You have crossed the border and the country changes; more exotic in all sorts of ways, it is a desert and a jungle combined; although do you do not recognise it – so many features have remained the same. Your emotions so wild, so dense, so entangled; a slight pain a sandstorm of excruciating happiness. You have arrived in a new land, but it takes years for you to see it. One day when you are miles away from that crossing, and you look back from a high mountain range, you watch it shimmering on the horizon; figures moving slowly around it, inhabiting what for you is now an old nation. There is the sky, the grey waves, the russet sand, and between them black silhouettes, like crochets on a stave. The border, that beach, that one day, so long ago; that moment when everything changed for good; your life transported into a new country.
Through the hills and over the dunes they ran. Young and happy, and extra ordinarily innocent, they ran onto the beach, their faces in wild mobility; happiness darting all around their cheeks and eyes, their mouths and free flowing hair. So excited in themselves nothing can keep them still. The waves are an ecstatic chorus beside them. Love is in their veins; it is a centrifugal force, wanting to burst out from every orifice. So free do they feel! Love’s imprisonment their perpetual release…
Jia-Li has escaped the family home. Her father, an old-fashioned patriarch, has arranged her marriage to the son of an old friend. Already he has an incarcerated her older brother inside an unhappy union, and he doesn’t even think about setting his daughter free. She is a woman and therefore a piece of property, a pretty table or an antique chair he can arrange at will to decorate his beautiful and immaculate house. But she is in love with Ch’eng De-wei. Must she give him up? Must she be like her brother who rejected his first and only love – Ch’ing-Ch’ing? After the announcement of her marriage she visits Chia-sen in his study. She asks him the only question that matters: are you happy? He cannot answer! He refuses to accept there is such an emotion – it all depends on the meaning, he says. He lacks honesty; a sign of his weakness, and the ease with which he submitted to his father: a smashed vase the extent of his rebellion. Too weak to answer directly, to accept the consequences of his own behaviour, he evades Jia-Li’s direct question with an intellectual game. Of course he is not happy, but we sense there is more to this reticence: the overwhelming feeling of knowing he is not free. He has not only accepted his father’s choice of wife, but also career and we assume many other things to: his morality, his conversational habits, his social codes; the opinions he must believe in. He has become a creation of his father; a subject of tradition; a captive of provincial society. He has become just another painting to hang on someone else’s wall. That last train trip back to his parents, leaving Ch’ing-Ch’ing behind, was the border he crossed; leaving behind the big city, the university life, a future of endless possibility, for the narrow confines of the small village, an unhappy marriage, and a family business too old-fashioned and soon to be out of date. He has given up his freedom. He has lost his individuality. And he has accepted a way of life that is doomed. He is a failure, conforming to a society that needs him to transform itself. Towards the end of the film Chia-sen tells his sister that he should not have believed in his father. He was not a source of wisdom or foresight or (as Jia-Li knows) morality (she saw him seducing a nurse). Jia-Li runs away to marry the man she loves.
The railway station in Jia-Li’s hometown is an obvious border crossing. But it is not so in fact: this is the subtlety of Edward Yang.
Ch’eng De-wei is innocent and shy, sensitive and also weak; his one act of rebellion marrying Jia-Li. Though in truth it is no rebellion at all. There are no family conflicts or tragedies, he simply accepts Jia-Li’s proposal, and does not have to fight her family, for they know nothing about it. Jia-Li is little better; her escape from the family home is her only act of resistance; made out of desperation and against the grain of her character. Weak and naïve they are at the mercy of fate and tradition. Fate brought them together, and it will be tradition that will destroy them.
