Turner Stewart’s review published on Letterboxd:
A one and a two:
Interrogating the Genre of Asian Minimalism by Comparing the Films of Edward Yang
David Bordwell defines Asian Minimalism as a filmmaking trend which came to prominence in certain Asian countries in the 1990s (2). Asian Minimalist films adhere to a stringent and austere style that is in stark contrast to traditional Western film techniques; the films of Asian Minimalist auteurs focus on long takes, medium-to-long shots, minimal cutting, a locked off camera (with pans or tilts used conservatively), and narratives which generally focus on a small collective of characters (2-3). According to Bordwell, the purpose of the Asian Minimalist style is that it “obliges us to focus on details, to register slight changes in characters' behavior, and to keep thinking about why we are seeing the story in this way. As a result, directors can offer us subtle and engrossing experiences. By taking away so much, the filmmaker reveals nuances in what remains.” (Bordwell 4) Auteurs commonly associated with this label include Hong Sangsoo, Kitano Takeshi, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-Liang, as well as many of their contemporaries who share a similarly minimalist style (3). The main problem with Bordwell's approach to defining Asian Minimalism is that he does not provide commentary to separate this category from either slow cinema or the more general art cinema; although Bordwell acknowledges that he himself is unhappy with the term Asian Minimalism, the techniques which he highlights as singular to this category can be found in the works of other directors he mentions such as Chantel Akerman and R. W. Fassbinder (such as the locked-off camera position or use of the long take) (3). The genre of “slow cinema” also has significant overlap with Asian Minimalism, as it too features the shared techniques of long takes, long shots, and contemplative pacing and compositions, and even classifies some of the same auteurs, including Tsai and Hou (Romney). In his examination of Hong as an Asian Minimalist filmmaker, Bordwell focuses on the narrative architecture of the auteur's films, which feature “muted and mundane” actions and story beats which are filtered through a narrow mesh of repetitive exchanges and imagery (4-6). The importance of this narrative form coupled with minimalist techniques is that it encourages the audience to look out for patterns in the work, and that the “narrow repertoire of situations allows us to perceive echoes and variations among the actions.” (6) Bordwell mentions how the notably small scale of Hong's films, which feature very few characters, are in stark opposition to fellow Asian Minimalist auteur, Edward Yang, whose Asian Minimalist film, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), features a sprawling cast of characters (6). However, Edward Yang's classification as an Asian Minimalist filmmaker is problematic in that his style shifts substantially between the more strictly minimalist style of A Brighter Summer Day and a later work such as Yi Yi (2000) (Jones). The primary difference between the former and latter filmic styles is that while A Brighter Summer Day strictly adheres to the techniques of long takes and medium-to-long shots, Yi Yi does not shy away from a cinematographic framing structure which frequently alternates to show intimate close-ups (Shiau 300). The differences between these two films in Yang's filmography, in regards to both stylistic and narratively formal techniques, showcase the problematic classification of Asian Minimalism as a category as it has been defined by Bordwell. In this paper, the examples of Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day will be compared through both their stylistic and narrative architecture in order to interrogate the validity of Asian Minimalism as a subgeneric category of Minimalism and/or Art Film (favouring Bordwell's definitions of each term); the usefulness of Asian Minimalism as a term will be discussed by exploring Yang's two films in regards to the stylistic and narrative composition of the works of fellow Asian Minimalist auteurs Tsai Ming-Liang and Hong Sangsoo.
Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day is the filmmaker's most observable embrace of Asian Minimalist techniques,“with its concentration of long shots, avoidance of close-ups, repeated compositions in certain settings (especially in the Zhang home), use of doors and windows as framing (and obscuring) devices, and naturalistic lighting” (Cheshire). In fact, A Brighter Summer Day features many stylistic similarities to the works of fellow Asian Minimalist filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang. Both Tsai's The Hole (1998) and What Time is it There? (2001) showcase similarly nuanced styles which favour a naturalistic approach to practical lighting and shot composition. The use of lighting in The Hole serves the purpose of adding to the dire situation faced by the lead characters, with dim fluorescent lighting fixtures which highlight the dark muddy atmosphere of the drenched apartment tower. Even the film's generic musical sequences place an emphasis on found lighting, with the high-key lights shining on the elevator shown in frame so as to dispel the illusions of the musical tradition, with Tsai's film adhering to attempts at a natural realism even in the dreamier sequences. Tsai's lighting style, with its rugged darkness that emphasizes the desperation of those in the apartment complex, is reflected throughout A Brighter Summer Day. The grimy luminescence of Tsai's interiors are comparable to the industrial or government complexes of Yang's film, where practical lighting sources or natural sunlight bleed into environments and add a layer of harsh realism to the characters' challenges. Most notably this can be observed during the interrogation of S'ir's father, as he is confined to a rainy, dreary concrete complex which is lit with little more than the natural sunlight creeping through the windows and the harshly yellow incandescent lighting overhead. Both Tsai and Yang's films share a lighting scheme which encapsulates a kind of dark, high-key natural lighting system, which emphasizes showing the light sources in frame in order to add to the realism of each scene (Cheshire). Yang's film also has musical sequences of its own, which like Tsai's film, are lit in a dreamlike haze (thanks to the use of gauzy camera filters) which shows the stage-lights in frame, deconstructing the artifice of the musical moments while still allowing them to exist in stark opposition to the wet and grungy realistic lighting systems which are used throughout the rest of the film. On that note, both Yang and Tsai do not shy away from depicting complete darkness on screen, as the tsunami scene in A Brighter Summer Day and the penultimate scene in The Hole both embrace complete darkness, with only the sparest of lighting (a sole flashlight in the former and a crack in the ceiling in the latter) provided to guide the audience through the character's actions in the naturally lit settings. The use of natural lighting in the works of both Yang and Tsai work to create the aura of realism which is highlighted by Bordwell as an integral facet of Asian Minimalism, as the the natural atmospheres of each film serve to enhance the audience's reading of the actor's movements and motivations by placing them within a realistic or mundane setting (3).
In What Time is it There?, Tsai films interiors in a style which is nearly identical to Yang's compositions in A Brighter Summer Day. The interior spaces of the street vendor's home in Tsai's film are shot through repetitive compositions which reappear as the singular shot for each room. The kitchen, the bedrooms, and the living room are each locked off to a single long-shot angle (with the exception of the fish tank in the living room having its own frame as well), and each time the film returns to these spaces the audience is presented with the same architecture from the same perspective. The film also maintains a stylistic balance which emphasizes that parallel spaces be shot in a similar fashion, so that the cafe which the woman in Paris sits in is a similarly composed long-shot to that of a restaurant which the street vendor inhabits. Equally, Yang's film “share[s] a visual mood that’s contemplative and beautifully nuanced,” as A Brighter Summer Day also features repeated compositions in certain settings, most notably in S'ir's home, where the architecture of the space is simplified by using the least possible number of angles and compositions (Cheshire). S'ir's home is solely shot from one of two long-shot angles which point in different directions within the family's small home, with the exception being when Yang needs to show a more intimate space (such as S'ir's closet-bedroom or the family bathroom), which is only necessary due to the “practical matters of shooting” in that location (Cheshire). The repeated interior framing throughout Yang's films is considered by some critics to be a “deliberate articulation of a Chinese or Asian cinematic style derived from models in Chinese literature and visual arts, as well as the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu” (Cheshire). In fact, both Tsai and Yang's films include an overt reference to Ozu in the use of doors and windows as framing devices within the space of the home, as is observed by the opening shot of The Hole and the long-shots of S'ir sitting in his closet-bedroom (to name only a few of many possible examples) (Cheshire). In Bordwell's discussion of Asian Minimalism, he expresses that the application of this repeated framing challenges the audience to look at minor details and changes between scenes, analyzing the character's performances and the setup of the mise-en-scene more carefully (4). In A Brighter Summer Day, this Asian Minimalist technique can be observed by contrasting the repeated composition of the Zhang family's porch which opens and closes the film, as S'ir's mother does laundry while listening to the morning radio broadcast; in the earliest occurrence of this long-shot, the audience is introduced to not only the mother's daily routine, but also to the radio's seasonal announcement of which students have been accepted into the prestigious day-school. At the end of the film, the audience is challenged to more closely observe the mother's routine in light of the events preceding, and when the mother breaks down in the midst of her laundry, the audience only then becomes aware that they have just heard S'ir's name read on the day-school acceptance broadcast, which works to provide the audience with a resonant finale as they are provided with the tools to easily assess the immense changes that have occurred within this family throughout the four-hour-long film. The use of repeated framing within common spaces is integral to the understanding of the themes of Yang's film, and the auteur's use of this technique allows A Brighter Summer Day to fit into Bordwell's defined stylistic framework for Asian Minimalism (3-4).
