On Edward Yang's mu-vies


A gravestone is meant to answer the question, “Who is buried here?” Yasujiro Ozu requested his answer to be “mu.” This absence of an answer and denial of the question forces the audience to reconsider what is being asked by the subject and how the object of a scene is modified. Ozu perhaps influenced Edward Yang to involve the mu element to represent a character’s motivation and incorporate the more Japanese mono no aware to explain the character’s following actions of acceptance and decision.

Yang lends his characters a sense of sympathetic sadness, or mono no aware, to an extent to demonstrate their feelings and situations without the objects of their consternation actually being on screen. In order to convey everything he needs, he requires the audience to recognize the ostensible nothingness—pillow shots, a ghost of a relationship, vague reflections in glass—between the perceived primary objects in a scene. Then the audience can break down the scene into what these objects are and notice the difference between them individually and all together to see that they do not quite add up. The dim reflection of NJ’s wife in a glass window with the city roads as a backdrop, a stop light near her heart’s reflection, are shot from her point of view. She sees the world around her but she herself is hardly visible as she faces her midlife crisis. She is not there; she has to remove herself from this world to return to it fully. In this situation and others like it, these auteurs can make a point about something without directly filming the worldly view of that thing, by reversing or hurling the thing into unreal elements like reflections and voids.

Edward Yang makes use of mu as depiction of un-reasoning, demonstrating that a decision or perception of something is based on what’s not there. In Yi Yi, Yang captures characters in ephemerality via reflections and allows the camera to keep a wide view of a scene with little movement, providing both an establishing shot and context for the characters movement through it. This contextuality allows the viewer to reflect on the characters place in this space. In Terrorizers the camera often enters rooms with the lights off, waiting for someone to turn them on to see what to do next. This would be an example of how Yeh and Davis interpret how, according to Frederic Jameson, “space awaits the event” (Yeh 131).

This effect is mirrored in Terrorizers by Zhou’s anticipation of a “new beginning” while waiting for her plans—marriage, children, publication—to come to fruition. Her relationship with her husband itself can be considered mu. Rather, they form a sort of anti-relationship from having so little between them, a void, expanded by his constant work and domestic complacency and her frustration with married life. While Zhou feels her life repeating itself in shorter periods of time, Li continues to feel complacent with her as a background companion whom he makes feel as comfortable as possible, propagating ataraxia and trapping her in a life with no life. As Li realizes this relationship with his wife and his relationship with work, which is more important to him, he himself fades into nothingness.

When Li kills his Zhou’s lover and then enters the bedroom to find Zhou, he hesitates differently. In the former case, Li stares at him, and the camera shows the lover’s face change expressions from a tired placidity to a surprised and curious recognition and finally a look of defensive hostility as he realizes what Li intends. Perhaps he finally sees his gun at this point, but while the camera watches his final moments, Li is not on screen and probably wants this hesitation to function as a sort of reckoning for his situation relative to Li’s. When he enters the bedroom to find Zhou, he hesitates differently, and we see more of his own face which grows a look of apprehension. At this point, he’s likely thinking of his wife and how he wishes he could come home to see her in his bed, which the camera never shows. As Zhou breaks down, we hear the mirror shatter from Li’s bullet. He shot her lover, and Zhou is someone he feels he should be mad at, yet he doesn’t by reason of mu. Whether he wants to kill his wife by proxy or not, he likely notices Zhou’s reflection in that mirror and shoots this unreal conception of his wife. He blamed his job more than his wife, though she leaving him did more damage than his denied promotion yet does not actually shoot her; rather, his conception of what she meant to him—stability, partnership, and someone he seemed to think he didn’t need to work for—is something he felt he needed to kill as much as her lover and his boss. He wants something real, such as Zhou, rather than the nothingness that is his wife at this point in the plot and his job prospects that have failed. However, he comes to accept it in his own death.

Yang manipulates the camera’s perception of spaces to capture reflection, reality, and repetition, using the medium as the message much as Ozu does in films like Late Spring (Eleftheriotis). Both Yang and Ozu grew up and filmed in countries with an uncertain future, living through a new wave of troubling societal change as Yeh describes (Yeh 93) that one could only accept and move on into uncertainty.

Works Cited

Eleftheriotis, Dimitris, and Gary Needham. “Ozu and the Colonial Encounter in Hou Hsiao-hsien.” Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Yeh, Emilie Yueh-yu., and Darrell William. Davis. Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Print.