Sunday 20 June 2021

Home - Academic - The YIN and YANG of Short Film Storytelling By Prof. Richard Raskin

24 Frames: We filmmakers have been encouraged to dig deep into the ideology and philosophical aspects of our films. A name always stands out when one thinks about philosophical traditions and training: Taoism. Taoist perspective has been referred to numerous times in different fields, but, have we tried to utilize the practices in our field of work? In today’s article, we read the very first article about short film storytelling in a Taoist Perspective, written by Professor Richard Raskin.


The Tao te Ching (or Daodejing) is a remarkable collection of 81 poems attributed to Lao Tzu who lived in the 6th Century BC. The 11th poem is the one most widely quoted. It describes the usefulness of an inner absence or emptiness. Here it is in the Stephen Mitchell translation from the Chinese:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use

With that poem as our point of departure, as well as the related concept of wu wei – usually translated as “non action” or “not doing” –  the present discussion will consider short film storytelling in the light of Taoist thought by drawing on the YIN/YANG complementarity, which dates from at least as early as the 3rd Century BC. This complementarity is typically described with such pairs of properties as dark-light, feminine-masculine, hidden-open, passive-active, moon-sun, valleys-mountains, spirit-form.

No gendered terms will be used here in discussing this complementarity in order to avoid categorically an all too common tendency to identify the feminine with passivity.


NB. The principles proposed somewhat abstractly in this section will be fleshed out concretely when applied to specific examples in the section following this one.

Stated most succinctly, YIN will generally refer here to ways in which either a filmmaker or a character holds back, does less, while YANG will most often refer to causality flowing from the making of choices.

1. Filmmaker-YANG

Filmmaker-YANG generally takes two forms involving causality:

  • a) Skillful choice-making in the crafting of the film, resulting in masterful storytelling. This paradoxically includes such processes as the killing of darlings and cutting to the bone. Paradoxically because these are forms of ‘holding back.’ This makes it clear that YIN and YANG can be intermeshed and co-present within a single process.
  • b) The embedding of causality into the very structure of the film, in the sense that a cause-and-effect relationship is established between any given event and the one that follows. This means that at no point in the film do events succeed one another merely temporally, as in a series of the type: “and then, and then, and then…”

In connection with this second form, readers familiar with E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) may be reminded of his distinction between ‘story’ and ‘plot’ when he wrote:

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Although Forster’s example beautifully illustrates the difference between merely temporal and causal relationships between events, his distinction between story and plot will be of no further relevance to the present discussion.

2. Character-YANG

The second form of filmmaker-YANG meshes perfectly with character-YANG which involves the causality in play when a character shapes his or her own story by making choices, by making things happen. In other words, the production of causal rather than merely temporal relationships between events, can be viewed in both a filmmaker and a character perspective.

Ideal central characters in short films are generally endowed with the power to make things happen, and a common beginner mistake is to design a main character who is too passive and has too little power. In our terms, this would be a fatal lack of character-YANG, though one notable exception – in the film Natan – will soon be discussed in some detail.

3. Filmmaker-YIN

Filmmaker-YIN can take many forms in short film storytelling, all of which involve holding back or doing less. These forms include opting for:

  • a) a minimal runtime, with no filler unnecessarily prolonging the film or any given shot by even a single frame that isn’t needed;
  • b) a simple, uncluttered story, leaving an inner space within the film for the viewer to enter and explore for the purpose of constructing meanings;
  • c) leaving essential things implicit, in subtext, for the viewer to work out;
  • d) allowing subtle things to tell the story with no overexplaining, and with no reliance on spectacularly dramatic events to hold the viewer’s interest.

In these connections, the filmmaker-YANG processes of choice-making in crafting the film – which as already mentioned include killing darlings and cutting to the bone – interlace seamlessly with the filmmaker-YIN processes of holding back on adding unnecessary embellishments or complications to the story.

Once again, YIN and YANG should not be seen as mutually exclusive opposites inevitably working at cross-purposes, but rather as intermeshed possibilities – in this case, each contributing to the breathtaking economy of the short film as an art form. Both aspects – holding back (YIN) and taking away (YANG) – can be seen in this memorable statement made by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his novel, Terre des hommes (1939): “it appears that perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away” (il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher).

