Film Reviews
Scene from "Confucian Confusion" Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

Taiwanese writer/director Edward Yang won the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and added many fans for “Yi Yi.” Even with that prestigious tribute, it has often been difficult to see good versions of Yang’s earlier films. Fortunately, two new 4K restorations remedy that oversight with Yang’s 1994 “A Confucian Confusion” and his 1996 “Mahjong.”

In “A Confucian Confusion,” set in modern Taipei, a quote from Confucius early in the film, “Hurt no one but always cover your back,” should guide the multiple characters involved in a failing advertising business. Ironically, self-defeating, ten young men and women search for authentic identity through hypocrisy, dissembling, distrust of others, and betrayal. Over three days, they shift allegiances and struggle for support, all the while pursuing empty promises of happiness through money and modernity.

The title, “A Confucian Confusion,” comes from one character’s novel in which Confucius, visiting contemporary Taipei, finds narcissistic individuals coveting only his ability to dupe others. A television show host, a novelist, a playwright, corporate competitors, school friends—all lie to and manipulate others, until they must face themselves. Shot principally with a stationary camera, couples often trapped in cars, all reveal more than they realize in alternately melodramatic and histrionic interactions.

Also set in modern Taipei, “Mahjong” begins with titles announcing that billionaire Winston Chen, who has amassed billions in debt despite a lucrative kindergarten franchise, hides from gangsters who believe kidnapping his son will drive their prey into the open. However, “Mahjong’s” first hour, rather like the game mahjong, requires indulgence of thoroughly sexist banter among young men and subservient, needy women with caricatured mobsters.

The affluent, callous father Chen tells his son to “never get sentimental when tricking people. That’s why we’re so financially successful . . . a shameless crook in a shameless country.” So exaggerated it’s all clearly satirical, nevertheless, it is consistently grating, most scenes delivered with a stationary camera as unlikable characters yell at each other. Led by Chang Chen as Hong Kong, he alone has an ethical compass when confronting visiting naïve Frenchwoman Marthe. Though the actors are one hundred percent committed, because Wang often used nonprofessionals, the performances are frequently amateurish in a losing enterprise.

Edward Yang died in Beverly Hills in 2007 from colon cancer, 59 years old, leaving a legacy of award-winning work. Two of his films with new 4K restorations are screening at Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium. Both are in Mandarin and Min Nan with English subtitles. “A Confucian Confusion” screens Friday, January 26, and Sunday, January 28; “Mahjong” screens Saturday, January 27, and Thursday, February 1, all starting at 7:00 p.m. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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