Taipei Story is the first film I’ve seen from Edward Yang. It’s also one of the ones I hear about least often. This is probably down to its lack of availability in America until very recently, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Discussion of Yang’s filmography is dominated by his meaty, massive epics: The four-hour A Brighter Summer Day and the three-hour Yi Yi, the latter of which was his first breakout hit in the West but was also his final work before his death in 2007. Taipei Story comes in at a more modest runtime, but that’s no reflection on its ambitions. Even early in his career (Taipei Story was his second feature) Yang had a confident enough command of his craft to aim conceptually high.
The film tells the twin stories of a couple with quite different personalities. Chin is a straight-laced businesswoman who is beset by a run of bad news. Her boyfriend Lung is an unfocused baseball-obsessive who seems a poor match for the hyper-driven Chin. Yang takes them places that deliberately twist one’s expectations of them, in a way that’s neither didactic nor punishingly playful. There’s a breezy naturalism to the script, and you see it as well as in the lead performances.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is how Yang’s formal ambitions almost oppose his more realistic screenplay. So much of the film is comprised of shots of two characters where the camera is pulled just slightly back, just enough to emphasize the walls around them. It makes things feel that much more like a set, or perhaps like a stage. The blocking, too, feels very theatrical at times. You get the sense you’re watching a blackbox production more than a film. I don’t mean that at all as a criticism. It’s an intriguingly contradictory approach.
I’m quite curious to see if it spills over into Yang’s later work, or if Taipei Story represents more of an early experimental period. I get the strong sense that he knew exactly what he was doing here, though. There’s little of the wild abandon one expects from a young filmmaker using all the tools at their disposal. This feels like the work of someone much more accomplished and experienced. That, more than anything, makes me want to see what his films looked like after he actually gained that accomplishment and experience. I hope to get the chance to check them out soon. For now, I’m quite pleased with Taipei Story.