A Brighter Summer Day also utilizes narrative techniques which can be found in the broader discourse of Asian Minimalism. While Bordwell mainly discusses the use of stylistic repetition in regards to the use of repeated compositions in Asian Minimalist films, Michael Unger discusses the use of narrative repetition in Asian Minimalist films in his essay, “Hong Sangsoo's Codes of Parallelism.”
“Hong uses a unique type of parallelism that makes the audience compare the common traits shared in a film and in his work as a whole. The replaying of the same action, or event, or dialogue, makes the audience aware of the pattern as it watches the film. This pattern of repetition is more important than any latent meaning contained in the film, because it re- positions the audience from seeing the film to reading the film. The audience creates its own meaning through the act of recognizing the parallel pattern of repetition as it tries to decode the meaning behind those repetitions..... the active role Hong gives to the audience [is] to participate in the construction of the film’s meanings.” (Unger 2-3)
While Yang does not structure his narrative with as much of a strict adherence to parallel editing as Hong does in a film such as The Power of Kangwon Province (1998), A Brighter Summer Day still features narrative parallels which are packaged to be noticed by the audience, moving them from the space of passive observer to film reader. One scene in Yang's film shows S'ir having a deep conversation with Ming as he attempts to make sense of his pursuit of her affections, to which Ming replies to him “We have all the time in the world.” The audience has heard this line once before in the film, told to S'ir's father by the military-police interrogator while attempting to force information from the father which he cannot answer (Austerlitz). As a result of this parallel dialogue, the audience is encouraged to draw a connection between the father's interrogation and S'ir's relationship with Ming, which not only alludes to the Kafka-esque confusion and conspiracy that the young couple's relationship finds itself in, but also works to provide discomfort for the doomed scenario which is yet to come, as eventually S'ir too will find himself in the hands of the military-police (similarly, Austerlitz writes that “The repetition draws a connection between Si'r's father's interrogation and Si'r's relationship with Ming, with both serving as trials by fire that neither can pass”). This emphasis on providing parallel elements in the film's text so that the audience changes from passive observer to that of reading the film classifies A Brighter Summer Day within the generic tropes of Asian Minimalism defined by Bordwell and Unger, however Yang's later film, Yi Yi, problematizes the directors place as an Asian Minimalist Auteur.
Yi Yi, like Yang's earlier film, features many of the stylistic and narrative signifiers of Asian Minimalism as defined by Bordwell, including scenes of characters as they perform mundane activities and go about their daily lives, long-shots, and and a deliberately slow pace which seems to chase the naturalistic feeling of a family's life being lived (Jones);
“Yi Yi is structured revolving around the lives of a middle-class family in Taipei. ... the film is carefully plotted around a series of family occasions, beginning with a wedding, reaching its middle at a party for a new baby, and ending with a funeral. This family, supposedly meant to be representative of all Taiwanese, is struggling with the demands of modern urban existence. ... the three hour family romance enables Yang’s characters to paint an epic-size canvas and conveys a magnificent sense of life being lived, of time taking its toll on these characters as we watch them.” (Shiau 299-300)
Like A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi features a lighting style which attempts to frame in practical lighting sources and allude to the realism of each space, with certain scenes existing as naturally darker, however high-key lit, spaces (such as the karaoke club). Despite its larger cast of characters, similar to the works of Hong and Tsai each scene of Yi Yi focuses on a particular character, often situated alone in the frame, “simply existing within pockets of time;” “one might say that Yi Yi is made up of a succession of Ozu’s pillow shots, but with people in them.” (Jones). Yi Yi certainly features the overall balanced sense of composition which Asian Minimalist Auteurs seem to frequently demonstrate, however the film takes a major departure from Bordwell's definition through it's editing style and use of close-ups. In Yi Yi, “Yang is gifted with a remarkable sense of framing, alternating between a tighter framing that glimpses into the characters’ interior lives, and a more idiosyncratic one that removes the characters from the immediacy of the closeup, and inserts physical-psychological-mental space between us and them.” (Shiau 300) Unlike A Brighter Summer Day, Yang is far more direct in his character storytelling by including a frequent use of close-ups on characters, and most scenes feature a cutting rhythm which accordions between long-, medium-, and close-up shots, depicting the characters in a far more intimate style than in Yang's previous film. This editing and framing style seems to eliminate the viewer-as-reader figure which is integral to both Bordwell and Unger's considerations of Asian Minimalist Auteurs, as Yi Yi does not invite direct examination between scenes with parallel styles, compositions, or scenarios. Instead, the film gracefully maneuvers between scenes and characters without using repetition as a means to allow the audience to consider the similarities between characters' journeys (Jones). Two of the films narratives, that of the daughter, Ting-Ting, moving through a romantic love-triangle and the father, NJ, visiting Japan to visit with his high school girlfriend, feature a shared sense of melancholia and hope that can be felt reflected in the themes of the two narratives, however unlike the repeated dialogue in A Brighter Summer Day, there are no shared characteristics between these scenes in Yi Yi to invite a direct parallel to the situations. Instead, the action is far more ambiguous and non-contiguous in its correlations, and thus it is not necessary for the audience to become a reader of the film in the same way as they would have in A Brighter Summer Day or a film by Hong Sangsoo.
