Born in Shanghai in 1947, Yang moved to Taiwan with his family two years later. He graduated in electrical engineering in Florida and briefly studied at the film school of the University of Southern California before quitting to take a computer job in Seattle. There, he rediscovered his love of cinema and returned to Taipei in 1981 to become a filmmaker.
On his return, Yang directed a segment of omnibus feature In Our Time. His influential 1983 feature debut, That Day On The Beach, gave Christopher Doyle his first job as a director of photography. Through his work in both film and theatre, Yang was a prodigious discoverer of talent. His 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, considered by many critics his greatest achievement, introduced actors Chang Chen and Chen Shiang-chyi as the film's troubled teenagers.
Yang directed seven feature length films. His final film, A One And A Two (Yi Yi), secured the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2000. Fully-financed from Japan, the study of middle-class angst in contemporary Taipei has never been theatrically released in Taiwan. Yang was unhappy with the island's Hollywood-dominated distribution system and - suspicious of politicians - couldn't adapt to a film industry that had become dependent on government subsidies.
In 2002, Yang executive produced the feature debut of his long-time assistant director Alex Yang, The Trigger. That same year he announced an ambitious $25m budget animation called Wind Chaser.
In 2005, Yang headed the short film jury at Cannes where he appeared healthy despite his ongoing battle with cancer. Since then, he has spent most of his time in North America with his wife, concert pianist Kaili Peng. For the past few months, he had been working on daily drawings for his new animation film Fifi.
He is survived by Kaili, his six-year-old son Sean, his sister Li and one brother Robert.
His widow Kaili has issued a statement: 'He was an exceptional human being, one of the greatest modern filmmakers and we hope his legacy will stay on.'