That Day, on the Beach (Edward Yang, 1983)
Mandarin Title: Haitan de yitian
There's an impressive sequence in Edward Yang's debut feature That Day, on the Beach wherein we see Jia-li (Sylvia Chang), who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, stuck in an elevator with another woman. The woman, dressed in fiery red compared to her dull black, is the paramour of her husband De-wei (David Mao). The scene is tightly shot: Jia-Li is seen in the foreground and through the elevator's mirror, we see the paramour. The motionless scene is followed by their confrontation: the husband, who is abroad for business reasons, has switched their letters and the paramour is returning the letter to her while revealing her secret love affair with Jia-Li's husband. The confrontation retains the quaint and relaxed atmosphere. You can tell that the sequence is simmering with repressed emotions but nothing is ever let out. Life continues on, in a constant state of melancholy.
That's basically Yang's theme right there. He fills the movie with these quiet moments, dictating these moments with the clarity and importance of a historical event but none of the overstated dramatics. It is told with straightforward relevance by Jia-Li to her brother's ex-girlfriend (Teresa Hu) years after their last meeting. Yang's film is told through a series of flashbacks all relating to the titular incident in the beach wherein Jia-Li's husband was supposedly drowned to death. The body cannot be located, nor are they sure that the victim was indeed Jia-Li's husband but it is the moment wherein Jia-Li is gripped by a more palpable sense of uncertainty. All her life, she is dragged by the circumstances paved for her but at that exact moment, she's suddenly in a centerpoint in her adult life.
That Day, on the Beach is credited as the starting point of the Taiwanese New Wave and the career of Yang (it is also the first work of Christopher Doyle as cinematographer). It is easily representative of the distinct sensibilities of his nation's contemporary cinema (as continued by Yang himself, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and to a certain degree, Tsai Ming-liang). The film evokes a fathomable ache that inhabits the newly wealthy middle-class of Taipei: the way a lucrative job turns a lovely marriage into an essentially empty and torturous predicament. The film details the effects of the new-found commercialism the economic boom has provided: how designer clothes or sleeping pills are supposed to ease the lack of love in a marital relationship.
Yet above the subtle societal backdrop that Yang points out in the film, it is the empathetically portrayed story of Jia-Li that draws the most interest. Yang clearly understands Jia-Li's predisposition and dilemma. There are flashbacks within the flashbacks that show Jia-Li as a young girl and how she witnesses her mother's subdued nature against her father's sexual trysts. That quiet conversation with her brother just before she escapes from an arranged wedding conjures illusions of a promising future; yet the seduction of a free life does not deliver its supposed promises as Jia-Li furthers lower in the quagmire of shallow living.
But Yang does not dwell in melancholy (although he depicts melancholy so effectively). His interest is humanity's capacity to change which is the reason why Jia-Li's story is told in past tense rather than as a continuing experience. He understands the value of the past (how Jia-Li's decisions since she was a little girl has shaped who she is) but maintains an uncertain but more optimistic stance for the future. He reveals the scars of Jia-Li's life but assures that these wounds are either closed or closing. His confrontations are quiet, painful, and deep but in a way, they are relevant and important in letting go.
Jia-Li would conclude her tale with the death of her brother, wherein he leaves the world with a few acerbic messages on how he has led his life following his father's steps from the profession he chose to the girl he marries. It is an essential end to the never-ending questions that haunted the incomplete soul of the girl that character has abandoned for his decision to be perpetually dictated. It seals that undefinable what-if in the pianist's past, and sufficiently closes that chapter of Jia-Li's life wherein she has been subdued by the men in her life.
The act of communication and revelation releases both female characters from being imprisoned by their respective pasts and male tormentors. Yang plays doting master to his fractured characters that despite the melancholy of their scenarios, he breathes to them that human ability to heal and move on.
Edward Yang died at an early age of 59 leaving the world with films that depicted reality with brutal honesty but with tender humanism. Previous to That Day, on the Beach, I've only seen his quiet masterpiece Yi Yi (A One and a Two, 2000), a film that is so rich with nuances that it took me more than one viewing to at least appreciate his sage-like interpretation of several generations of life blossoming in slow and almost painful grandeur. His death has caused a wave of mournful odes from cinephiles worldwide. I cannot think of a greater way to mourn his sudden passing than to celebrate the feature film that began his illustrious career.