YI YI (2000)

  • Director: Edward Yang
  • Writer: Edward Yang
  • Starring: Wu Nien-Jen, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Issey Ogata, Chen Hsi-Sheng, Su-Yun Ko, and Chang Yu Pang
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#93), BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century (#8), Shown at 2000 Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Subscription on The Criterion Channel

Yi Yi is both enormous and intimate, piecing together whole series of details in order to speak to some larger truths about life and society as a whole. It is a three-hour Taiwanese family drama, though critic Nigel Andrews wrote that “to describe it as a three-hour Taiwanese family drama is like calling Citizen Kane a film about a newspaper.” So… guilty? I have to confess, it has so many different plot threads and characters that I halfway through pretty much lost track of who was who and what their relationships all were to each other. Yet the visuals, cumulatively, every shot very specific in its own way, accumulate over the course of the movie. And at the end, my eyes got misty and I’m not even sure I could tell you why.

Every shot in Yi Yi feels like it’s through something, like glass or a doorway. It resists the urge, for the most part, to push in up close to its characters’ faces, instead tending to show them in relationship to their environment. Director Edward Yang isn’t de-personalizing his characters, but showing how in whatever space you’re in there’s some basic humanity there. At least that’s my take. In some ways the compositions remind me of Yasujiro Ozu, though no Ozu movie would ever have a huge fight break out a baby shower between a guy’s wife and old girlfriend, one of whom (which? I dunno) ends the scene by screaming in his face, “This is your fault! I’ll feed your dick to the pigs!”

Edward Yang was one of the leading lights of the “Taiwanese New Cinema,” a group of Taiwanese directors who were trained in America and returned home to revitalize the local film industry in the 1990s. Yi Yi won him the Best Director award at Cannes and has, in the years since, become a sort of slightly underground critical hit. A lot of people haven’t seen it, because it’s super long with no external reason as to why, but I think that a decent percentage of the people who have seen it are kind of obsessed with it. Yang, unfortunately, never made another film. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after its release and eventually died after being sick for several years.

The title, Yi Yi, literally means “One One,” though if it’s translated into English it’s usually as something like A One and a Two. I am also told than one you write the characters for “one” in Mandarin above each other (as they are on the original poster for this movie), it’s the same as the character for “two.” What does this mean? I dunno. The general themes of the movie are sometimes described as “the generation gap,” and if there’s one relationship in the movie that matters it’s between the Dad, “NJ” (Wu Nien-jen) and his eight-year-old son (Jonathan Chang), but in reality there are lots and lots of relationships that matter, many of which I don’t think I fully understood.

The movie starts at a wedding and ends at a funeral. The people in between are mostly so reserved and unable to actually talk about their feelings that, when they do, those feelings become random outbursts. They cheat on each other and reconcile with each other. Life things happen. NJ’s teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) forgets to take out the trash before she goes to the wedding reception, so her grandmother tries to do so instead. She is found later by the curb, collapsed from a stroke. Ting-Ting spends the movie taking her first tentative steps into the dating world, but underneath it all is this crippling guilt she’s feeling about a very innocent mistake that she has told no one about (and probably didn’t even cause the problem).

The “break-out star” of the movie, if there is one, is the eight-year-old son, Yang-Yang, who barely speaks and whose motives seem inscrutable through much of the movie. Lonely, he takes up photography, but the things he chooses to take photographs of baffle everyone around him. He takes roll after roll of the back of people’s heads, eventually presenting one to his shifty uncle. “You can’t see it, so I’m helping you,” he proclaims. He also develops a crush on a girl at school, which we realize without ever getting any dialogue in a scene where she stands up against a movie screen being shown in class about “the origins of life,” framed by lightning. The “guy sees a girl across a room and immediately falls for her” trope is common in movies, but this might be the single most effective and clever version of that I’ve seen in anything. He sees her swimming and decides he should learn to swim. He does this by learning to keep his face underwater in the sink, while his older sister yells at him from outside the bathroom. Somehow this works.

If you can get a camera to great landscape, the beauty pretty much reveals itself. The David Leans and Terence Malicks of the world are great, but they aren’t reinventing the wheel. But it seems to have taken directors coming up on their own in the enormous, cramped cities of Asia to really learn how to shoot cities in the same way. Just as Wong Kar-Wai’s movies truly reveal the essence of how it feels to live in Hong Kong, Yang’s characters here never exist outside of their environment (primarily in Taipei, though NJ takes a business trip to Tokyo partway through that is shot with the same loving eye). There are scenes throughout this movie where characters are shown silently, completely alone with their thoughts, but they are never actually alone. Yang shoots them through windows, the traffic and lights outside played over their face, or reflected in windows from the inside, so we can see the people behind them, or framed through a doorway in a corner of the screen, as action happens in the foreground. All of these spaces, stacked on top of and around each other, contain human beings.

NJ, the father of the central family, is played by Wu Nien-Jen, who was also an important director in the “New Taiwanese Cinema” movement. Yang wrote the character with him in mind. This sort of specific casting may be why every performance in this movie is so enjoyable. Yes, most of the dialogue is in Mandarin, and there is a runner about good and bad horoscopes that seems very specific to Taiwanese culture, but for the most part the actual plot here, these people, seem like they could be in Los Angeles or Paris. If they are reserved or in generational conflict, it’s not because of issues that are specific to Taiwanese society necessarily. The scenes of celebration or conflict or at awkward parties seem universal. There was one shot of the drunken aftermath of the wedding reception, where the bride and groom are forced to chug drinks while everyone chants and the remains of pink balloons float everywhere. It’s like a minute long, and Yang plays the whole thing in a long shot, so we get to watch not just the chugging, but the drunk acquaintances kicking around balloons and half-heartedly clapping in the background. It all feels lived-in.

Yang-Yang also gets the final speech of the film, at the funeral for his Grandmother, which he reads, pre-written, from a notebook while she lies in her coffin. I get that a lot of people aren’t going to watch this thing, because it’s three hours of subtitles with no action sequences, so I’ll just put it here, because I think it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a movie:

I’m sorry, Grandma. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you. I think all the stuff I could tell you — You must already know. Otherwise, you wouldn’t always tell me to ‘Listen.’ They all say you’ve gone away. But you didn’t tell me where you went. I guess it’s someplace you think I should know. But, Grandma, I know so little. Do you know what I want to do when I grow up? I want to tell people things they don’t know. Show them stuff they haven’t seen. It’ll be so much fun. Perhaps one day — I’ll find out where you’ve gone. If I do, can I tell everyone, and bring them to visit you? Grandma, I miss you. Especially when I see my newborn cousin who still doesn’t have a name. He reminds me that you always said you felt old. I want to tell him that I feel I am old, too.

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