Jia-Li’s friend Hsin-Hsin is a pretty and lascivious schoolgirl. She is vital and canny, and is always chasing after boys (and school teachers). She is attracted to the playboy A-Ts’ai who has a friend Ch’eng De-wei. As they flirt and fancy each other up they leave their two friends sitting shyly side-by-side. Their sensitivity a barrier too strong to break down, even during the prelude to their friends’ sexual congress, as they listen to Hsin-Hsin and A-Ts’ai unwrapping each other’s clothes, their eyes ever hardly meet as they sit close to each other, silent in a room. They embarrass each other with their own presence. But slowly their relationship grows, the words pulled out like a dentist his patient’s teeth. It is only after the marriage that the sentences will begin to flow… They run onto the beach, the waves a chorus to their song…
Tradition soon takes over. A-Ts’ai is a powerful personality and marries the heiress of a very rich businessman; and is promoted to president in one of his companies. To secure his position he invites his oldest friends to become senior managers. Immediately they are successful, and their success is cemented by intense group loyalty and interaction. They work and play together, with long days followed by long nights, of drinking, eating and, we assume, fucking: A-Ts’ai will always be attractive to the girls. Ch’eng De-wei was not made for such a life. But he is not strong enough to resist. In the business his stress grows. At home his wife resents her own loneliness. Cracks are appearing on the walls of their prosperous lives. There is a crisis when she discovers her husband is having an affair: he has put the wrong letters in the wrong envelopes, and Hsaio-Hui visits to tell her - she doesn’t want Jia-Li to see what he has written; which may be something embarrassing about the company. It is all very civilised. His mistress, more experienced and sharper, has more insight than his spouse: too weak to make a decision he ran away, and purposely got the letters mixed up; so that the anger and unpleasantness would be we dissipated when he returned to Taiwan, she says. Too weak! The cracks spread, get bigger and the walls collapse: Jia-Li asks Hsaio-Hui if she loves him. Love! That is for children, she replies. She has not been so fortunate. She has had to create her own life, and make her own way; she could not afford such sentimental luxuries. For her life is simply a series of tasks to complete, and people are useful tools, to enable her to succeed. Highly rational and very practical Hsaio-Hui rises to the top. The country is a new, modern, capitalist world, and provides opportunities to those who are clever enough to take them. She is clever and she does take them.
Ch’eng De-wei is too emotional, too attached to his wife and the idea of the family. He is too small a man to be placed in the position he occupies. This new world is too big for him and he cannot hold it up. Atlas’ knees creak; elbows wobble, the palms sweat, the globe slides and falls… That Day, at the Beach is the day he disappears. Has he drowned? Has he flown away… to Japan… to America? It is a mystery. He is a weak man, but is he strong enough for suicide? Does he have the strength to live the life of a fugitive? He has run off with 50 million yen.
It is a devastating moment. It is the border I have been talking about. But borderlines are never simple; they are rarely a single line you cross. For there are the gates and fences, the passport controls; sometimes even the sea and the Pacific Ocean… Just before he disappeared Jia-Li had an epiphany; and she felt the world’s fullness inside her. At last she understood and accepted her life; realised that she had been unfair to Ch’eng De-wei, not understanding his job, the pressures he was under, his own unhappiness. Now, suddenly, she has wonderful insight… But soon she is called to the beach. A country bumpkin and a stupid policeman are the border guards, the instruments of her discovery; of her husband’s disappearance and her own enlightenment. We hear conflicting stories and it is unclear if the man on the beach was indeed her husband; though it is clear that she will never see him again. A-Ts’ai comes to meet her, and fills in the business details: Ch’eng De-wei manipulated by his mistress, who used him to rise up the company, where she is now an independent power, has ran away with a large amount of its money. More rational and calculating than the men around her Hsaio-Hui has outmanoeuvred A-Ts’ai, who is too influenced by the emotional bonds to his friends, and who kept his oldest, closest friend in the company when he should have let him go. He made threats of course, but ultimately he was too weak to remove Ch’eng De-wei – old ties are just too strong to break.
The day on the beach is a dislocating moment. The scene with Jia Li walking along the wet sands, a watery mirror reflecting the blue sky, the clouds and herself, is touched with artificiality; it is reminiscent of some great American Technicolor classic of the 1950s; while the witnesses could be from Kurosawa; and the frogmen searching for Ch’eng De-wei bring back the marvellous scene of Reinhard’s disappearance in Die Zweite Heimat. Are they both from Antonioni? Or this is a curious reflection of my own personal cinematic history? Having seen the earlier film later; was it actually Edgar Reitz who was influenced by Yang? On the border there are strange perspectives, dislocations, memories come and go; and cinema history enters and leaves again soon after…
Jia-Li walks away from the beach, and like a swimmer returning to the sea’s surface, we have successfully navigated the extraordinary layers of memory that Yang has overlapped in this film.
We have returned to the beginning of the movie; thirteen years since the two friends last met, in Taipei’s train station. So much has changed, although melancholy still seems ever present; and yet Jia-Li, like Ch’ing-Ch’ing, is free. She is a strong, mature woman, created by that day on the beach. A little too pat, perhaps, that final summing up by Ch’ing-Ch’ing at the film’s end, as Jia-Li is walking confidently down the road. Too easy an ending for such a rich and complex film; but it contains a truth none the less. To escape the habits society creates for us is a hard and emotionally wrenching task; and for those not strong enough it will destroy them. But escape is possible. To do so one must live with the loneliness and the unhappiness; which can be life-enhancing too; creating new possibilities and providing a richer country to live in; although it can take many years to realise it; many years to see that border crossing Jia-Li has long since recognised.
No film is easy when it looks to find the simple truths.