Sunday Editor’s Pick: Yi Yi (2000)

by on November 21, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 25 at 2:30 & Sun Nov 27 at 7:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


FSLC presents a rare opportunity to see the complete works of the Taiwanese master in “A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang,” from Nov 22 to 27. Our sincerest apologies to New York cinephiles out of town for the Thanksgiving weekend.


Winner of Best Director at Cannes, Yi Yi is Yang’s most easily accessible and well-regarded work in the West, but certainly a masterpiece to be relished on the big screen. Although just on the cusp of the new century, it turned up on numerous Best of the Decade lists. A heartily laudatory blogroll today…


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Yi Yi is Edward Yang’s celebration of cultural identity and family interaction. The film’s brilliance emanates equally from its structure (the story is delicately bookended by two cultural rituals: a wedding and a funeral), the acuteness of its gaze, and Yang’s acknowledgement of life as a series of alternately humdrum and catastrophic occurrences, like a flower that blooms in the summer and wilts in the fall; he hopes you will notice it, because seeing is what validates its unique extraordinariness. With the help of his camera, young Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) attempts to come to grips with the many dualities of the world around him. He takes pictures of people’s backsides because he wants to show them what they cannot see. His desire is representative of the film’s very philosophy: there is a second side to every story, and the perception of that side promises new awakenings. Yang-Yang’s father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) must confront the reasons why he abandoned his ex-lover at the altar when they find themselves growing closer again. He acknowledges and frees himself of pent-up pains and admits to still loving her. Though she leaves him this time around, her actions are not vengeful. This transcendent moment suggests that the past cannot be undone and that NJ’s only hope is to improve upon his present. NJ’s cycle of enlightenment ends with the death of his wife’s mother, the family matriarch from whom everyone seemingly draws their every breath. Most appreciative of the old woman’s loving warmth is NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee). A flower is the evocative symbol of the girl’s headlong search for inner peace. Her fellow classmates laugh at her for overfeeding it but the wilted plant comes back to life after a divine encounter with her grandmother. It’s a remarkable moment that conveys the transcendence of the flesh and the transmigration of energies between the living and the dead. This is the essence of Yang’s masterpiece, a film whose profound emotional and cultural resonance brings to mind Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.



Vadim Rizov for Salon:

For me, Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi: A One and a Two …” may be the greatest film ever, let alone the best of the decade. What does that mean? For starters, it means that Yang’s final film lies somewhere between formalist hard-assery and middlebrow accessibility, between slow-burning Ozu and — in the abruptly climaxing story lines of the last hour — understated soap opera. In telling the story of a Taiwanese family in crisis, Yang has three hours to zero in on what makes one family’s members tick while positioning them exactly in the center of late-20th-century global economics: micro- and macro-, both specifically Taiwanese in its business scenes and universal in its familial dynamics.


Yang frames like a hyper-formalist — rectangles within rectangles — and takes three hours to get where he’s going, but his emotional dynamics are far from isolating. That means “Yi Yi” is a little too soppy for the more hyper-rigorous of art-house viewers. Which makes sense: The unavoidability of compromise is at the heart of “Yi Yi,” transcending mere mushy “humanism” as an end-all be-all.


The last line of “Yi Yi” is a young boy — Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), our directorial stand-in — announcing, “Now I feel old too.” What “Yi Yi” asks us to do isn’t to “empathize” with others in the meaningless way someone in customer service can “feel your frustration”; it asks us to imagine what it’s like to feel old and worn out, and to remember that feeling every day. It’s about being alive, which sounds awful and clichéd. But like David Foster Wallace said: “This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”


Rob Nelson for City Pages:

What Yang shows us in his latest film is what his many characters don’t seem able to see for themselves: that despite their connections to each other, by blood or acquaintance, their isolation remains profound. (The Chinese title, literally translated, is “One-one,” meaning “individually.”) Part of the thrill of watching Yi Yi’s brisk three hours–which include a wedding, a birth, an attempted suicide, a murder, and a funeral–comes in discovering how the members of this extended family fit together. Discovering how they don’t is what gives the film its tragic dimension. Unspooling intertwined strands of a single yarn, Yang allows us to observe, for example, that the father and daughter are both in the throes of first love, but because they never inquire into the details of each other’s lives, that revelation is left to each of us alone. In the final scene, one character’s deeply felt confession would seem a measure of progress for the film’s dysfunctional family; unfortunately, it comes too late for the intended listener to hear.


