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A Confucian Confusion (Edward Yang, 2022)

The difference in how Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang shoot Taipei can be easily (if crudely) summarized: Hou’s a country boy, and Yang’s a city slicker. For Hou, home lies in the mountains or by the rural seaside, and the city is a gleaming trap, where dreams are nurtured from afar but vanquished upon arrival. Though Yang expressed pangs of urban despair in his films, he was not so pessimistic about life in the capital. For him, the city held hidden and fascinating potentials, chances to reinvent oneself in a pressure chamber where people excitedly whiz about like molecules. This is the Taipei of A Confucian Confusion (1994), which erupts in a brisk, near-constant patter of dialogue. The film immediately introduces a large ensemble of characters before we can ascertain how exactly they’re all connected—though we know they’re either friends, relatives, colleagues, lovers, or enemies of Molly (Ni Shu-Chun), a young woman helming a PR firm and creative agency. When she impulsively fires one of her employees, Feng, a comedy of errors is triggered that brings the secrets of Molly’s professional and personal networks to light.

Confucianism is both the organizing principle of the film and the target of its satire, which plays up the geopolitical caricature of the Chinese as a people who live and die by an ancient set of virtues that ensure their civilizational success. Influenced by screwball comedy and gag manga (Japanese comics known for heavily stylized characters and panels stuffed with multiple speakers), Yang parodies a Taiwanese society that readily confirms and buys into this globalized funhouse reflection of itself, an auto-distortion that comes in handy while trying to secure international partnerships. Nodding to the way in which Confucius’s teachings are disseminated as marketable maxims, the film links scenes with both Mandarin and English intertitles which reveal topics or snippets of conversation before they are spoken, presenting these phrases as if they were aphorisms out of a self-help book. They range from thought-provoking (“Democracy and Choice: Do you know what you really want?”) to banal (“Why are you suddenly taking me to lunch?”), but they only seem to generate further misunderstandings and misfortunes.

Aspects of Confucius’s life as a court advisor and exiled sage are implicitly referenced in various characters, such as Larry (Danny Deng), a consultant to Chin (Wang Bosen), Molly’s fiancé. Chin is a feckless businessman who props up Molly’s struggling company; he pretends to be aloof about the transactional nature of their engagement but desperately wants to feel loved. Larry props up Chin when he’s hungover, and makes all his decisions for him. Then there’s Molly’s brother-in-law, a writer (Hung Hung) living in self-imposed isolation in a tiny apartment packed with books and bereft of furniture. He was once known for his hugely popular romances, but his turn to depressing literary fiction reflects his woes: he’s all but split up with Molly’s sister (Chen Li-Mei), who still pretends their marriage is healthy on her talk show about achieving harmony between the sexes. On top of that, an idiosyncratic artist/filmmaker/playwright named Birdy (Wang Ye-Ming), one of Molly’s clients, has been accused of plagiarizing one of his romance novels.

While the film’s English title implicates Confucianism (and its ideological corruptions) in its romantic and workplace dysfunctions, the Chinese title translates to something like The Era of Independence, connoting a more contemporary reality. Its drama is set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s impetuous early-’90s economic boom, the looming handover of Hong Kong to China, and the (ongoing) challenge of balancing political and economic relationships with China and the U.S. in a transpacific business environment. Independence is what the newly unemployed Feng (Richie Li) navigates as she strives to make her big break as an actress, and what Chi-Chi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), Molly’s cheery assistant, and her fiancé Ming (Wang Wei-Ming), a disillusioned civil servant, seek in their own lives. The former wonders how she can be herself if she’s always smiling for others, and the latter resents his moneyed father. Yet Feng, Chi-Chi, and Ming are not necessarily morally upstanding foils to the other characters, and Yang makes a point to expose their hypocrisies. No one’s love is pure; courtship is much too risky a venture to be left to the heart, and the right course of action must be determined by observing the trendlines and headlines of the day. When Larry asks Chin if it would bother him if Molly were cheating on him with Birdy, Chin defensively proclaims that theirs is a modern, open relationship, modeled after sensible modes of government: “one country, two systems.”

Late in the film, Molly’s sister mentions one reason why her writer husband might be reluctant to leave his apartment: a fortune teller once told him he would be hit by a car. Fortune telling and forecasting, divination and neoliberal rationality—by mapping present and not-quite-past ways of knowing (and aspiring) onto each other, Yang questions how we justify their usefulness to our lives. Everyone is anxious to predict the future, to find someone or something that can guide them through any given situation. Of course, coming up with answers is easier said than done, and it is tempting to simply respond with the title of Birdy’s new play: AAH! This exclamatory particle unleashes the frustrations of a generation estranged from the nostalgic camaraderie of their youthful school days, and adrift in a hyper-competitive world where sincerity and fakery are indistinguishable. Even in this milieu of cynicism, though, Yang closes the film with a minor miracle enabled by the architecture of the city, a moment of Confucian clarity that trades independence for a fragile yet uplifting declaration of loyalty—not to the state or to the whims of capital, but to a bond between old friends.

In Thomas Pynchon’s V., a dentist named Eigenvalue likens history to a textile rippled by folds, with most of us dwelling in the valleys of this fabric, aware of its weave but unable to discern its greater topography. Yang was an artist positioned at the peak of those folds, someone who could survey the innumerable ways that attitudes and places change over decades, centuries, and millenia. Like his other films, A Confucian Confusion conjures immensities out of the smallest intimacies. It’s only fitting to give him the title bestowed by legions of screaming fangirls upon Birdy, and by Confucius’s disciples upon their teacher: the master.

Emerson Goo is a deaf writer and film programmer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, and a landscape architecture undergrad at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.