This comparison between these two films by Edward Yang works to problematize the necessity of Bordwell's definition of Asian Minimalism, as despite how minor the differences in style are between A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi, the latter does not fit the mould of Asian Minimalism despite sharing the director's signature stylistic techniques. Yang himself stated that the minimalist style of A Brighter Summer Day was not entirely a choice but “that his style’s genesis lay in very practical matters of shooting” (Cheshire). While the codes of parallelism in both narrative form and style are inherent to the definition of Asian Minimalism as a filmic designation, in Bordwell's more general definition of the “art film” he also explains traits which invite a viewer's engagement as a reader of the work as well as the use of realism in showing mundane actions and slower or more nuanced cinematic style:
“The art cinema... will show us real locations... and real problems. ... Whereas the characters of the classical narrative have clear-cut traits and objectives, the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals. ... Hence a certain drifting episodic quality to the art film's narrative. Characters may wander out and never reappear; events may lead to nothing. ... The competent viewer watches the film expecting not order in the narrative but stylistic signatures in the narration... [and] the initiated catch citations: references to previous films by the director...” (718-720).
Bordwell's definition of art cinema is seemingly broad enough to capture the films of Yang, Tsai, and Hong, which leaves the only defining characteristics of Asian Minimalism within the stylistic touches of long-takes, long-shots, and repeated compositions. However, as Bordwell mentions himself in his definition of Asian Minimalism, a European filmmaker such as Chantel Akerman also demonstrates a use of long-takes, long-shots, and repeated compositions in a film such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1976) (3). In this way, Bordwell's designation of Asian Minimalism as its own region-specific subgenre of minimalism seems redundant, and perhaps based on a belief that Ozu is the genesis of Asian cinema (which can be seen in the references to Ozu's style while discussing Asian Minimalist Auteurs in the aforementioned essays by Bordwell, Jones, and Cheshire). Asian Minimalism seems to be a simplistic categorization for a broad selection of filmmakers from the Asian region, as despite the similarities between the works of Yang, Hong, and Tsai discussed above, the term Asian Minimalism is not a catch-all categorization which can be applied generally to all of the works by these filmmakers. If A Brighter Summer Day is an Asian Minimalist film, but Yi Yi breaks the pre-established mould, is Edward Yang still as much of an Asian Minimalist Auteur as Tsai Ming-Liang?Perhaps the definition for Asian Minimalism has the potential to be re-worked in the future, however for the time being it is likely best to avoid a general categorization for minimalistic films from the Asian region.
Austerlitz, Saul. "Music and Modernity in A Brighter Summer Day." Cineaction (2003): 67-71. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Bordwell, David. “Beyond Asian Minimalism: Hong Sang-soo’s Geometry Lesson.” Korean Film Directors: Hong Sang-soo. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Cheshire, Godfrey. “A Brighter Summer Day: Coming of Age in Taipei.” The Criterion Collection: A Brighter Summer Day (2016): n.p. Print.
Jones, Kent. “Yi Yi: Time and Space.” The Criterion Collection: Yi Yi (2011): n.p. Print.
Lai, Stan. “Luminosity in the Darkness: Remembering Edward Yang.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 9.1 (2008): 3–6. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Romney, Jonathan. "In Search of Lost Time." Sight & Sound 20.2 (2010): 43-44. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Shiau, Hong-Chi. “A Brighter Summer Day: Mourning Yang De-Chang (Edward).” Asian Cinema Fall/Winter (2007): 294-302. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Storm, Carsten. "Violence and Youth in the Work of Edward Yang." Archív Orientalní 83.1 (2015): 137-160. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Udden, James. "Yi Yi (A One and a Two . . .) (2000)." Film International 5.5 (2007): 73-74. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Unger, Michael A. "Hong Sangsoo’s Codes of Parallelism." (n.d.): n.p. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.