Andrew Chan for Reverse Shot, who listed it as the #13 Film of the Decade:

The one shot in Yi Yi I always remember most vividly played a role that first summer of mine in New York, when I still had enough sentimentality about the big city to confer outsized poetic significance on my commute back to Flushing. There was a moment on my ride home when the train would hurtle aboveground, and if it was late enough, you could see up-close a stretch of buildings shot through with points of light and the occasional tableau of human activity. I would be awoken from my mind-numbing routine with the sensation of being uprooted from my surroundings, of drifting past the everyday workings of the world that ensnare us by day while still maintaining enough proximity to catch their poignant undersong. And each time I would be transported back to an image that could easily have constituted a tiny cell in that nighttime cityscape—a scene in which NJ’s wife, paralyzed by depression, stands alone in a darkened office. We see her only as the reflection on a window, her image fuzzed together with that of the city, a red streetlight flashing coincidentally right at the center of her chest. Flesh is permeated by light and shadow, and the immateriality and transparency of the image, in contrast to the film’s usually direct, clear-eyed observation of physical reality, slides our vision into a register beyond the perceptible. While the scene is meant to be despairing, it also encapsulates what makes the film magical: its visualization of a mind, caught in mid-feeling, being revealed to itself. Yi Yi lays us bare before our own reflection. It floods us with a city’s worth of emotions, but preserves enough distance for us to regard them with the tenderness and bemusement of an onlooker. Like no other film I know, it gives us a chance to inhabit the inside and outside of a feeling—both in the same instant.


Manohla Dargis for LA Weekly:

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.


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.


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.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

A wonderfully engrossing experience—a lucid, elegant, nuanced, humorous movie that’s never nearly as sentimental as it might have been. This complex but understated melodrama opens amid a tumultuous wedding banquet—”Where is that pregnant bitch?” the groom’s ex cries—and ends, nearly three hours later, with a child’s funeral address. In between, Yang orchestrates a soap opera season’s worth of family crises with virtuoso discretion.


Yang has never been more sensitive to the rhythm of urban life—at one point setting a scene’s pace by using a traffic light as his metronome. The movie’s tone is as level as its frames are carefully composed. Yang juggles subplots with aplomb and refuses to crowd his characters, typically positioning his actors in tactful middle-shot. Such strategic understatement compares favorably with the contrived hysteria of Robert Altman’s upcoming Dr. T and the Women, a not dissimilar drama of family frenzy and male midlife crisis. Yang is less glib than Altman in handling his ensemble antics and constitutionally incapable of scapegoating individual characters.


Yi Yi is unostentatiously punctuated with a variety of cinematic quotations—ranging from video porn (heard but not seen) and classroom education films to screen-filling images of sonograms, computer games, closed-circuit surveillance tapes, and Yang-Yang’s artless “avant-garde” snapshots. In the context of Yi Yi, this parallel world is offered as both comment on and consolation for a lifetime of betrayals and disappointments. Yi Yi doesn’t look anything like cinema verité, but it has a similar feel—there’s a real sense of familiarity; the characters seem to be directing the narrative. As accomplished as Yang’s filmmaking is, his movie seeks to break through the theatrical wall; it has the epic intimacy of great television.


