During last several years, I and South Korean audiences were lucky to watch several works of Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang including “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), which I belatedly watched in December 2017. Although I initially braced myself for the 4-hour long running time of that great film, it did not take much time for me to get absorbed into the vivid and palpable sense of time and life felt from the screen, and I came to appreciate more of what a great filmmaker Yang really is as subsequently watching his several other works including “Yi Yi” (2000).
In case of “That Day, on the Beach”, I did not expect much mainly because it was just his debut feature film preceding “The Taipei Story” (1985) and “The Terrorizers” (1986), but, what do you know, the movie turned out to be much more interesting than expected. Although he just started his filmmaking career with a segment in the seminal Taiwanese New Wave omnibus film “In Our Time” (1982) at that time, the movie is as distinctive and recognizable as Yang’s next films in terms of mood and storytelling, and I am happy to report to you that I found myself gladly following Yang’s masterful narrative during its 166-minute running time.
The movie begins with the arrival of a renowned pianist named Tan Weiqing (Terry Hu) in Taipei, who has been mostly lived abroad for more than 10 years. After hearing about the news about her visit to Taipei, her old friend Jiali (Sylvia Chang) instantly tries to contact with Weiqing, and Weiqing promptly meets Jiali for getting to know how she has been during all those years.
As Jiali starts to talk about that, the movie shows us how Jiali happened to befriend Weiqing in the past. They met each other via Jiali’s older brother who was incidentally Weiqing’s boyfriend, and they soon became close to each other, but then there came a sudden change into their life. Although Jiali’s older brother was really serious about his relationship with Weiqing, his doctor father had already expected him to marry the daughter of one of his old colleagues in addition to following his footsteps, and he eventually came to conform to his father’s order despite some protest.
After showing us how this rather unpleasant change consequently put the distance between Jiali and Weiqing, the movie moves onto how Jiali finds herself in a similar situation several years later. While going through her college years, she comes to fall in love with a male student named Cheng Dewei (David Mao), but then her father makes it very clear to her that she is supposed to marry someone else instead. When she becomes quite conflicted about this circumstance, her older brother, who has been not so happy with his married life as reflected by one brief scene, gives an indirect advice on what she should do, and she eventually goes for what she wants without any hesitation.
When Jiali subsequently marries Dewei without her parents’ permission, the future does not look that bright for both of them, but then, what do you know, things get a lot better for them mainly thanks to one of Dewei’s college friends, who later has Dewei work in his lucrative company along with many college friends of theirs. As a result, Jiali does not have to work anymore, and she tries to get accustomed to her changed environment full of affluence, but she cannot help but feel discontent and dissatisfied day by day mainly because of her husband’s frequent absence due to his company work.
Although there eventually comes a moment of emotional outburst between Jiali and her husband, the movie still maintains its calm and leisurely narrative flow as slowly revolving around a certain incident associated with its very title. The more we get to know about Jiali’s hard and difficult struggle with her increasingly crumbling married life, the more important this incident becomes in the story, and I will let you feel for yourself the considerable dramatic effect waiting for you at the end of her emotional journey.
In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to a number of different figures in Jiali’s life, and I particularly like a modest but poignant scene which serenely conveys to us how much Jiali’s mother tolerated her husband for many years – and how she is totally in peace with whatever she suffered and endured during all those years. In case of Jiali’s old college friend who also has a fair share of life issues, she provides Jiali some relief and consolation as they often spend time together, and Jilali later finds herself tempted to have an affair with some guy introduced to her via her friend.
As all these and other elements in the story are thoughtfully presented on the screen one by one, the movie effortlessly immerse us into its realistic atmosphere, and Yang and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who incidentally made a debut here thanks to Yang’s persistent insistence to hire him despite the objection from the production company of the film, did a commendable job of vividly capturing the urban ambiance of Taipei in the early 1980s. As a matter of fact, the movie often feels like a living time capsule packed with considerable sense of time and life, and that is why it still engages us just like “The Taipei Story” and “The Terrorizers”, which also function quite well as the vivid windows into the life and people in Taipei in the 1980s.
In conclusion, “That Day, on the Beach” is much more than being the mere opening chapter of Yang’s admirable filmmaking career. Although he made only seven feature films before he died in 2007, he is still influencing many other filmmakers out there as shown from two recent great South Korean films “House of Hummingbird” (2018) and “Moving on” (2019), and I will be certainly delighted if “A Confucian Confusion” (1994) and “Mahjong” (1996) are also released for me and other South Korean audiences later.