Everything happens in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, birth, death and all points in between, and it happens just like life happens — just when you’ve settled in comfortably, think you’ve got it all figured out, something comes along to give you a jolt. The story of a modern Taipei family struggling to find meaning in the most everyday of circumstances, the film is a quiet masterpiece of emotion, at once gently funny and close to real tragedy, slow as a snail and quick as an eye blink. It’s also meticulously crafted, and yet so seemingly unassuming in its aesthetic — here, the camera doesn’t spin in circles, it frames the world — that it would be easy to miss the fact that Yang isn’t just a poet of the human soul, but a rigorous stylist.
Born in Shanghai in 1947 and raised in Taiwan, Yang studied computer science, then filmmaking, in the United States, though it’s clear that his brief time in the University of Southern California’s film department left little imprint. It’s not that Yang’s work doesn’t feel Westernized; like many Taiwanese films, his are a blur of East and West. There are glimpses of Ozu in how characters hold your attention just by sitting and saying nothing, the weight of the world settling around them, and suggestions of Antonioni in how men and women do right and wrong by their desires. Yet one of the best scenes in Yi Yi — a heart-stopping interlude set against a schoolroom movie about the origin of the universe — is also a nod to the planetarium scene in Rebel Without a Cause. Like Nicholas Ray, Yang knows that the heart makes its own big bang.
Yi Yi, which Yang translates as A One and a Two . . . (a hint that this is essentially a riff on a narrative standard), opens on a short-lived note of bliss. A-Di (Chen Xisheng), a loudmouth with a hugely pregnant bride and a mountain of debt, is brother to Min-Min (Elaine Jin). On the night of his wedding banquet, his mother, who lives with Min-Min’s family, suffers a stroke and falls into a coma. A-Di turns up at the hospital drunk and, like his sister, soon spirals into crisis and onto the periphery of the action. As A-Di flounders, Min-Min flees to a Buddhist retreat in the custody of a spiritually minded friend and a gaggle of monks, leaving her husband, N.J. (Wu Nienjen, who’s also a screenwriter), along with their two children, high schooler Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and 8-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), to fend for themselves.
The fly-speck-size advertisements for Yi Yi currently running in American newspapers feature a shot of Yang-Yang wearing something very close to the impish grin Shirley Temple once wore out at 20th Century Fox. You can’t blame the distributor for trying to sell the film as one of those human comedies waxed with lemony lighting in which children are wise beyond their years and adults, no matter how broken, end up whole. And, to be fair, Yang-Yang actually is button-cute, as well as artistically inclined and given to the portentous aside. In most other movies, this sort of embarrassment of precocious riches would be a very bad sign, but since this is an Edward Yang movie, the dimples belong to a kid who’s also a loner, an oddball who snaps photographs of mosquitoes and keeps his own secrets. He smiles a lot, but we don’t often know why.
The pointedly named Yang-Yang is likely a stand-in for the writer-director, but he isn’t the film’s emotional core. Yi Yi is about a lot of different people (it takes a while to puzzle out who you’re meant to keep an eye on), but mostly it’s about N.J. and his equally melancholic daughter. The general manager of a computer company on the skids, N.J. is one of those men who seem to have reached midlife knowing their responsibilities better than they do their families or themselves. He’s a father who yearns to be friends with his son and a husband who can’t put his arms around his wife when she collapses in tears; when she weeps that her life is a blank, he stands in front of her with his arms crossed over his chest, searching for somewhere to look. Then he shuts the door of their bedroom and closes the blinds.
He can’t help it. When a friend says that N.J. has an honest face and he bristles at the remark, you understand why he reacts as if he’s been insulted. A little deceit might ease his wife’s pain, or bring his children somewhat closer, but N.J. is too rooted in his present to step into another reality, his or anyone else’s. Honesty, life as it is in the here and now, is all that he has. (“You are like me,” says another associate, chasing the blues and blahs over drinks. “You can’t tell a lie.”) On the night of the wedding, though, this sad-eyed pragmatist runs into an old girlfriend, and the ground slips from under his feet. Childhood sweethearts who grew up to become lovers, N.J. and Sherry (Ke Suyun) go on to grasp at what might have been, and it’s through their hopeful, awkward, painful reunion that Yang gently pushes this family drama into tragedy — though not for long.
If it’s a measure of Yang’s art that he can make a middle-age meltdown seem new, even vital, it’s a measure of his generosity that he makes N.J.’s regret into something more than narcissistic surrender. After their initial surprise encounter, N.J. and Sherry arrange to meet in Tokyo, where he has important business. The old lovers spend the day together, swapping details about their families amid digressions into the past, and in time their story comes out. It’s crucial to the film, and to the way Yang tells stories, that the past doesn’t emerge in isolation but in counterpoint to yet another, newer story emerging in Taipei between Ting-Ting and an anguished question mark of a teenager incongruously named Fatty.
In one breathtaking sequence, Yang fluidly cuts back and forth between the older couple walking through nighttime Tokyo, holding hands and summoning up their past, and the younger couple on a similarly intimate amble through Taipei. As the image flips between lovers and cities, two sets of voices working a syncopated beat, one pair of hands replacing another against these interchangeable cityscapes, it’s not just N.J. and his daughter who are brought together, but the past and the present and the possibility in each. If that possibility, that hope, only lasts as long as it takes for N.J. and Sherry to walk across Tokyo, and for Ting-Ting and Fatty to cover Taipei, at least it exists, which seems, finally, to be the point.
N.J. and Ting-Ting’s romantic interludes don’t end the way they begin, and neither does Yi Yi. By the time the film closes, we’re at yet another family gathering, this time a funeral. “Nothing’s changed here,” N.J. says to his wife on her return from her spiritual retreat, as in the next room their daughter wonders aloud, “Why is the world so different from what we thought it was?” At that moment, Yang, who is fond of shooting scenes through windows and glass doors, and who likes to keep his distance from his characters, giving them room to breathe, proves himself not only a great filmmaker, but one of infinitely tender feeling. In Yi Yi, he loves his characters more than his own extraordinary artistry, and it’s his gift to his audience that with this generous, soulful film, he’s invited us to feel the same.
YI YI | Written and directed by EDWARD YANG
Produced by Kawai Shinya and Tsukeda Naoko | Released by Winstar Cinema | At Laemmle’s Royal and Laemmle’s Colorado