Yi Yi (2000)

Director: Edward Yang

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Shock doesn’t begin to describe my reaction on Sunday when I learned that Taiwanese director Edward Yang had just died of colon cancer at the age of 59. Call it incredible sadness and a huge sense of loss for a man who, because he had come to films later in life, had departed with so much left to say from his enormous humanity and depth of feeling about the great issues of life and his home country. I know his is a great personal loss to his family and friends—it must have been seeing how much love was a dominant theme in his handful of films.

The loss to the film word of his future output is compounded by the fact that his work has been criminally absent from most of the world’s screens and DVD players. The only one of his works to find a ready place in the arthouses of America and other countries is the one under consideration here, Yi Yi, and then probably only because he won the best director award for it at Cannes, where the film also was nominated for the Palme d’Or. I was exceedingly lucky to catch a screening of his masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991), a four-hour film that ran as a matinee companion to the regular run of Yi Yi at the Music Box in Chicago. I would be reviewing that film here as my tribute to Yang—if only it were available. As it is, however, the three-hour-long Yi Yi visits many of the themes of that film, even telling a slightly different version of the murder story that inspired Yang to pen and make the former film in the first place.
How that story haunted him is apparent, yet in films as rich in life as these two are, the incident actually takes up about five minutes of screen time in each.

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The film opens as the Jian family prepares for the wedding of A-Di (Chen Hsi-Sheng) to Xiao Yan (Xiao Shushen), a surprise choice for his bride considering his longtime live-in affair with Yun-Yun (Zeng Xinyi). We watch the blushing bride come up the aisle with her portly intended, looking a little portly around the middle herself. The superstitious A-Di has delayed the marriage to occur on the luckiest day of the year, which coincides with the last trimester of Xiao Yan’s pregnancy. After the ceremony, photos are taken of the entire family, during which A-Di’s young nephew Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is teased by some of his female relatives. As preparations for the reception take place, Yun-Yun runs crying to A-Di’s mother (Tang Ruyun), begging her forgiveness for not becoming her daughter instead. Grandma, feeling unwell, goes home to her room at her daughter Min-Min (Elaine Jen) and son-in-law NJ’s (Wu Nien-jen) apartment. The Jians change for the reception while at their apartment. NJ tells his daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) to take out the garbage. She wraps it up, but leaves it on the balcony in her haste to leave. With the family introduced, the wheels for drama are ready to roll, just not all that quickly.

The remains of the wedding spin out almost in real time. We see the usual drunken singing and dancing among the stragglers at the reception. Min-Min arrives home well after dark, only to learn that her mother has been taken to the hospital after being found unconscious next to the garbage cans in the alley. She runs to chase down the car that has just dropped her off and heads to the hospital, where her mother is in a coma from a stroke. After she is stabilized, Grandma is sent home. The family is instructed to talk to her to stimulate her senses and increase her chances of waking up.

Yi%20Yi%201%20edit.JPGGrandma provides something of a blank wall against which each of the Jians reveals his or her character. A-Di lies about how great he is doing financially—no more borrowing money—and how he is in control of his household. Ting-Ting shares her guilt that she may have caused Grandma’s stroke because she forgot to take out the garbage, her youthful innocence starting to fade with her first real experience of serious offense, however unintended. Yang-Yang refuses to talk to Grandma, insisting that if he can’t show her the pictures he drew, she can’t understand him. This is the beginning of Yang-Yang’s discovery that he and his experiences Yi%20Yi%20edit.JPGare separate from those of other people’s. He becomes obsessed with trying to learn about the parts of life we can’t see and gets a camera from his father to explore this idea further. Sadly, Min-Min confesses to NJ that day after day she tells her mother about her morning, afternoon, and evening. “It only takes a minute.” Despairing of the emptiness of her life, she searches for meaning with a guru at a retreat. NJ himself doesn’t know how to talk to his mother-in-law; it’s not his style. He is questioning everything about his life since he ran into his first love at the hotel at which the wedding reception was held and met a computer game designer whose honor his company seems ready to discard. Each of the Jians will find an awakening in the events that unfold throughout the course of the film.

Most films would never luxuriate on the details of all of these stories, not to mention those of half a dozen or so side characters, but Yang isn’t interested in producing a brisk view. He’d rather show you a world, an environment, give you all the sides of the picture you can’t see yourself because you weren’t there. For example, Ting-Ting’s friend and next-door neighbor, Lili (Adrian Lin) is dating a boy nicknamed Fatty (Chang Yupang). One day, she sees Lili standing at the elevator kissing another boy. Only we saw Lili waiting in vain for Fatty at a café, where the other boy meets some friends and apparently succeeds in picking Lili up. To Ting-Ting, it looks as though Fatty has been wronged; Ting-Ting therefore sees no reason not to date Fatty herself.

