Via the Filmmaker Magazine blog, I've just learned that writer-director Edward Yang has died of complications from colon cancer. He was 59 years old. In 2006 I started to catch up with Yang's films. The first one I saw was 1991's A Brighter Summer Day. The film is not available commercially anywhere in the world, but I had managed to secure a 2-DVD bootleg of the 237 minute epic. I was laid up in bed, sick, with nothing else to do, so I figured a four-hour movie would be a good way to pass the time.
It's a stunning film, but when it was over -- well before it was over, actually -- the devastating impact the film had on me was buoyed by my thrill at discovering a filmmaker so in control of the medium.
Still, even that film did not prepare me for Yi Yi, which I caught up with late last year after Criterion released it on DVD. As I mentioned in my year-end posting, the experience of watching Yi Yi at home last winter was the best moviegoing experience I had all last year.
One of the reasons I would never want to be a full-time movie reviewer or critic is my inability to put into words experiences like seeing Yi Yi. Peter Bowen's post over at Filmmaker quotes A.O. Scott's review of it in the Times, and that gives a hint of what I myself felt:
As I watched the final credits of Yi Yi through bleary eyes, I struggled to identify the overpowering feeling that was making me tear up. Was it grief? Joy? Mirth? Yes, I decided, it was all of these. But mostly, it was gratitude.
There's something so exciting about discovering the work of a new artist whose work you hold close to your heart: There's the thrill of going through the back-catalog, hoping that there are more treasures to discover. And, if that artist is still alive, still working, there's the eager anticipation of looking forward to their new work, which is a kind of joy in its own right.
Today, when I heard the news of Yang's death on June 29th, I -- and all of his fans -- lost the chance to feel that latter kind of joy. All that's left for us is the chance to appreciate the work Yang created while he was here.
It may take years before I can see all of his films -- none besides Yi Yi are available on DVD -- but however long it takes, I'll be thankful they remain to be seen. Yes, "gratitude" is the right word.
Thank you, Edward Yang. Rest in peace.
If, like me, you're coming late to Edward Yang's work here are some ways to learn more:
Edward Yang: Senses of Cinema biography -- this includes several links to interviews, essays, etc.
Edward Yang: NYT Obituary [Manohla Dargis]
Yi Yi is the only film of Yang's to be commercially released on DVD, either in the USA or (to the best of my knowledge) abroad. Bootleg DVDs for at least some of Yang's other films are known to be available on the internet.