Dave Kehr makes an interesting comparison for the New York Times:

As a plot outline, ”Yi Yi” doesn’t differ much from ”American Beauty,” last year’s Oscar winner for best picture. NJ could sit down with Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham over a Scotch, and the two men could share their sense of hopeless alienation from their work, their barren relationships with their wives, their fantasies of romantic escape and their incomprehension of their teenage daughters.


But ”American Beauty” is a film that takes place within quotation marks, within a ”perfect” American suburb, a ”perfect” two-story Colonial house, a ”perfect” nuclear family. The director, Sam Mendes, is a British stage veteran whose understanding of America seems based entirely on our exported sitcoms and soap operas; in trying to turn those abstracted, idealized images on their heads, he produces only an equally abstract cynicism. In ”Yi Yi,” there is no such easy cynicism or ironic distance. At least to this non-Asian observer, Mr. Yang’s image of contemporary Taipei has an authenticity that shakes off facile generalizations and condescending stereotypes. Though the film’s world view is limited to that of its privileged characters, there is nothing in it that seems manipulated, exaggerated or cunningly art-directed. Rather than having ironic recourse to a Taiwanese Norman Rockwell — or whatever artist might define that country’s treasured complacencies — Mr. Yang pushes aside conventions and goes directly to character. The Burnhams are defined by their wall hangings, the Jians by their relationships to each other.


The opening sequence of ”Yi Yi,” set in a catering hall where a chaotic wedding reception is taking place, is a model in this regard; what we learn about the characters comes from how they sit, stand and converse with each other. For a viewer accustomed to the continual assault of Hollywood films, with their high-impact close-ups and rapid, analytical cutting, these Asian films seem blessedly calm, cool and respectful of the viewer’s ability to make his or her own judgments and connections.


Robert Sklar interviews Yang, for Cineaste:

Do you have a viewpoint that you could put in words, or do you leave it to the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions?

Yang: I wouldn’t intentionally put in my viewpoint. I want to bring up something as naturally, as neutrally as possible, and let viewers have their own viewpoint. That’s my intention in all of my work–otherwise it would be propaganda. If I feel something, I would much rather portray it from a neutral position, the universality of being human.


Somebody wrote that you got the best director prize at Cannes, but maybe you should have won for best screenplay. Was your screenplay completely written out? Did you do any improvising or change anything with the actors?

Yang: Everything. To me writing and directing go hand in hand. You can’t separate the two responsibilities. Writing, from the very beginning of the idea, is like the blinking of a light bulb in your head, and until completion the whole production process is writing, one way or the other. Shooting is writing, editing is writing, preproduction is writing, and auditioning for the cast is also writing. Improvisation is also part of writing. I think I’m fortunate that I started my career not in the tradition of the industry. We had to improvise a lot, to find alternative ways to accomplish something. It makes me feel lucky that I trained as an engineer. Engineering is a practical thing. I call it basically problem-solving, and nothing else. When I started directing, this training gave me psychological readiness. You had to make a thousand decisions a day. Especially in an industry in such poor condition, you had to improvise to make something work. Even to this day, that’s part of the process.


There’s a density of character in Yi Yi that many critics have commented on. They’ve compared the film to series television, or to a sprawling novel. How did you create such character detail?

Yang: Something that I noticed early in my career is that the initial point of penetration is very important. It defines a lot of things. Sometimes we need to be a little bit contemplative, because once you enter the story from a certain angle you basically decide the outcome of it. Sometimes I just walk around a subject, without committing to it, until I find the right angle. In the case of Yi Yi, from the beginning I knew the structure of the story provided a great angle. I could save a lot of space and time in telling a very big story just by looking at a family, because a family represents all age groups. But I knew I was too young to treat the subject, so I let it sit until I was more aware of things going on. It just settled in subconsciously, so by the time I was ready to write the script, the first draft was finished in ten days. I enjoy telling stories, but I didn’t realize this until I became a filmmaker.


Cineaste: Do you have a specific visual or editing style that you feel communicates your viewpoint on a story?

