Comparing Yang (“Yi Yi”) and Hsiao-hsien (“A Summer in Grandpa’s”)
The Taiwanese new wave is one of the most influential periods in the Chinese cinema, where various directors, including such masters as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, have explored the realistic questions and psychological problems of modern life. They present a fresh, but still serious view on the social, cultural, and political life in Taiwan context, inspired by the European cinema, especially French New Wave and Italian neorealism. The Taiwanese new wave films show how real people live in the urban/rural area and what challenges they overcome for their dream. The core of Taiwan films, as Hong mentioned, is a problem of nation in global and discursive levels (4). However, a concrete problem dominates in the most significant Taiwan films, especially in Hsiao-hsien’s “A Summer in Grandpa’s” (1985) and Yang’s “Yi Yi” (2000). This is a theme of growing up that is reflected in both films with use of special metaphors, language, methods, and cultural context as well. The analysis of the theme of growing up in its conceptual explications is a main goal of this essay.
Hsiao-hsien’s “A Summer in Grandpa’s” is a family drama about childhood and the difficulties in understanding the world of adults. His films are something deeper than just stories about life and they include certain subtext-hidden thoughts about the role of Taiwan in the modern multicultural world. According to Udden, all that Hsiao-hsien makes requires a personal sensitivity directly in tune with an inert cultural heritage. In this case, “A Summer in Grandpa’s” goes far beyond the realism. The director offers an insight into lifestyle of his characters, understanding their motives and thoughts in a very special sensual way. Young boy Don-Don and his sister moved from the city to their grandparents in the village. They left Taipei because their mother was struck ill, so this symbolical point could be interpreted as a need to protect children from the adult world in which there was too much suffering. This escape from big life is a difficult experience, so there is a clear episode when Don-Don’s sister could not go to the toilet in the moving train. She is very disturbed by this relocation and thus, she blocked her natural needs. On the contrast, the adults only worry about the clothes and other everyday things, so the accompanying woman just wants to try a new blouse.
The small girl understands that her world is slowly changing and it has a psychological effect on her feelings. The adults do not want to help children with their stress, so the transportation to delusive solar village is a type of existential escape. Moreover, they do not react to children, while trying to cope with their own problems. Therefore, it is not surprising that most children begin to behave as the adults, making sometimes inappropriate things. Don-Don’s sister has thrown boys clothes into the river, because they would not let her play with them. However, the same boys teased a turtle in one of the key episodes. Perhaps, Hsiao-hsien tries to say that both adult and children are very cruel to themselves and cruelty is the only thing that unites these worlds.Violence is a reaction to the changes that accompany growing up, a kind of helplessness before the challenges of life. There is also a very good shot, in which the aggression is shown in the background of high beautiful trees (Screen 1).
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The boundary between the world of children and the adult world is very thin. For example, a lecherous birdcatcher fowler seduced a mentally retarded girl. At the same time, two young boys attacked and robbed a truck driver. For Hsiao-hsien, children behave like wild patriarchal tribe with primitive rituals (Screen 2), and it means that archaic culture is the Hou “problem” (Udden). The rural area also amplifies it, so Yang’s characters in the big city are more calm and intelligent than Hsiao-hsien’s ones. Hsiao-hsien illustrates the world of growing up as a painful process with a system of rituals. Some of them are very dangerous. For instance, children played their games near the tracks and suddenly the small girl appeared on the rails. Thus, Hsiao-hsien uses a physical level for illustration of growing up and on the contrast Yang represents metaphysical level of shifting.
The same motive of youth aggression is present in Yang’s “Yi Yi”, in the school episode. Instead of Hsiao-hsien’s passive and unprotected girl, Yang’s girl is stronger. Some schoolboy voiced her nickname (green cucumber), but instead of running away in tears, she stopped to find who is calling her. Being older, she quickly showed who was in charge in this particular place (Screen 3). Thus, the rule is very simple: the older is a stronger one. In fact, Young represents the same motive at the global level, where China dictates the rules of life, accepting Taiwan as a cultural colony. Nevertheless, Taiwanese are not Chinese, and the first argument is their culture and ancestry, which are present in “A Summer in Grandpa’s” (Udden).
