Signs of Life

Masterpieces from Yang and Zurlini re-emerge on DVD.

At this point in the summer, when it's practically impossible to step inside a multiplex without bumping into a wayward water nymph, pirate or superhero, you might well find yourself yearning for a little escape from all the escapism.

Fear not: Relief is as close as the remote control of your DVD player. There are plenty of great movies out there that revel in the glorious hum and drum of real life — even while managing to entertain us in fine style. Movies of substance that happily demonstrate how reality, even at its most routine, can be every bit as astonishing as a guy in a cape leaping tall buildings with a single bound.

This is something that international filmmakers often understand better than their American counterparts, and few are better at the reality game than the filmmakers of Taiwan. Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, the founding fathers of "New Taiwanese Cinema," have been brilliantly illuminating the nooks and crannies of their society for decades, but perhaps the most perfectly palatable auteur of this bunch, the director who most effortlessly bridges the gap between art cinema and commercial filmmaking, is Edward Yang. And Yi Yi is Yang's masterpiece.

Yi Yi roughly translates as the count-off to a musical number ("and a one and a two and..."), and the title couldn't be more appropriate. Yang's nearly three-hour opus is nothing if not musical, a precisely constructed yet seemingly spontaneous symphony of human textures, emotions and experiences. The film begins with a wedding, ends with a funeral, and in between gives us an entire world as sprawling yet nimble as anything you'll find in a vintage Robert Altman outing.

Yang's naturalistic epic unfolds as a series of small, seemingly disconnected moments that slip so effortlessly into one another — the sound of tears merging with laughter, a parent's point-of-view segueing into a child's — that it often takes us a moment to realize a transition has even taken place.

With abundant affection and gently eccentric humor, the filmmaker carefully, quietly observes the members of a more or less ordinary Taipei family: a husband and wife experiencing what appear to be two very different manifestations of the same mid-life crisis; their precocious 8-year-old son and teenage daughter (both feeling the tentative twitchings of first love); and an assortment of friends, colleagues and rivals, all of whom have their own stories to tell.

The austere, elliptical structure of Yang's vision may seem a bit daunting at first but, gradually and ever so subtly, Yi Yi reveals deep and abiding connections between all of its characters, emerging not just as vital social statement and an enormously satisfying entertainment, but as a sublime work of art.

You won't have to search too long or hard to locate Yi Yi, since Yang's 2000 tour de force has just been released in an extremely nice DVD edition by the Criterion Collection. The crystalline clarity of Criterion's transfer showcases Yang's painterly compositions to spectacular effect, with the slightly muted palate accurately re-creating the film's tricky color scheme.

As for extras, Asian film expert Tony Rayns supplies a solid 15-minute overview of Taiwanese cinema, then teams-up with Yang for a fascinating and refreshingly non-academic commentary track, chatting away for the better part of Yi Yi's 173 minutes without missing a beat.

Yang and the other charter members of the New Taiwanese Cinema transform reality into pure poetry, but none of these guys would probably exist were it not for another group of visionary filmmakers working a half-century earlier in a place far from Taipei. In the 1940s, Italian filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica invented Neo-Realism with films like Bicycle Thief and Rome: Open City, socially conscious movies that flew in the face of glossy, commercial cinema by immersing themselves in the daily struggles of ordinary people.

Most of the classic Neo-Realist movies have long been available on home video, but we're finally getting DVD editions of some of the films hovering on the fringes of the movement — films that in some cases turn out to be every bit as fascinating as the more famous movies that inspired them.

Case in point: No Shame's Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpieces, an indispensable two-disc set containing the nearly forgotten gems Violent Summer (1959) and Girl with a Suitcase (1961). Zurlini, whose too-short career consisted of a mere handful of features made from 1954 to 1976, looks a lot like the missing link between the earthiness of Neo-Realism and the more ornate, aesthetics-driven Italian cinema (Fellini, Antonioni, et al) that followed.

The director's movies are more difficult to pigeonhole than those of his peers, which probably accounts for Zurlini having fallen out of fashion over the years — but No Shame's DVD might be just the thing to spark a much deserved reappraisal.

Both of the films included here are every bit as musical as Yi Yi, although the music Zurlini makes of real life is almost operatic in its full-bodied intensity (recalling yet another Italian maestro, Visconti). Both Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase are, at root, tragedies, although they are many other things as well: romance, social commentary, coming-of-ager. Each film is so consistently, exuberantly vital, so bursting with the stuff of life, that it's hard to get too bent out of shape by the less-than-happy endings. After all, that's life.

Although they are very different movies in tone and temper, both Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase detail the doomed romance of a younger man and older woman. In Violent Summer, the more overtly operatic of the two, WWII rages as the widow of a decorated soldier becomes involved in a reckless affair with the draft-dodging son of a local fascist (The Conformist's Jean-Louis Trintignant).

An even more richly nuanced exercise, Girl with a Suitcase features Jacques Perrin (later to become the director of Winged Migration) as a naïve, upper-class teenager obsessed with a flighty, down-on-her-heels nightclub singer (Claudia Cardinale, whose beauty is matched here by her acting chops). Superbly crafted, impeccably performed and filled with characters as real as any you'll ever meet, these films breath a rarified and altogether different atmosphere than the fumes of Summer of '42 pop trash.

No Shame's Zurlini set easily ranks as one of the most welcome DVD releases of the year. Both films have been painstakingly restored and look stunning, with deep, rich blacks, nearly zero print damage and easy-to-read but unobtrusive subtitles (an English dub track for Girl with a Suitcase is also included for the pathologically subtitle-resistant). The icing on the cake is nearly two-and-a-half hours of juicy extras featuring a wealth of Zurlini collaborators and admirers putting the individual films in context and offering up insights into their importance.

As with Yang's Yi Yi, the Zurlini double-dose is proof positive that reality doesn't have to bite — and that, even in the depths of summer, spectacle doesn't need to be spectacularly empty-headed.