Yang: Not really. My philosophy is that everything is decided by the subject matter. If the subject matter needs to be tense, restless, upsetting, I would use shorter cuts and tighter camera angles. That’s why the initial penetrating point is the important thing. If you detach camera angles and camera positions from the substance, things don’t make sense at all. Every event has one best position to observe from. Sometimes you have so many things happening at one time in a scene that your attention is diverted in many ways, so sometimes you want to be in a neutral position, and it’s better to look from a distance. You also have to be aware of the risk of using close-ups. You might lose important information if you restrict the viewer’s attention to a very focused spot. We better have enough reason not to need to see the body language, the way the character interacts with the space he’s in.


Kent Jones, in his essay for the Criterion Collection release:

My first impressions of Yi Yi were general ones, of visual beauty, narrative complexity, and quietude. Since I was familiar with Yang’s previous work, the complexity, and particularly the beauty, came as no surprise. Few modern filmmakers use the frame so precisely, with such a firm grasp of all its expressive properties—light and color but also scale, proportion, distance, containment, concealment. Among its many other qualities, Yang’s is a cinema ofluminosity, his painterly eye dedicated to getting the exact tone of city life. A teenage couple standing beneath an overpass, slowly working their way toward a first, tentative kiss as the traffic light in the distance goes from red to green and back to red—this seemed like vintage Yang, at a heightened level of creativity and confidence. It was the quietude that seemed new. At first glance, Yi Yi appears to be a serene and becalmed film, in pace and spirit, a movie made by a director who has shed his youthful anger and made peace with the assorted confusions of “late capitalist” Taiwanese life. On close scrutiny, it becomes something else again. Yang has set his city symphonies in a variety of emotional keys. In Yi Yi, he brings all of these moods together, never allowing any one of them to take precedence over another. Which is to say that this is a grand choral work, with a panoptic majesty and an emotional amplitude worthy of George Eliot or late Beethoven, whose “Song of Joy” is quoted with the greatest delicacy in Kaili Peng’s piano score.


Throughout the film, we are presented with visions of characters alone in the frame, simply existing within pockets of time; one might say that Yi Yi is made up of a succession of Ozu’s “pillow shots,” but with people in them. Emotional conflicts are rarely talked through until they’ve reached a crisis level; people are either too embarrassed or too awkward or too angry to confront one another or share their problems. Sound familiar? Everyone here exists within his or her own proper space on the mental grid, modeled from the grid of lighted offices on the Taipei skyline and measured in units that are at once spatial, social, and, maybe, spiritual. Nearly everyone in Yi Yi acts rashly and impulsively, and everyone is essentially alone. NJ, for instance, may be the “good man” that Issey Ogata’s Mr. Ota claims he is, and he may be the kind of father to his son that he wishes he’d had (“a friend”), but he is also preoccupied and benignly distant. And yet Yang shows us, with the greatest delicacy, that all these loose threads do indeed make a fabric.


Yi Yi is ultimately a film that imparts its meaning and its impact through its exquisite sense of balance—between here and elsewhere, past and present, the ideal and the conditional, the mundane and the extraordinary. It is a film of, and about, grace. And that is a rare thing.


Tim Brayton for the blog Antagony & Ecstasy:

In its most reduced form, the story of Yi yi is about how idealism – particularly idealised memories and idealised concepts of how the world should fit together – don’t necessarily fit in a world full of well-meaning but messy human actions. The use of color is a major component of how that theme is explored. Most of the film is bathed in soft yellowness, and that calls to mind vintage photographs, an old album where only nice things are recorded and families always seem to be untroubled and happy. The reality is never that simple, of course, and the film is a study of how one family learns that being human is a bit messier than lovely snapshots and nostalgic glow.


