Three-hour movies almost always come in two extremes: the dry exegesis that has you staring at your watch or the illuminating immersion that leaves you grateful you came. Yi Yi, the most well-known film from Taiwanese director Edward Yang, doesn’t just fall in the latter category; it actively redefines it. It’s an exquisite work that flawlessly captures all the joy, sadness, and unforeseen harmonies we find throughout the challenges of the modern world. Artful yet easily watchable, it’s a special film that surpasses the rigid classifications film critics love to create.
Yi Yi recounts the life of the Jians, a middle-class family in Taipei. The father (Nianzhen Wu) works at a flailing tech company. His wife (Elaine Jin) stays at home to look after her mother (Ruyun Tang). Together, they have two children, one a high school freshman (Kelly Lee), the other just entering elementary school (Jonathan Chang). Over the course of a year, trouble hits each of them. The father unexpectedly bumps into an old girlfriend (Suyun Ke) and slips into a trance of nostalgia. His wife cracks and heads for a Buddhist monastery after her mother suffers a debilitating stroke. Their daughter tries to navigate a tense, awkward love triangle between her best friend (Adrian Lin) and her on-off boyfriend (Yupang Chang), while the little boy discovers the power of the camera in the midst of frequent disciplinary problems at school.
Unlike many films, Yi Yi does not have one specific protagonist. Its story doesn’t focus on the particular woes of a father, child, or teenager, but the mosaic formed when you mix all their struggles together. In so doing, it does a marvelous job depicting the sheer vastness and unpredictability of life. Yang never forces any of his characters’ many predicaments, instead allowing expressions and body language to simply show their thoughts and feelings. After 30 minutes, you’ll even forget you’re watching everything through a camera; the angle remains fixed in almost every scene, passive and simply observant of the myriad existences around it. The all-around bravura acting, whether it’s Nianzhen Wu as the ponderous, embarrassed father or Jonathan Chang as the innocent, mischievous young photographer, only heightens this atmosphere of authenticity.
But Yi Yi does more than just faithfully represent reality. It adds a layer of ideas and connections of its own. Yang designs each frame so that the objects around the characters and their interactions reflect, whether faithfully or ironically, the emotional significance of what’s happening. A joyous reconciliation between two former lovers takes place under a row of blossom trees; an awkward first kiss between two teenagers is set against a traffic light flickering to green before switching back to red. The camera itself likewise appears to physically embody the emotions it portrays in its characters. We never see characters in turmoil close up, but always through a reflective glass window, in the darkness, or from a distance. When the characters do manage to unexpectedly stumble upon companionship, the camera ends up gradually zooming in on their faces. It all speaks to a movie that brings out the best of film’s innately visual nature.
What really makes Yi Yi resonate, however, is its willingness to, as one character puts it, “show twice what you get in real life.” The world Yang gives us is one where friendship, intimacy, sadness, and heartbreak all coexist, sometimes in the same moment. The wedding which begins the film bears witness to the angry wailing of an aggrieved ex-lover; the funeral which ends it caps itself with a stirring, quietly uplifting speech from the otherwise taciturn little boy. Each character seems to be operating in a private bubble, completely oblivious to the bubbles all around him, a poignant illustration of disconnect. Watching these people, we come to realize just how little we make of the bubbles in our own lives.
Yet the movie doesn’t stop with a mere rehash of “people are selfish.” Eventually, it points us to a way forward. In one memorable sequence, the film juxtaposes scenes of the father and his ex-lover going on their last date and the daughter and her friend’s boyfriend going on their first, with the dialogue from one perfectly overlapping onto the other. In another, the sound of thunder serves as a backdrop for both a street encounter between the daughter and the guy and the little boy’s first feelings of attraction for a classmate. Old or young, touring Tokyo or running through Taipei, all of these characters, under the most fortuitous of circumstances, find themselves attempting the same kind of tenuous bonding with another. Together, they paint a portrait of a society distant…but connected all the same. We all share similar emotions and experiences, no matter our backgrounds and worldviews. Like the little boy who takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads, the part “you can’t see by yourself,” the movie helps us see just how inherently alike we remain as human beings, even if we often forget it in our daily, self-centered hustle-bustle.
If there’s a film that deserves to be called a work of poetry, Yi Yi would take the prize. 15 years before Boyhood made the slice of life genre famous, this Asian movie already set the bar with the searing honesty of its stories. But where Boyhood stops at a simple recounting of events, Yi Yi makes expert use of the camera and setting to show how all these events fit together, no matter how disparate they appear to be. It beautifully showcases the toll of discord and distress but still finishes brimming with hope for a brighter, closer future. With this film, we don’t just get to see life as it is. More importantly, we find inspiration to make it better.
Yi Yi (2000)
Starring: Nianzhen Wu, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Issey Ogata, Suyun Ke, Xisheng Chen
Running Time: 173 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A
Produced by: Shinya Kawai, Naoko Tsukeda
Directed by: Edward Yang
Written by: Edward Yang