Other forms of filmmaker-YIN can include:

  • e) leaving ellipses for the viewer to fill in the missing moments;
  • f) not using dialogue or voice-over, and instead relying exclusively on wordless means to tell the story;
  • g) leaving the viewer in doubt as to how given moments or the entire film should be understood.

4. Character-YIN

Character-YIN refers to ways in which characters do less or fill less of the story space, taking up less of its oxygen. This involves for example:

  • a) a restrained, modest, self-effacing manner;
  • b) an absence of spectacular appearances or gestures;
  • c) subtlety, delicacy, tact, nuance in whatever they do;
  • d) a sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of other characters;
  • e) leaving ample room for other characters to take initiatives;
  • f) holding back on doing something that might otherwise be expected.


Six concrete examples will now be provided to illustrate various forms of YIN and YANG, most but not all of which have been described above. Instead of examining a full range of those forms for any one film, which would repetitiously include for example the filmmaker-YANG involved in the crafting of the storytelling, I will highlight only the unique forms of the complementarity for which the example was selected. Whenever available, a link will be provided. I am grateful to the filmmakers who kindly gave me permission to use images from their films.

1. Witness/Témoin

Ali Asgari (France/Iran, 2020, 15 min., fiction)

At a shopping mall, a mother leaves her daughter waiting in their car while she hurriedly exchanges a purchased item. On her way back and still at the upper level of the mall, she notices an elderly woman apparently afraid to use an escalator and approaches to help her. Explaining that it is not at all dangerous, the mother places a hand on the reluctant woman’s shoulder, virtually pushing her onto the top step of the moving staircase. This inadvertently causes the elderly woman to tumble downwards, head over heels, and badly hurt herself. The daughter, who was tired of waiting and had left the car, witnesses this event, and the mother, who slips away as though she had nothing to do with the accident, realizes that her daughter has seen what has just happened. When they drive away in the final scene, daughter and mother say nothing to each other.

Here the character-YANG peaks as the mother pushes the elderly woman onto the escalator with good intentions but disastrous consequences. The mother’s YANG is of a negative kind, in the sense that she is literally as well as figuratively too pushy in her efforts to help.

And the absence of dialogue in the car, with both mother and daughter holding back on saying what is going through their thoughts, is of course pure YIN and the reason for which I chose this example. This ending, powerful by virtue of what it omits, leaves the viewer thinking about why the two characters remain silent and what they might have said to one another if they had engaged in dialogue.

2. Wind/Szél

Marcell Iványi (Hungary, 1996, 6 min., fiction)

http://www.kraatsfilm.com/szel/wind480_480.mpg  or  https://vimeo.com/448067284

Three women look toward our left at something off-camera. The camera pans right, away from the object of their gaze, while tracking forward past a house. Some peasants in archaic garb fill the frame and walk to the left as the camera continues to pan right. Some spectators now appear, wearing the same outdated peasant costumes, looking at something off-camera. In the distance, a man has been hanged from a post and other hanged men soon appear in view. We finally see that the spectators are looking at a man being prepared for hanging. A sack is placed over his head and the hangman – in the same outmoded garb as is everyone else – awaits a signal. Someone in charge nods and the hangman kicks the stool out from under the feet of the victim, whose body twitches after he falls. The spectators watch as the camera continues panning right. Eventually, the three women seen at the start of the film reappear, the camera having panned full circle in what appears to be a single, uninterrupted shot. We are now back to where we started, only now we know what the three women were looking at. They turn away and return to their homes. Fade to white.

One of the many striking features of this film is that no national symbols – no identifiable uniforms or emblems – indicate a specific historical situation. In this regard, the filmmaker deliberately held back cues – such as a swastika or Serbian flag – that might have told us who was hanging whom. Here a high degree of filmmaker-YIN is in play, leaving it up to the viewer to consider why no cues were given and what the film might be intended to suggest regarding the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders of improvised executions.

It is also striking that the characters passively observe the hanging, not only with no attempt to intervene but also with no expression on their faces as the execution takes place. This is character-YIN to a high degree and we can only wonder whether we aren’t expected to disapprove of this utter passivity.

 3. Come/Kom.

Marianne Ulrichsen (Norway, 1995, 5 min.) 


