A One and a Two…
Taiwan / Japan, 2000
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 04 September 2006
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
There’s no surprise to the enormous acclaim that greeted Edward Yang’s Yi Yi on its international release, especially in the United States, for this superb film is something very rare to find in contemporary cinema: the work of a director at the height of his powers, with a formalism the equal of his more renowned fellow-Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, it’s also able, through the affirming humanism at its centre, to reach the widest possible (art house) audience.
Yi Yi is a family drama covering three generations, and although its intricate narrative finely portrays the complex social networks formed by relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues and classmates, its focus is on the Jian family: Grandma, whose coma through most of the film provokes the crises in the individual family members; her daughter Min-Min, whose inability to cope leads her to drop out of a fair bit of the story; husband NJ, a figure of great sympathy and integrity; and their children, teenage daughter Ting-Ting and eight-year-old son Yang-Yang. Over its gently-paced, sometimes even contemplative three hours, Yi Yi takes us from a wedding at the beginning, through to a birth at its mid-point, and finally to a funeral that brings a kind of purifying resolution to the dilemmas the family has lived through.
I’m not sure that I would call Yi Yi the masterpiece that many critics do, if only because it seems a much lesser work than Yang’s great film from 1991, A Brighter Summer’s Day. (I also can’t help a feeling of regret that Criterion didn’t produce a DVD of A Brighter Summer’s Day rather than Yi Yi, of which acceptable DVDs already exist.) I do have some minor reservations, such as with a film score that at times seems to me overly sweet, and I also wonder if the pace really needs to be quite so slow or the film so long.
But more seriously, the dramatic murder which occurs towards the end of the film is a real flaw. It’s quite out of keeping with the everyday events that Yi Yi otherwise catalogues: the marriage of Min-Min’s brother A-Di to his pregnant girlfriend; Grandma’s stroke and coma; Ting-Ting’s feelings of guilty responsibility for her grandmother’s condition, her friendship with the girl next door, and her first teenage romance; the comedy around the emotionally and financially hopeless A-Di; NJ’s conflicted feelings about his job, and his re-encounter with his first love; the birth of A-Di’s son; Min-Min’s off-screen escape up the mountain to her Buddhist guru; Yang-Yang’s first steps towards an understanding of the world (art, incipient sexuality); and the funeral that ends the film.
Now, Yang does treat this murder in the oblique narrative style of the film as a whole. After an unexplained nighttime shot down from the apartment on the flashing police and ambulance lights outside and a shot of the inside of the Jians’ empty apartment the next day as we hear a policeman outside enquiring for Ting-Ting, we only learn of the murder in the next scene when Ting-Ting is in the police station and watches the news on TV. This is in the style of the film, where narrative information is first alluded to and then made clear in a subsequent scene; and it gives Yang a chance to critique Taiwanese media practices. We can add this critique to the elements of social satire throughout Yi Yi: the grotesqueries of social behaviour (at the wedding and the one-month baby shower, in particular), the lack of business ethics, the authoritarianism of school life, the persistence of superstitious beliefs, the commercialisation of religious belief, and the connections between business, crime, and politics.
Taipei Story, The Terroriser, and A Brighter Summer’s Day all contain acts of violence central to the narrative, but the problem with the murder in Yi Yi is that this dramatic act is unnecessary to the film. It adds nothing more to what we understand of the next-door neighbours, the Jiangs, and of the emotional turmoil in Ting-Ting’s relationship with Lili and the latter’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Fatty. More seriously, it is jarring in tone, a severe misjudgment on Yang’s part.
I’m conscious that here I’m holding Yang to the highest standards, standards his own artistic ambition has set himself. Still, if Yi Yi falls short of being the absolute masterpiece some claim it as, none of my reservations detract from it being a superb achievement and a very great film. It is in fact the last, great film of the now essentially moribund Taiwan New Cinema.
