Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
Midway through Yi Yi, a morose, skeletally thin teenager (whose nickname is Fatty) tells his date: “Movies are lifelike. That's why we like them.” In his view, movies don’t only resemble the world we live in – they expand it. “We live three times,” he declares, his passion overwhelming his arithmetic. “Two times as much life at the movies!” After watching this lovely, absorbing film you'll be inclined to agree. In exchange for three hours of your time, Yi Yi will give you more life.
Edward Yang, the Taiwanese filmmaker who wrote and directed this intimate epic of a middle-class Taipei's family's everyday struggles, knows that for a movie to be full of life, it must above all concern itself with specific lives. Yi Yi begins with the chaotic bustle of wedding preparations -- a portrait of the bride and groom is hung upside down, the groom's jilted girlfriend arrives uninvited and makes a scene and ends with the somber calm of a funeral.
In the long interval between these events, the members of the Jian family collectively and individually traverse what feels like the full spectrum of human experience, from the mundane to the catastrophic. NJ, the wiry, sad-eyed patriarch, must deal with setbacks at his software company and a midlife crisis triggered by the reappearance of Sherry, his high-school sweetheart. NJ’s wife, Min-Min, despondent over her mother's crippling stroke, retreats first into depression and then into a religious cult. Their teenage daughter, Ting-Ting , undergoes her own identity crisis, caught between loyalty to her troubled best friend and the slightly dangerous appeal of Fatty. There is a birth, a suicide attempt and a murder. Friendships are made and broken. Ting-Ting's runty younger brother, Yang-Yang, is harassed at school by a gang of bigger girls. There is a lot of music (NJ’s passion), eating and drinking, all of it set amid the sleek cosmopolitan kineticism of Taipei and, briefly, Tokyo, where NJ goes in search of an investor to save his business and a second chance with Sherry, who is now married to an American businessman.
But Yi Yi is more than a soap opera, which is to say it’s less. The mood is restrained and gentle and the narrative rhythm fluid and easy, meandering from story to story. Although it rises on occasion to a high pitch of intensity, this movie never feels overwrought or melodramatic. The title is nothing more than the Chinese word for “one” repeated twice; the Chinese characters, which appear in the opening titles, look like birds in flight seen from afar. The English translation, A One and a Two, suggests a bandleader counting off, and Yi Yi, composed with the meticulous discipline of a symphony, nonetheless has the swing and spontaneity of group improvisation.
It's no accident that the 8-year-old Yang-Yang shares his name with the filmmaker, since he functions within the film as a kind of alter ego, a watcher and recorder of the world's enigmas. In the privacy of his bath Yang-Yang conducts elaborate experiments with funnels and bottles and wanders from scene to scene with a camera. He's a half-pint philosopher, complaining to his father: “I can’t see what you see and you can't see what I see. So how can I know what you see?” To remedy this condition, he takes pictures of the backs of people's heads.
As a filmmaker, Mr Yang is like a wiser, less anxious version of this boy. He uses the limitations of visual perspective to convey chaos without succumbing to it. He likes to shoot people in groups at medium range, allowing sound and movement to spill in from outside of the frame. He also likes to shoot through glass, and even to aim his camera at closed doors, as though to suggest both the transparency and the opacity of experience. The film’s most extraordinary shot is of a woman weeping alone in a hotel room. The camera is outside the window, and the woman is barely visible through the reflected phantoms of skyscrapers and passing traffic.
None of this feels gimmicky or contrived. Mr Yang’s style is like a novelist’s prose – lucid, unobtrusive and absorbing. Mr Yang’s earlier films, especially A Brighter Summer Day, his exquisite, disturbing 1991 story of adolescence in Taiwan, have gained him a passionate following among critics and international festivalgoers. Movies are an inherently, sometimes cheaply emotional medium, but it takes a lot to make a grown critic cry. As I watched the final credits of Yi Yi through bleary eyes, I struggled to identify the overpowering feeling that was making me tear up. Was it grief? Joy? Mirth? Yes, I decided, it was all of these. But mostly, it was gratitude. — A.O. Scott, NY Times, 4/10/00