An elderly woman touches a pocket watch which triggers a flashback of her as a girl at a fair, dangling the watch before a young man who is drinking with some friends at a distance. On seeing the watch, he feels the empty watch pocket in his vest, with a nearby friend smiling knowingly. The young man looks up at the girl, who smiles, turns and walks away. He follows her and when he is close enough, she tucks the watch into his pocket and smooths it down with her hand, which he clearly notices as a signal. She now takes his hand and says “Come,” leading him to a cabin where they will be alone. She touches his hair and face. They kiss. She closes her eyes in pleasure as his hand gently moves over her breast and down over her dress, with his fingers finally curling upward. The elderly woman, remembering, sighs with pleasure, winds the pocket watch, and places it in the vest pocket of an elderly man by her side. They both smile while looking at each other. She squeezes his hand and whispers “Come,” which makes him smile with delight.

The character-YANG in this film consists of course in the causality flowing from the main character’s choices as she makes things happen. She has chosen the man she wants and dangles his pocket watch as bait in order to attract his attention and draw him away from his friends. She sends an important signal to him by pressing her hand to his chest when slipping the watch into his vest pocket. She draws him away, to a private place and touches him to start their love-making. Constantly setting the agenda for the couple, she is shaping her own story. All of this is pure YANG.

But it is up to us to figure out that she must have somehow obtained the watch as part of a strategy for landing her chosen mate. How and when she did that is totally unexplained. And this, as well as the nearly wordless storytelling and the extreme brevity of the film, are among the salient features of filmmaker-YIN in play.

4. Natan

Jonas Bergergård and Jonas Holmström (Sweden, 2003, 12 min., fiction)


Natan is a lost soul, not good at anything he does, unsure of what he wants, and easily bullied. Fired from his job at a grill bar for incompetence, he is offered a ride home by Viggo, the owner of the place. When during the drive, Natan is pressed for a piece of information about his situation, all he can think of saying is that he is considering getting a dog. Viggo immediately takes out a newspaper and finds an offer for a dog at a nearby address, ignoring Natan’s displeasure with Viggo’s move. They arrive at the home of Sabina, the woman offering her dog in the advert. She soon asks her guests whether they would prefer coffee or tea, and Natan, unable to answer, is told by Viggo: “Don’t be so indecisive.” When Sabina brings the dog over for Natan to pick it up, he does so clumsily and has to be told how to hold it. When unable to say whether or not he wants the dog, Viggo scoffs: “He might as well get himself a parrot.” Overwhelmed by the situation, Natan asks where the bathroom is, but instead of going there, he flees into the woods and hides from Viggo who goes out looking for him. When Natan returns alone, Sabina asks him whether he would like to pat the dog, to which he characteristically replies: “I don’t know.” When he tries, Sabina compliments him, saying the dog likes being patted by him, that he has good hands and is good with animals and people. Unused to praise or kindness, he asks: “You think so?” Viggo then returns from searching in the woods, has more reproaches for Natan, and wants them both to leave in his car without delay. From the final scene:

*Click on the Image for Full-size view

This is the only award-winning short film I know of in which the main character is completely lacking in the YANG qualities embodied for example in the woman in Come who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. In this respect, she and Natan are perfect opposites. His inability to shape his own story finally begins to give way near the end of the film when a kind woman offers him encourage­ment and a protective space. In this film, character-YANG is concentrated in a negative form in the bully Viggo and in a positive form in the maternal Sabina, while the main character suffers for the most part from helplessness and submissiveness that might be regarded as a pathological form of character-YIN.

5. The Office/Urzad

Krzysztof Kieslowski (Poland, 1966, 6 min., documentary)


N.B. In an earlier article published in this journal (“Seven Types of Voice-Over in Short Film Storytelling”), I used the final sequence of this film to exemplify a disjunction of sound and image as one character addresses another in voice-over. Now I would like to return to the same sequence and accompanying images, but this time in relation to the YIN/YANG complementarity.

The entire film is set in a government office in which elderly people apply for their pensions and are given a run-around by the younger clerks working there, who with little empathy point out errors in the applications or require that additional forms be filled out. In the final sequence, there is an alternation between two areas of the office: the public one in which the clients await their turns at counters where windows separate them from the clerks; and a storage room, presumably accessible only to staff, with thousands of files gathering dust on shelves.