In a sense Yi Yi is the closest you’re likely to come nowadays to the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu, much more so than Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s explicit homage Café Lumière, a gem of a masterpiece in its own right but one that only connects peripherally with Ozu’s films. I don’t think that there is any specific allusion on Yang’s part—certainly, when Yang and Tony Rayns discuss on the commentary track the resort town of Atami that NJ and his first love Sherry go to during his business trip to Japan, neither makes any mention of Atami as an Ozu setting (in Tokyo Story it’s where the old couple’s grown-up children send them on a “holiday”). Instead, the parallels are more general: the focus on the life of an upper middle-class family; a portrayal of family members both united within the family and isolated from one another (of which Ozu’s most extreme case is Tokyo Twilight); a certain aestheticised distance to the shooting style (although in Yang’s case never as literally close to his characters as Ozu is, refracted as his style is through the Taiwan New Cinema long take/long shot aesthetic); and a narrative that resolves its dilemmas through ultimate acceptance. Yang also follows Ozu in refusing to assign blame, to label anyone as a villain. It would have been easy to have set up Min-Min as an object of explicit criticism for the way she essentially abandons her family, leaving it to them to care for her comatose mother; but there is never any sense that Yang is doing this. Like all the characters in Yi Yi, Min-Min has her own integrity, her own reasons for action which Yang respects.
Yang’s style in Yi Yi is characterised by a delicate restraint. In a film that is all about a deep respect and understanding of the characters and their experiences, Yang’s slightly withdrawn camera, the predominance of long and medium-long shots and of long takes, and the corresponding rarity of close ups is never an alienating modernist device, but a means of giving space and integrity to the film’s protagonists. As Yang says to Rayns about NJ and Sherry’s temple scene in Japan: “The privacy of the characters needs to be preserved.”
The formalism of Yang’s style is never as overtly aestheticised as in the work of Hou or Tsai but is masterful in the way image supports theme. One persistent motif is the use of reflections on glass to bring the outside world in to the experience of a character in a single simultaneous image. This emphasises the solipsism of the individual’s experience and the existence of a world wider than that experience, and it hints at the global perspective that the film itself brings by tying together all these separate experiences.
From the beginning the film’s moral and emotional focus rests (although not exclusively) in the character of NJ, aided by Wu Nianzhen’s personable and extremely sympathetic performance. (Wu — novelist, scriptwriter, director in his own right, and TV personality — is not a professional actor, but one of the founding figures of the New Taiwan Cinema of the early eighties.) NJ is the literal calm in the middle of the storm. He stands apart from the sense of discord and disarray that quickly characterises his brother-in-law A-Di’s wedding, particularly with the hysterical intervention of A-Di’s ex-girlfriend Yun-Yun, whose screams resound over the film’s title credits. At the wedding reception, Yang gives us a telling shot of NJ and Yang-Yang sitting together silently in the foreground, surrounded by the hubbub of the other guests; and this motif of stillness and silence versus turmoil and noise reoccurs in relation to NJ throughout the film. He’s conspicuously silent at the business meeting that first considers Ota’s computer game software, and he’s often seen listening to his music on his earphones, withdrawn from the world so to speak. Again, at the one-month celebration of the birth of A-Di’s son, Yang cuts from the screams and shouts, the violent pushing and pulling to a separate shot of NJ stopped at the entrance, silently observing.
As with the other characters, NJ’s monologue to his mother-in-law as she lies in bed in a coma is reflective of his own personal dilemmas. Ting-Ting gives expression to her feeling of guilt (she forgot to take down a bag of rubbish and her grandmother had her stroke when she did this herself); the too-young Yang-Yang says nothing; the callow and empty A-Di has a rush of words and then quickly runs out of anything to say; and Min-Min, unlike A-Di, acknowledges she has nothing to say, but as a sign that “I live a blank”. NJ is the only one that speaks at length, very deeply, openly, and honestly to Grandma:
There’s very little I’m sure about these days. I wake up feeling unsure about almost everything. And I wonder why we wake up at all just to face the same uncertainties again and again. Would you want to wake up if you were me?
NJ’s uncertainties are both professional and personal. He’s made profoundly unhappy by the lack of ethics in his business environment, and this comes to the fore in his company’s underhand dealings with Mr Ota. Ota is a magical figure (first shown standing outside the business meeting, allowing a pigeon to alight on his shoulder; literally performing card tricks), able to see through situations with forthrightness and absolute clarity. He is more importantly a “good man” who parallels NJ, as Ota tells him directly at their final meeting: “I am just like you. No tricks.” So, his company’s betrayal of Ota becomes a betrayal of NJ himself, and by the end of the film NJ has withdrawn from this kind of business life.