It’s all well and good to pick on a specific element of a movie, but Yi yi is more than a beautiful work of color cinematography, and more than a story about humanity. It’s about everything, really: formally, it fires on all cylinders. The compositions are as precise as anything in an Ozu film, a fairly trite comparison given how many of them are, like Ozu’s work, entirely static. But that’s all the farther we can take this, for while Ozu’s frame traps his characters in boxes, Yang’s film has much more energy and kinesis: people are constantly moving in and out of the shot, back and forth, keeping those precise compositions fluid and alive rather than stately and claustrophobic. The imagery in the film is quite marvelous, from the heart shaped balloons floating around the wedding to a series of photographs snapped by an eight-year-old trying to show adults what the world looks like, to the stunning motif of reflections showing the world around the protagonists, not just the protagonists’ world.


In every way, Yi yi works. It’s not the same thing as calling it flawless – a lazy and uninteresting term – but rather that every beat and every image and every cut and every note feels like a part of a whole. It is a total movie, the kind that bear comparison to Citizen Kane and the like: nothing is wasted, everything is meaningful, and it doesn’t take any more to understand than simply opening your eyes and watching. At one point a character mentions that movies are three times as real as life. I’m not sure I agree with that. But there is a complete richness to Yi yi that makes for a fairly good argument.


Glenn Heath, Jr. says the film “still stands as my favorite film of the aughts,” also for Slant:

Yang’s aesthetic approach relies on the use of extended takes, often shooting characters in long shot while they’re shrouded in shadows, obscured by structures or objects, and sometimes completely off screen. We hear conversations from afar, drifting on the periphery as these characters deal with transitional decisions such as a breakup, the loss of a loved one, or the realization of failure. Every one of these scenes, whether it’s Ting-Ting’s guilt-ridden confession to her comatose grandmother, or NJ and Sherry working through their difficult past at a Japanese shrine, allows the viewer to witness honest expression without the crutch of close-ups or melodramatic music. Yang purposefully avoids overt stylistics, blurring faces, expressions, and subtle actions, slowly developing character through blocking their bodies in and out of the frame. It’s as if Yang wants to give each of his human creations a suitable distance/space to experience these personal moments of expression and emotion, no matter if they include excitement or disappointment. More so than any other filmmaker, Yang respects his character’s privacy, revealing just enough of their vulnerability and hesitation during these bits of crisis. This gives each scene a unique transcendence that lingers, subverting issues of duration and proximity in the process. The viewer, like the wall of family portraits hanging in NJ’s home, watches the glories and sorrows occur without interruption.


Time passes without any specific indication, allowing the film to live and breathe much like the characters themselves. Honest pockets of conflicted emotion appear but the joys of Yi Yi come in watching reflections about life and love bounce from one character to the next in small bursts of dialogue. One particularly beautiful moment occurs when Yang-Yang asks his father, “How can I see what you see?” NJ’s confused but delighted reaction speaks volumes about their relationship, or at least the one he hopes to have with his son. What at first seems like a standard father/son dynamic is really a complicated overlap between shared generational experiences—memories in the making.


Finally, Yang brings his character’s full circle, from life to death, and the ending funeral provides a window into the film’s core motif: generational communication. As the rest of his family sits and watches, Yang-Yang recites a letter to his dead grandmother, finally able to transcend his fear and put his deep thoughts into words. “I want to tell people things they don’t know. I want to show them stuff they haven’t seen…So that one day I can find out where you’ve gone.” It’s one of the most stunning and genuine moments in cinema history, and it shows the purity of a child transitioning into a self-aware human being. But Yang-Yang’s final speech carries the weight of adult experience as well, and the young boy admits that he now “feels old” like his grandmother. Such complexity is a treasure, and Edward Yang most certainly remains one of the cinematic masters of subtext, able to construct a lifetime’s worth of hurt, happiness, and humility in a single frame. In the end, Yang’s greatest autuerist contribution resides in the frank and simple words of his young voyeur, who contemplates life’s paradoxes by taking snapshots of the back of people’s heads. When asked why, Yang-Yang simply says, “You can’t see it for yourself. So I help you.” Edward Yang did the same.


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