29 April 2002 | jandesimpson
Soap opera in excelsis
I don't think the term "soap opera" existed before the widespread growth of TV when it started to be used to define a genre of entertainment that dramatised the everyday lives of a cross section of interrelated characters that could theoretically go on for ever. The formula for the success of the longest running, the British "Coronation Street" and "Eastenders" for instance, is self-identification, the depiction in a heightened dramatic form of the sort of problems we all live with, bringing a degree of comfort and assurance to the audience watching a fictionalisation of its collective angst. When we liken a finite form such as a film to "soap" we tend to use the term in a derogatory sense isofar as we see it as dramatising trivia. However we must be careful about this as there have been examples of very high cinematic art that conform to the conventions of soap opera, "The Best Years of our Lives" for instance in the '40s, the German "Heimat" a few years back and more recently Edward Yang's "A One and a two". It is that very element of everyday anxiety viewed with such perception and truth that makes the Taiwanese film so compelling. Yang has moved away from the youth violence of "A Brighter Summer Day". His middle class family is involved with commerce and careers. However noone has an easy time of it. Each member of the family is plagued in their different ways by their inadequacy in coping with the infirmity of their eldest member. At the same time the father is troubled by his work and the complication of the reappearance in his life of a woman he met many years ago, his wife is seeking spiritual advice from a Buddhist guru, his teenage daughter becomes the butt of romantic jealousy from the girl next door. But it is the 8 year old son who seems most able to come to terms with the vicissitudes of life. He survives the spiteful taunts of his little girl peers and a bullying schoolmaster. His defence is an enquiring mind which he applies to his surroundings with a Kaspar Hauser fortitude and innocence. We already know that if any of these characters will be a survivor it is this youngest. Yang shoots the film with an almost Ozu-like purity, preferring long held shots rather than camera movements, although unlike Ozu he does not make a fetish of this. Often we see action through windows but not at a distance as in "Rear Window" so everything has an immediacy. It will need a few more viewings to assess whether "A One and a Two" is on the same level as Yang's earlier "A Brighter Summer Day". At the moment something tells me that is does not quite measure up to that savage masterpiece. Its very gentleness could be the reason, although I recognise this is hardly a valid argument. After three viewings it remains for me a rather elusive work, compelling in its way but curiously difficult to evaluate.