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I'm genuinely bowled over by Edward Yang's first directorial feature film, having false started with a short in an omnibus of four with In Our Time, and having written The Winter of 1905. That Day, On The Beach is a sprawling 167 minutes of pure cinema, blessed with an incredible cast who brought out the intense story that unravelled through a series of flashbacks, and at times, flashbacks within flashbacks, that demonstrated Edward Yang's tremendous control over all aspects of this production. Don't let the running time put you off, as there's no waste to everything put on screen, all for a stated purpose adding up to the many themes explored.
The film opens with Qing Qing (Terry Hu), a world renowned pianist who reluctantly looks up an old friend, Jia Li (Sylvia Chang) for an afternoon tea time chat to catch up on old times, since Qing Qing had dated Jia Li's brother Jia Lin (Zhuo Ming Xiang) very early on in their lives. As Jia Li recounts this past, we're introduced to her family where their doctor father rules the household with an iron fist, as do most Chinese families of the time, and choices are made for them from the hobby of listening to classical music, to that of their eventual arranged marriage, which stood in the way of Qing Qing and Jia Lin. Not wanting to suffer the same unhappy fate as her brother, Jia Li elopes with her teenage beau De Wei (David Mao), which opened up the door to a lot more stories to be told on Jia Li's life, culminating in a L'Aventura-ish mystery of a disappearing man.
Imagine catching up with a long lost friend and trying to backfill all that had happened between those missing years, and that's what this film felt like, engaging you from the start as you follow the proceedings attentively, almost in curious voyeuristic fashion swallowing every sliver of information hook, line and sinker. There are shifting points of view from character to character that makes this a story about varying perceptions to same events, and the bulk dealt with the director's view points of the death of romance, and the issues that inevitably arise to plague a marriage of two souls, discussing the issue of how the modern day office life of a go-getting attitude will take its toil on married life, and the usual trust or the lack thereof that stems from suspicion that can snowball into something disastrous, made worse by disappearing passion in a relationship.
Sylvia Chang is a one woman tour-de-force here, and this film shows why she's one of the best in her heydays. Taking on the role of a woman maturing over her trials, tribulations and baptism of fire, she shows she's quite the chameleon playing the character over different age groups, made possible - and for the audience to follow with ease over the narrative timeline - through the creative use of hairdos and wigs, as she transforms from innocent schoolgirl, to dutiful wife, to finally what would seem as a confident, successful businesswoman. She breathes life into the multi-faceted character of Jia Li as she engages friends, husband, and a fleeting moment of near infidelity with ease, with the right emotions punctuating each scene.
And coupled with the strong performance, I can't praise the story more than enough through its layers and layers that deal with different familiar family and relationship issues over time. Edward Yang also keeps up that anticipation of wanting more with actually delivering over and above that expectation, with subplots and new themes popping up with each segment of Jia Li's life, a social commentary of sorts on the state of affairs in the era portrayed, which lifts That Day, On The Beach above what could just be an above average melodrama if under a different helmer. Christopher Doyle lenses this film early in his career, which of course is a plus point for those acquainted with his works, and the editing is top notch in the various transitions between timelines, providing parallels from one cut to the other, never confusing, but enhancing the feel and mood of the story.
It's hard to believe this incredible film is only Edward Yang's feature debut, that promises a lot more to come from the maestro as this retrospect goes on, culminating in what would arguable be his most famous film Yi Yi. Meanwhile, this is one film that resonates tremendously and possesses that great re-watch factor that not every film can possess. Highly recommended!
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