Dir: Edward Yang. Taiwan-Japan. 2000. 174 mins.
Prod cos: Atom Films (Taiwan), Pony Canyon Inc (Japan). Int'l sales: Capitol Films, tel: (44) 20 7471 6000. Prods: Kaway Shinya, Tsukedea Naoko. Scr: Edward Yang. DoP: Yang Weihan. Prod des: Kaili Peng. Music: Kaili Peng. Ed:Chen Bowen. Main cast: Wu Nainzhen, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Issey Ogata, Eliane Jin, Ke Suyun.
You could call Edward Yang's A One And A Two a soap opera about a middle-class Taiwanese family on the rocks. But that would be to underrate the innate quality of its making, the sureness of its character drawing and its truthful-looking portrait of a certain strata of Taiwanese society. Yang, who has had mixed fortunes since the early eighties when The Terrorist, That Day, On The Beach and Taipei Story proclaimed him one of the best talents of the Taiwanese New Wave, has never made a better film than this new one.
There is one disadvantage, at least as far as world distribution is concerned. A One And A Two is almost three hours long. But, despite a few dull patches, it is sustained remarkably well as Yang puts the Jian family under his microscope and finds them as confused and alienated as people living in big cities everywhere. Indeed it is the universality of the story's appeal and themes that gives the film its strength. Taipei may be far away but it could be any other city where the pressures of life cause stress and unhappiness.
The central character, if there is one, is NJ Jian, a partner in a computer hardware firm which once made large profits but is now on the rocks. He is in his mid-forties and suddenly meets a former lover again who left him for America when he rejected her. He is married with two kids and is in the middle of a first-class mid-life crisis. What's worse, his wife's brother gets married to a pregnant girl whom granny calls a bitch before collapsing with a stroke soon after the raucous wedding.
Everybody in the film seems to be in some sort of trouble, except perhaps the charming Japanese designer of software games who wants to team up with NJ's company. But the drama is never forced. Life is just increasingly difficult and stressful. NJ may get a second chance, but for a long time it seems extremely doubtful.
Yang orchestrates all this with spare, almost austere film-making, seldom moving his camera and allowing his characters to come in and out of frame naturally. The result is perhaps on the pessimistic side, but the film is saved from being depressing by its unforced sense of humour'it is also often very funny'and by Yang's sure observational eye which seldom misses a trick.
Yang has not made a film since Mahjong in 1996. A One And A Two, superbly acted by a largely unknown cast, should ensure that the gap is shortened. The film's length is clearly against it commercially. But it shows this director in a new light, able to entertain and to say something important at the same time, making Yang a very deserving winner of Cannes' Best Director prize.