*Click on the Image for Full-size view

The office’s two loci – the storage room, hidden from view, and the public space in which clients and clerks interact – might be regarded as the film’s YIN and YANG domains, respectively. The character-YANG resides most obviously in the voices of the clerks issuing instructions to their clients, regardless of which domain we see on screen while hearing those voices.

But the YIN domain of the storage room has its own story and secrets to tell. What exactly will become of the forms in which the clients take the trouble to state “all they have done throughout their lifetime”? Will anyone bother to read those accounts? Or will they simply wind up unread on storage shelves? Are they an entirely unnecessary hurdle the clients are required to clear for no reason at all, simply as a bureaucratic nuisance imposed on them by a soulless state?

The film’s YANG could be viewed as the control exerted on the elderly by the state and its agents, and the film’s YIN as both the utter vulnerability of the elderly and the reality held back and out of sight by the authorities, that the state forces its subjects to jump through hoops for no reason at all, practically as a grotesque and monstrous joke.

6. The War Is Over/La guerra è finita

Nina Mimica (Italy, 1997, 7 min., fiction)


After a dream-like prelude in which a bare-chested soldier – who will turn out to be the main character – performs a euphoric dance, we see someone working on telephone lines in an open field, followed by a close shot of Marco in an improvised phone booth made of wooden beams and plastic sheets. He dials repeatedly, finally gets a connection and speaks to his family members, letting them know that he is alive and that the war is over. He speaks briefly to his grandmother, his little sister, his nearly hysterical mother who warns him not to travel at night because “it isn’t safe yet,” and finally at greater length to his father. He is surrounded by other soldiers, eagerly awaiting their turn to use the phone. One closest to him holds a crutch. Marco’s family can’t wait for him to come home. This dialogue ensues, with shots of the soldier holding a crutch when Marco mentions his friend:

*Click on the Image for Full-size view

Now the soldier who had been holding a crutch moves light-footedly and takes over the phone. As Marco walks away alone in the final shot with his back to the camera, the framing eventually reveals that he is on crutches and has lost a leg.

At the core of this story is a strategy Marco has devised in order to find out whether or not his emotionally unstable mother would be able to tolerate the sight of an amputee in her midst. This would in turn tell him whether or not he can now return home. In carrying out this strategy, he is in charge of his own story and character-YANG is therefore in play. But the strategy involves holding back from his father the fact that he, Marco, has lost a leg, and this holding back is emblematic of character-YIN. Furthermore, the filmmaker has held that information back from us as well until the final seconds of the film, and leaves it up to us to figure out when the film ends exactly what Marco had been up to when making the phone call. In these respects, filmmaker-YIN is in play, while filmmaker-YANG is involved in the careful deception of the viewer who – for example – is repeatedly led to think that the soldier holding a crutch is the one who has lost a leg. What all of this suggests is that there is a cluster of interlaced YIN and YANG factors at both character and filmmaker level at the center of this story.


I hope to have shown in this brief introduction to the subject that looking at short films in relation to the YIN/YANG complementarity can highlight aspects of their storytelling that we might otherwise miss. Of particular importance in this respect are the ways in which the filmmaker leaves room in his or her film for viewers to enter. That room is like the inner space described in the 11th poem of the Tao te Ching, cited at the start of this discussion – such as the hub of a wheel or the emptiness within a vessel. It is what enables viewers to construct possible meanings while exploring the film. That inner space – pure YIN – resulting from the filmmaker’s holding back, is an essential part of the film.

Taoism has inspired many studies of artistic creation. For example, a number of books have been devoted to painting in the light of Taoist thought, including Sze Mai-Mai’s The Tao Of Painting (1953), Wucius Wong’s Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting (1990), Jeanne Carbonetti’s The Tao of Watercolor (1998), and HongNian Zhang & Lois Woolley’s The Yin Yang of Painting (2000). There is a Tao of Pooh (1982), in which Benjamin Hoff uses A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (1926) as a way of illustrating Taoist thought. Closer to our own concerns is Amnon Buchbinder’s groundbreaking The Way of the Screenwriter (2005), focusing on principles underlying the screenplays of such feature films as Galaxy Quest (1999), The Fisher King (1991), and The Piano (1993) in the light of the Tao te Ching.

Whatever its limitations may be, the present article is, I believe, the first attempt to view short film storytelling in a Taoist perspective. I hope it will not be the last.


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