A Second Look: ‘Yi Yi’
A three-hour drama that spans a year in the life of a middle-class Taipei family, Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” (2000) opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. It’s a film that includes a birth and a death and encompasses just about everything in between, from the awkward pangs of first love to the persistent stirrings of middle-aged regret.
Yang’s most widely acclaimed film (it won him the best director prize at Cannes), “Yi Yi” turned out also to be his swan song: He died in 2007 at age 59. It still hurts to know that there will never be another Edward Yang film, and it’s almost as infuriating that this remains the only one of his seven features available on DVD in the States — the Criterion Collection has just issued a Blu-ray high-definition edition.
Along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yang was a central figure in the New Taiwanese Cinema that emerged in the 1980s, and to those familiar with his earlier films, many of which approached the contradictions of Taiwanese life and history with a mordant humor and anger, the serenity of “Yi Yi” might have suggested the softening of age. But the film has held up extremely well.
A work of remarkable delicacy and assurance, so detailed and fully inhabited that it seems to renew itself and its connection to the viewer with each encounter, it stands today as a reminder not only of Yang’s mastery but also of just how few filmmakers possess the wisdom and generosity that humanist cinema of this sort truly requires.
The Jians, the family in “Yi Yi,” live in a Taipei high-rise. When the grandmother suffers a stroke, the doctor urges her family members to talk to the comatose woman, a daily ritual that takes on an air of confession and prayer. Compelled to recite the details of her life, her daughter, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), is seized by an existential panic over her monotonous existence (“I live a blank,” she wails) and escapes to a spiritual retreat.
At the wedding banquet that opens the film, Min-Min’s husband, N.J. (Wu Nien-jen), runs into the lover he left decades ago, and finds himself face-to-face with the missed opportunity that has haunted his entire adult life. Distant and prone to tuning out the world, N.J. is nonetheless an enormously sympathetic presence. Increasingly disillusioned with his job at a computer company, he finds unexpected solace in a potential business partner from Japan, Ota (the great Issey Ogata).
The handful of scenes between these two men are richer than most movies in their entirety — it’s one of the film’s more resonant ironies that its most direct, profound interactions are between two strangers who communicate only in halting English.
No less than their parents, the Jian children exist in their own private worlds. Teenage Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), who fears her thoughtlessness may be responsible for her grandmother’s stroke, strikes up a friendship with a new neighbor and that girl’s troubled boyfriend. Eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), subjected to bullying at school, retreats into his own imagination — and becomes fascinated with photography as a means of better seeing and understanding the world.
Like many filmmakers since Michelangelo Antonioni, Yang favors the default cinematic language of alienation, observing his characters from a distance and framing them in windows and as reflections. But there is never doubting the tenderness and empathy behind the camera. Even as he emphasizes the fundamental loneliness of his characters, Yang doesn’t seal them off. Instead he shows that they exist within a generational cycle, a social system, a physical world.
There are traces of autobiography for those inclined to look for them. Like N.J., Yang studied engineering and worked in computer design. But it’s little Yang-Yang, cute though never cloying, who emerges as a director surrogate of sorts: a budding artist but more than that, a curious soul, just coming to realize the mysteries of human subjectivity.
There are no easy resolutions in “Yi Yi,” which is what makes it at once deeply sad and exhilarating. Among its most clear-eyed insights, the movie shows that the yearning for second chances that defines many a midlife crisis often amounts to a sentimental fantasy. The rare film that can truly be called universal, “Yi Yi” ponders questions that pertain to us all: How did we end up with the lives we have, and how do we accept them, if we choose to do so? More than a movie that stays with you, it’s one to live with.
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