On a personal level, NJ’s chance meeting with Sherry, the first love of his life, allows him to explore the possibility of another kind of change. Sherry’s dissatisfaction with her life (“I have everything. What am I afraid of?” and “Why do I always make the same mistakes? When I know I’ll regret them for the rest of my life?”) parallels NJ’s own, but both have too many resentments to overcome, which they reveal in a long sequence, filmed in long shots whose distance emphasises the emotional intensity, as they wander through a deserted temple complex. Sherry is still hurt by how NJ abandoned her, and he still resents the way Sherry forced him into studying engineering (a semi-autobiographical touch on Yang’s part), so in the end this doesn’t lead to any change in NJ’s personal life, but rather a coming to terms with, a reconciliation with, and an acceptance of his personal situation.
NJ’s declaration of this to Min-Min, after Min-Min’s own expression of inner peace, is an important speech for the film:
I had a chance to relive part of my youth. My first thought was that I could make things turn out differently. But they turned out the same, or not much different. I suddenly realised that even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn’t need it.
The process NJ has gone through is parallelled by the experiences of his two children. With Ting-Ting this counterpointing becomes direct, when NJ and Sherry’s time in Japan together is intercut with Ting-Ting’s first date with Fatty (who, incidentally, is anything but fat). But what Ting-Ting lives through are different senses of hurt and betrayal. She blames herself for being a cause of her grandmother’s coma, she feels a sense of guilt towards her new-found friend Lili, and then she herself is hurt by Fatty’s abandonment of her. But Ting-Ting achieves her reconciliation in a scene with her grandmother which Yang leaves deliberately unclear whether it is dream or fantasy, but one which gives Ting-Ting the insight that the world is “so beautiful”.
Western critics have been quick to declare Yang-Yang the director’s surrogate figure on the basis of their names—a bit of a mistake, as Yang’s family name and Yang-Yang’s personal name are very different characters (words) in Chinese. (The lesson here: Know a little Chinese before venturing into this kind of interpretation; although this is not the worst example—a writer in a recent Cineaste bravely but very foolishly posits that a Wong Kar-Wai character named, in Cantonese, Ho must be a reference to the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh!)
In fact, right from the start a close parallel is drawn between Yang-Yang and his father. We can read the young boy’s artistic inclinations as giving expression to what his father has been forced to suppress or deny. Yang-Yang is exploring the world creatively, through his experiments with water; through his photographs of the backs of heads, in his attempt to overcome his feeling that we only ever see half of the truth of the world; and, finally, through his putting pen to paper in a farewell letter to his grandmother.
Yang-Yang’s reading of this letter is the grace note the film ends on. This funeral is the third of the three family gatherings that Yi Yi is structured around, but it has none of the turmoil, chaos, discord, and parodic/satiric elements that are found in the wedding and the baby celebration. Instead, there is peace, harmony, balance and reconciliation, emphasised by the gentleness of the rural setting. This is the meaning of the title itself. “Yi Yi”, the Chinese character for “one” repeated, has the sense of acting individually, reflecting the way each of the characters is in a separate world, and no one knows of all the problems each of the others is living through. But the very look of the Chinese characters (thus: — —), the single, simple stroke perfectly aligned with its replica, also conveys a sense of harmony and balance, the ultimate meaning of the film itself.
In this final scene the family is united, quietly observing Yang-Yang as he reads his final message to his grandmother. It’s first a declaration of artistic intent: “I want to tell people things they don’t know, show them stuff they haven’t seen…” (Yes, here we do have Edward Yang speaking through Yang-Yang, but as he has with other characters too, for example Fatty’s recital of his uncle’s ideas on cinema). Then, in his final summation, with the words — from an eight-year-old! — that “I feel I am old too,” Yang-Yang stresses the experience of learning and understanding that he has gone through in the course of the film, an experience shared by the other members of his family. It’s a rewarding experience that we too in the audience have shared.