithely responds “Like Taipei. Most people are from Taiwan. I stayed home and watched TV all day.” Not only is this architect unable to distinguish Taipei and Los Angeles architecture, but he’s unable to discern his own buildings on the Taipei skyline. That’s not to say that buildings have become homogenous, exactly, but that space has taken on a radically diffuse quality that makes it hard to discern Taipei except as a concatenation of a global postmodern sphere. Yang therefore spends much of the film trying to evoke the textures of this global space that flows through Taiwan, starting with a dinner party in which a day trader is situated at one end of the table, and a textile manufacturer at the other. Between those emblems of financial capital and tactile experience lies the textural ambitions of Taipei Story.
Yang channels this project through images of glass, presented here as the main agent of postmodern architecture. The glassy distances of the city confound any difference between immersion and isolation in the cityscape, creating a strange mixture of distance and connection. In several scenes, we see the city reflected on the glass windows of a muffled phone booth, which is often how it feels to watch the film as well. Time and again, Yang returns to the same pair of revolving doors, turning them into a cipher for the camera as it perpetually opens up the glassy thresholds of the city and closes them an instant later. He also tends to shoot car conversations from the hood, through the windscreen, to emphasise the hermetic bubble of the vehicle, but also the heightened hush of connection this provides.
The city tends to be most vibrant in and around these glassy thresholds, which themselves crystallise with the glass placed over the various television sets that we see throughout the film. While Yang certainly adopts a high cinematic auteurism that has seen him compared to Antonioni along with Ozu, Taipei Story’s pregnant emptinesses brim with a new virtual space that the film can only envisage, distantly, via television. In that sense, Taipei Story is particularly indebted to Good Morning, a strange outlier from Ozu, who disrupts all his regular mise-en-scenes with the simple introduction of a television into a regular family home. In Good Morning, the television completes the invasion of American culture into the Japanese hearth, whereas in Taipei Story the television works more to capture Taiwan as a third space between America and the Americanisation of Asia that has begun in Japan. Most of the televisions in the film depicts American programs or Japanese advertisements, blending seamlessly into the white noise of Yang’s hushed spaces. Appropriately, Yang draws particular attention to the television glass during an advertisement for a perfume called “Because,” evoking the television as the rationale and motor engine for the diffuse tonality of the film.
Poised between a cinematic and networked space, this version of Taipei proves remarkably difficult to map through film alone. While there are expansive moments, they simultaneously suggest an occluded perspective, an inability to read the city as a totality. The first of these occurs in a rooftop apartment that overlooks an enormous Fuji Film sign. Two women gaze down at an intersection, commenting on how they can see, but can’t be seen. In our first panoramic vision of the city, under the (literal) sign of film, something still remains hidden. The next expansive scene occurs at night, and starts with upbeat music playing over a montage of nocturnal Taipei. No sooner have we sunk into this more mobile cityscape than the music shifts back to the diegesis of the film, and we shift with it to a karaoke bar. Sequestered in that tiny space, the music suddenly seems melancholy, rather than ebullient, without the sprawl of a properly mapped city to sustain it. Once again, a totalising glimpse of Taipei proves to be elusive, embedding us back in a more networked space than ever before.
This thwarted panoramic perspective also congeals around the motif of baseball. On the face of it, baseball allows the characters to inhabit empty space in a purposeful and communal way. Baseball pitches often seem like the only vital places in this Taipei, residues of an older modernist world. Yet this modernist world becomes postmodern at the very moment it is imported to Taipei, by way of Japan, at least as the film represents it. Baseball might stem from an older model of society, but it’s only in Taipei to begin with because of a new global world order. As the nexus between modernism and postmodernism, baseball thus renders the postmodern peculiarly visible, especially since Yang shoots most matches with Ozu’s 180-degree editing techniques, as the camera lingers inordinately on one end of the exchange between batter and pitcher to draw out the texturality and tactility of the space between them. Baseball soon becomes another kind of postmodern structure – or a refined postmodern structure, composed in its entirety of glassy distances and mercurial sight lines.
Such frustrated panoramas culminate with the emotional climax of the film, which is preceded by a shot of a seagull cresting along a beach and heading out to sea. This dream of panoramic mobility is the only real image of the natural world in the film, and returns us to the apartment above the Fuji Film sign, but this time at night, and for a party that brings several of Yang’s major trajectories together. As the neon Fuji sign glows outside, and takes up several whole frames, the partygoers deck the dining room with candles. Since this dining room is perched on the very top of the building, and almost entirely composed of glass, the light from the neon and the light from the candles reflect and refract until we appear to be actually inhabiting the glassy interfaces that drive the film’s postmodern affect. This space is neither quite interior or exterior, but instead aestheticises and apotheosises the recurring revolving doors, immersing us in a city of glass that is equally exhilarating and melancholy.
Last time we were on this rooftop, the two women noted that they could see everything, but couldn’t be seen themselves. That imaginary vantage point, which is also that of Yang himself, now appears to be integrated into what the characters can see, as the sheer proliferation of glass dissolves all distinction between watching and being watched. We glimpse the same totality the next morning, when the characters wake up surrounded by glass, and draped in blankets, towels, jumpers and other soft objects they have pulled over themselves in the course of the night. Between these soft textures and the omniscient glass, now much more visible in daylight, Yang tentatively enacts a postmodern tactility, fragile as it is fleeting – and as fragile as the relations between these different plot threads, which vanish just as rapidly.
For, even at the beginning of Taipei Story, relationships have become too metonymic and cryptic to follow in a conventional sense. There aren’t even really relationships at all, but an expanding series of contingencies that becomes more dissociative as the film proceeds. Eventually, narrative logic fades into the connective tissue of the city, meaning that montage is the most natural expression of Taipei, and the only way we can acess it in its totality – ironically, or paradoxically, by splintering it into many different pieces. The truth of Taipei, Yang suggests, lies in this fragmentation, which is what brings ideology to the fore for first time, in the form of a motorbike montage sequence that takes us past a series of neon designs declaring “Long Live the Republic of China.” Characters also start to tap into the spirit of classic montage, most memorably in a nightclub scene where a crowd moshes to “Footloose,” reprising Kevin Bacon’s montaged expressions so perfectly that they’re able to sustain the flow with cigarette lighters when the power goes off, and double down when it returns again.
In other words, Taipei Story eventually rejects the modernist fixation on character and narrative, and instead immerses us in a series of contagious postmodern intensities, much as the ethereality of glass becomes more important than whatever is putatively inside or outside it. These intensities crest into two striking notes in the final stages of the film. In the first, a character is shot, wanders down a dark road, collapses at a bus stop next to a broken television set, and imagines the 1969 World Series playing on the television. This last residue of an older modernist world gives way to another character getting a job from “Data Combined,” and receiving a tour of her new offices. The only catch is that the fixtures haven’t been built yet, meaning she’s given a “tour” of an empty office floor, in which her new boss points out where prospective corridors, partitions, conference rooms and computer rooms will go. The next iteration of the film’s glassy spaces will thus be an entirely virtual space, which Yang evokes, in the final moments, by shifting this woman’s gaze to the glassiest expanse of windows yet. In response, she puts on her sunglasses, leaving us suspended between windows and windows, reflections and reflections, on the cusp of postmodern and properly virtual space, in the future that is already present in the present as Yang frames it.
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