Hsiao-hsien and Yang reflect their own life experience and the Taiwan experience as well, so Kellern underlined that the Taiwan filmmakers are interested in such rural stories. It must be said, that Kellern is partially right, because rural stories are not so popular in the Taiwanese new wave films. For instance, Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” is the urban story with a sense of human loneliness. In the film, there are several storylines that, at first sight, confuse viewers and prevent them from focusing on the main protagonist. Yang and other Taiwanese filmmakers care about what does it mean to live in a big city (Hong). Thus, the city is also a character in “Yi Yi” and it reflects the growing up as a new challenges to its urban area. Yang describes the evening city as a melancholic place with blue measures and dull landscapes, so it is a tired place of tired people. At the same time, it is a modern city, which is growing rapidly.
Edward Yang explores the problem of growing up as a special type of nostalgia in “Yi Yi”, deploying a large panorama of urban life (Screen 4). It contrasts with Hsiao-hsien’s rural landscape, but on the deep levels, both of them are about the same things. At first glance, it is a quiet and serene history, but then, it becomes a very dramatic ode of human sadness in a big city. The nostalgia becomes a method of reconstruction the past in order to escape from the present. The protagonist NJ is a businessman, and he experiences a midlife crisis. He wants to change and he understands that without growing up, he will continue to be unhappy. Another explication of the nostalgia is a dreaming about old Taipei, where Edward Young grew up. These two levels do not conflict, but rather supplement each other.
Another existential theme is a frustrated generation with the general feeling of alienation. It narrows to the theme of cultural abyss between generations, reflecting the outlook of Yang, who also opposed to the older generation in his works. Moreover, “Yi Yi” is the apotheosis of Taiwanese new wave that opened with the theme of adolescence, rebellion and “youthful solidarity” (Jones). When Hsiao-hsien transfers the theme of discontent to the world of children (because the old generation cannot really help to solve the problem), then Yang does not really destroy the border between generations. In Yang’s film, life connects with cyclical repetitions and its greater mysteries, so it moves from one ritual to another (Jones). This creates a sense of closure in the infinite number of useless things, thereafter is something vital is lost in life. In one episode NJ’s wife is sitting in her own bedroom and crying: “I have nothing to say to Mother. I tell her the same things every day. What I did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the dinner (…) I can’t bear it (…) I live a blank!” (Screen 5). Yang supposes, that growing is a very stressful thing and people do not know what to do with their lives. They became to behave like breathless beings, because, as Tweedie mentioned, “the world is not longer driven by the actions of human agents” (432). Many critics compare the idea of lost life with “American Beauty” (1999), but this is not a correct comparison. Yang’s idea is to show closed cycles of life from which the characters cannot escape, which is similar to Antonioni. Thus, they hang in a city constantly in sorrow for the hopelessly lost youth. Perhaps, “Yi Yi” is closer to “Magnolia” (1999), where the collage of human feelings is also presented.
The generation gap leads to the fact that characters see the same things differently in both Yang and Hsiao-hsien films. People in the city are not satisfied with their lives because they spend more time in order to make more money. NJ thinks about his future and chooses what it is better to do – business or life behind the routine. Perhaps, this is the only way to be in a big city: try to find something reliable and eternal in the unstable flow of life. Therefore, NJ presented a camera to his son. In “Yi Yi”, there is an episode, reflecting the boundary between children and the adults. Yang-Yang shoots things that the adults cannot see in real life (Screen 6). So he said to his father: “Daddy, I can’t see what toy see and you can’t see what I see. How can I know what you see?” After some seconds father said: “Good question. I never thought of that. That’s why we need a camera”. The camera is a central symbol of Yang’s films, so it is also present in “Terrorizers” and other films. Only camera can fix the process of growing up. Thus, Yang-Yang sees the world better with his camera, he grows up quickly, and NJ cannot change his life.
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Thus, the problem of growing up is a central point of Hsiao-hsien’s and Yang’s films. It connects with a theme of misunderstanding between generations that also reflects the general idea of the Taiwanese new wave, to cut themselves from the old generation. It is also a motive of changing of Taiwan, so Taipei has grew up from Hsiao-hsien’s period to Yang’s time. Thus, these are very realistic films, where the village and the city are contrast positions of the problem of human sadness. Children behave as the adults and the adults do not know how to organize their lives, so they look paralyzed in their ages, and only some external factor such as the journey to the village, the present camera or someone’s betrayal can change this condition. The motive of confusion and alienation is relative to neorealist aesthetics, but it has been performed with the new tones in the Taiwanese new wave.