The members of the Taipei family experience life in all its various stages, reconciling old relationship, starting new romances, and shaping their view or the world.
Yi Yi is about life and everything it contains. It’s about love and heartbreak; remembering and forgetting; creating and destroying; budding friendships and vicious rivalries; success and failure; marriage and infidelity; happiness and depression the beauty of music and also of silence; the passage of time; and most of all life and death. How does this one movie say so much about so many things? It takes it’s time, it expects the viewer to pay attention and work with the director to create a world that expands beyond the edges of the frame. It allows you time to appreciate what’s happening in front of you, but it also asks that you bring your own prior experiences with you. This is a film that I believe could be watched at various moments of your life, and you could get something new from it every time. It’s a film that looks at the curious age of young childhood, the uncertainty that comes with being a teenager, the regrets of middle age, and the reflection of old age. Edward Yang takes time in crafting wonderfully memorable characters that feel tactile and believable. The trials and challenges faced by the members of the Taipei family are not world changing, but they do change their lives. They’re an everyday family, trying their best to live life to the fullest (whatever that means), doing their best to figure out where they fit in the world.
A Quiet Passion
This film’s premise is very simple, but the relationships within it and the implications of the conversations and metaphors give it far more depth. The movie unfolds like an ensemble piece, encompassing many members of the Taipei family, their surrounding neighbors, their friends and schoolmates, and old acquaintances. While there are dozens of characters, the three primary perspectives are the patriarch of the family, N.J. (Nien-Ju Wu, “A Borrowed Life”), and N.J.’s son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang, “Da-Yu: The Touch of Fate”) and his daughter, Ting Ting (Kelly Lee). Yi Yi starts at a wedding for N.J.’s brother, A-di (His-Sheng Chen). The wedding seems to be rather rushed, as A-di’s bride is very pregnant. A-di’s old lover arrives at the wedding, stirring up trouble with old family members, especially with a grandmother. The grandmother slips into a coma shortly after the wedding, and the various members of the family have to take care of her, while still going about their daily lives.
N.J.’s storylines focus on his business, which is undergoing some major changes, which causes him to rethink his life, and a chance run-in with his first love, which causes him to revisit old feelings he had for her. N.J.’s approach to life is very proper. He believes things should and can be simple if you live your life in an upright way. We see the way that his life plays out in comparison to his brothers, whose life if always hectic from the drama of juggling his wife and his old lover. N.J. tries to be a good father to his children, but the meetings he has with his company, and the friendship he forms with a Japanese tech mogul takes up some of his time. The great thing about N.J. is he doesn’t claim to have any real answers, but he sticks to his morals even though he’s constantly tempted to do things he knows he shouldn’t. While A-di struggles to keep his head above water, N.J. struggles not with alcoholism or woman, but with his own doubts about how he lived his life. He’s a very reflective character, one that truly cares about the people around him.
Ting Ting is a bit more troubled of a character. She’s a bit less sympathetic, too, but we still feel for her because she’s young, and she doesn’t seem to understand what she’s doing. Ting Ting is going through a period of growth, and unwittingly walks into a love triangle. The story is slow and romantic for a while. Yang’s lingering wide shots, hold for long unbroken cuts on conversation, sometimes making us feel intimately close with the characters, and other times making us feel incredibly isolated from them. Ting Ting’s character is an embodiment of the first love and heartbreak we all get to experience. It makes you think back to your own heartbreak, how everything felt like the world was crumbling around you, and how wrong it felt that everyone else felt nothing of what you did.
Yang Yang is the youngest member of the Taipei family. His character seems to be just starting to figure out things about life. He’s starting to develop interests and habits, he’s starting to learn about what the world has to offer, and he’s experiencing things for the first time. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Yang Yang first develops a crush on one of the girls in his class. The girl walks past him while the class is watching a documentary about lightening, and the way Yang works in the documentary’s voiceover and the positioning of the girl in front of the lightening is masterfully done. His interest in photography grows throughout the film, and we see things primarily from his perspective for a good amount of the movie, metaphorically as well as physically. There’s a recurring theme of one following after the other, which makes sense given the title of the film means “one by one” or quite literally “a one and a two.” Yang Yang’s perspective is looking forward; he’s got his whole life ahead of him and almost nothing behind him. This perspective is show in his photographs, how all of his subjects are facing away. He’s following everyone right now; he’s still young and has much to learn, but he’s moving forward.
An Appreciation of Time
This movie takes it’s time with everything it does. There are long takes from far away, allowing us to take in every detail of the frame, but also allowing us to appreciate how big the world that Yang creates is. This film is a family epic, and it’s almost three hours long, but it feels like more than it actually is. This film transcends cinema; it’s high art of the finest caliber, and I think the primary reason for that is its patience. Yi Yi doesn’t rush anything; we revel in whatever it is Yang wants us to see. Sometimes, Yang just wants us to appreciate a bit of music, and other times he wants us to splendor at human ingenuity. Some of the wide shots in this film are the ones that stick out to me the most; the final shot at the wedding that lasts for forty-five seconds or so is an incredible of A-di; the panning shots under the bridge with Ting Ting and the boy she likes makes us see how small they feel, or how intimate they are at other points. The cinematography is, for the most part, rather simple, but the way that the sets and colors are laid out makes the frames always interesting. I was frequently reminded of Ozu’s work; both the themes of generational dissonance and harmony and also the way Yang and he frame their shots are rather similar.
To call this film anything but a masterpiece would be an insult. I, personally, am a huge fan of Asian cinema and family dramas, and I think this one might be the best I’ve seen since “Tokyo Story” (I actually liked this more than “Tokyo Story”, and I'm a big Ozu fan). This is a modern marvel of storytelling; it’s a piece that I’ll push on my friends until I win them over, and it’s one that I’ll be happy to visit again and again, through multiple stages of my life.
End Note: I watched “Yi Yi” in preparation for an upcoming Epic Movie Day where we intend to watch “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), what is considered to be another Yang masterpiece. If you enjoyed “Yi Yi”, look for my review of “A Brighter Summer Day” sometime in mid August.
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