For his part, A One and a Two... director Edward Yang--who arrives a little late to meet a handful of critics at his publicist's rented apartment, having been reading the rave review of his film in Variety--appears more eager to talk about cinematic universality on the one hand, and industry economics on the other. Wearing a slightly wrinkled white linen shirt with short sleeves, and a mop-top of black hair speckled amply with gray, the English-speaking maker of such complicated Taiwanese masterpieces as Mahjong and A Brighter Summer Day begins by discussing the deliberate simplicity of his latest effort. Deftly unspooling intertwined strands of a single yarn, A One and a Two... follows a Taipei family in the wake of a grandmother's demise, a father's midlife crisis (accentuated by his facing the Asian economic one), and two children's attempts to reconcile their feelings about death and loss.
"Basically," says Yang, "I think an extended family is best to allow a very broad observation of life, because every age is represented. I knew this would create a strong structure for the movie. I wanted the movie to be simple--like the title, which comes from what musicians would say at the start of a jazz session. If I was a musician, or a painter, or any kind of artist, the most important thing to me would be to touch my audience. So the film should be like writing a letter to a friend. When you read a letter from a friend, you don't think you're reading Ernest Hemingway--you don't look between the lines to figure out the intricacies of what he's trying to suggest. It's about sincerity."
As a heartfelt and involving family drama, not to mention a gentler take on Yang's characteristic theme of alienation, A One and a Two...would seem a film to which most anyone could relate, being principally about, as the saying goes, birth, school, work, and death. In fact, were it not for some of the film's more deliberately slow and contemplative passages, one could nearly imagine it as a Hollywood movie. And if it were, perhaps it would be deemed more worthy of praise in papers like the Hollywood Reporter, whose critic Kirk Honeycutt called Yang's film not only "irritating, indulgent and self-important," but a work that "stands no chance in commercial cinemas outside of Asia at its present [three-hour] length." No chance of what--moving an audience to tears? Inspiring a viewer to reconcile with a family member before it's too late?
One wants to say to Mr. Honeycutt, after slapping his face: Speak for yourself, buddy.
Still, in a sense, it must be admitted that the ever-shrewd Hollywood trades do speak for the industry, both parroting its aesthetic preferences and, through a type of tautology, informing the industry of projects that have strayed from those standards and should therefore be considered bad investments. If these papers predict that a film will fail, it probably will--one way or another.
And yet Yang seems uniquely armed to defy those odds, displaying a mind for both craft and commerce. In fact, it seems odd that a humanist of Yang's caliber would also be an expert at the numbers game--but so he is. The Taipei-raised filmmaker got his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and his master's in computer design at the University of Florida, whereupon he took a job as a microcomputer and systems designer at a research institute in Seattle. After seven years there, he returned to Taiwan in the early Eighties to pursue filmmaking. "I could have been a billionaire by now," he says without a trace of immodesty. "But I decided to have fun making films." Yang's technical prowess aside (as in many of his films, the images in A One and a Two... are simply composed yet deeply immersive), his knowledge of the state of film financing is impressive--and no doubt a strong survival tool in this era of globalization and rampant Hollywoodism.
"International co-productions are the most economical and effective way of working," he said during a sparsely attended press conference a couple of days before our meeting, referring to film deals between multiple investors from different countries. A One and a Two..., for example, represents one-third of a "Y2K Project" set up three years ago by Yang, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, and Japanese director Shunji Iwai as "a model for a new form of filmmaking in and for Asia as one region," allowing Asian filmmakers from different countries to pool their resources. "If I sell a film in Taipei," says Yang, "all the major markets are now consolidated, so I can sell it in Korea and Hong Kong and Tokyo as well. Meanwhile, we all go to Bangkok for our Dolby sound mixing, because it offers the most competitive price, and the working conditions are the best.
"The borders are merging. I don't think it even makes sense to talk about national cinema now. But at the same time, we [filmmakers in Taiwan] haven't lost our identity, because the financing options have given us more freedom, more independence. The situation is only getting better."