Each life’s details are given room, from Yang-Yang’s antics in school to Min-Min at work, where we see her photocopying and conversing briefly with her coworker Nancy (Jin Shishui). A one-minute conversation between a neighbor we never see again and Ting-Ting is fully realized, and NJ’s secretary even gets a chance to take personal calls at work and then say she has to hang up because the boss just came in. No one is unworthy of some regard, however small. The cities in which the characters move also give context to their lives and, therefore, get a fair amount of screen time, though not becoming characters in themselves. Yang is too much of a humanist to mistake the buildings for the builders.

Other troubled relationships—between NJ and his disaffected wife Min-Min, A-Di and the demanding Xian Yan, NJ and his business partners and their major investor—also turn into triangles. For example, NJ opposes his partners’ wish to sign with knockoff producer Ato by wanting to go into business with the very wise and ethical Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata), a Japanese game designer who has no tricks to a quick buck but rather a sense of serenity that NJ covets. While on a business trip to Tokyo to court Ota’s signature on a contract, NJ hooks up with his first love Sherry (Ko Su-Yun), now married to an American and living in Chicago. They spend a long night moving through Tokyo, reminiscing and rehashing NJ’s abandonment of Sherry, hurt feelings close and violent. A-Di, thrown out by Xian Yan, spends the night with Yun-Yun, with whom he feels comfortable and less attacked for being a ne’er-do-well, the reason she likely wouldn’t marry him in the first place.

There are a number of conversations in this film that seem to be coming from Yang’s own heart—after all, he is the screenwriter, too. For example, NJ responds to a crying Sherry how much it hurt him to have her push him incessantly to become an engineer, even though that was not what he wanted; in fact, Yang was an engineer for years before he turned to film. Ting-Ting and Fatty talk about the movie they just saw, Ting-Ting complaining that it didn’t have to be so sad. Fatty says that life is sad, and that films Yi%20Yi%20new.jpggive us a chance to experience things that don’t happen to us, such as murder. Ting-Ting counters that it isn’t necessary to experience negative things; angered, Fatty tells Ting-Ting to wake up from her fairytale and see that life all around her is miserable. This conversation tells us a lot about Yang’s views of films, why they do what they do, and perhaps is his explanation for the real-life murder he recalled that motivated A Brighter Summer Day.

yi_yi%202.jpgYang does a lot within the frame as well. If there is such a thing as film feng shui, Yang achieves it. There is a certain balance in his films. Each setting perfectly tells us about the lives that are lived there, from the ostentatious mansion of investor Huang (Luo Bei-an), to the Jian’s cluttered and lively middle-class flat, to the tastefully upscale apartment of the newlyweds, to the simple, cozy restaurant that the rich Mr. Ota chooses as the place to talk to NJ. Each setting is lavished with gorgeous lighting and luxurious colors—golden yellow hallways in the Jians’ building, a silvery glow from an open door from which Min-Min emerges, matter-of-factly, to tend to her mother. Several times, characters say that life is beautiful, and it is apparent in the way that Yang films that he thinks so, too.

Yang also pays attention to versions of reality, slighting none. He plays a lot with camera ranges. Main characters often move far in the distance, like ants in the streets of Taipei. This tends to happen earlier in the film. As we get to know the characters more, Yang moves into medium shots and some close-ups. Sounds, too, obscure conversations or emphasize city living. Yang-Yang, most of all, finds the perfect metaphor for seeing the hidden worlds of our lives. Yang even pays homage to the hidden realms of Chinese folklore and belief, giving us a moment of connection and magic that a realist would dismiss but that here seems to belong.

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Overall, Yang wonders whether we can live sentimentally and virtuously in the world today. When Ting-Ting sheds her school uniform of black and green for blue and white when she is with Fatty, the symbolism of the Virgin Mary is hard to miss. When Sherry and NJ comment on the Tokyo hotel clerk’s surprise that they asked for two rooms, we see a shift that may be a bit disturbing, even as we find the pregnant bride at the beginning of the film rather funny. Ting-Ting plays Gershwin’s “Summertime” to her grandmother on the piano, echoing for me the sentimental recording that gives its title to A Brighter Summer Day.

NJ and Min-Min perhaps sum up Yang’s conclusion the best. When Min-Min returns from her retreat, she tells her husband that it was much the same as before, only instead of it being her telling her mother the same things over and over again, it was the guru repeating himself to her. In the end, she says that her life is what she is living. NJ, for his part, says that he had a chance to relive his past, and it turned out much the same way. He discovered after all that though he could have done it all over, he really didn’t need to. l

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