As the Jian family lines up for a wedding portrait, three little girls tease eight-year old Yang-Yang by tapping on his head from behind. He turns around each time trying to uncover the pesky perpetrator. In this single shot, seconds into Edward Yang’s three-hour opus, Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000), the major themes in the movie are simply and elegantly put forward. Just like the photo being taken, the movie is a portrait of this family, father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin), daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), along with Grandma and groom A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen), who are Min-Min’s mother and brother, respectively. Little Yang-Yang later wonders whether we can only see half of the truth since we can see in front of us but not behind. While his question is crudely expressed, the film explores it in all of its nuance – how we are limited by our perspective, what makes up this perspective, and how we deal with its limitations. Yang-Yang’s being teased from behind evokes this question in him and spurs an aesthetic answer in the form of a camera his father gives him, bringing us back to the idea of the portrait at the beginning. By thoughtfully imbuing such thematic concerns at every level – character, story, and mise en scène – Yang has crafted a work that achieves a level of profundity rarely seen in cinema.
Yi Yi brought Yang the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and the film has been celebrated equally by mainstream critics and more stringent highbrow critics. The National Society of Film Critics awarded it Best Picture, and a Village Voice poll of 54 critics placed Yi Yi in second place after Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 2000) among the films of last year. Despite high acclaim for Yang’s previous pictures, Yi Yi is shockingly the first of Yang’s seven films to get a commercial run in the United States, and tiny distributor Winstar is barely up to the task. Without the marketing power of a major studio, Yi Yi is the kind of film that goes completely under the radar of the Academy Awards, while making all of the Best Picture nominees look feeble in comparison. Its appeal on all levels lies in its eminently accessible subject matter, the sophisticated approach taken to it, and Yang’s formidable directorial prowess. Alongside his compatriot, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang has become the most distinguished purveyor of the long take-long shot style, matching such masters as Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Yi Yi, like most great films, eludes easy encapsulation. The father, NJ, works for a computer company that is in financial trouble and seeking to contract a genius Japanese video game designer named Ota (Issey Ogata). NJ finds an instant bond with the software guru’s essential decency in the otherwise pitiless world of business. In the meantime, NJ bumps into his first love, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), whom he has not seen in nearly 30 years and who now lives in the U.S., married to an American. NJ and Sherry do not know whether they want to change the present into the future they never had, or let go of the past. NJ’s wife, Min-Min, is worn down by both her mother’s recent stroke-induced coma and the monotonous routine of daily life, so she seeks solace in a spiritualist cult. Fourteen-year old daughter, Ting-Ting, looks up to her new next-door neighbor Lili (Adrian Lin) while drawing the attentions of Lili’s boyfriend, Fatty (Pang Chang Yu). Yang-Yang is frequently teased by girls and just as frequently gets into trouble at school because of an oppressive teacher, but his little body houses a budding imagination and an omnivorous curiosity. Among the extended family, Min-Min’s brother, A-Di, has just gotten married, but is so financially pinched, he goes to borrow money from his ex-lover, Yun-Yun (Hsin-Yi Tseng).
The film opens with a wedding, ends with a funeral, and includes a birth, an attempted suicide, and a murder in between. Despite the potential for melodrama in this material, the supreme restraint in Yang’s presentation gives Yi Yi a naturalistic, contemplative tone throughout. Keeping the camera at a distance, Yang lets us decide what to focus on. He does not force drama or importance on us and, at the end, we cherish what we’ve seen all the more because we feel that we have actively chosen what to consider.
Notwithstanding this distanced approach, Yang invigorates the story with a richness of everyday life reminiscent of the works of Jean Renoir or Yasujiro Ozu. This demands capturing the details of the characters’ lives, which Yang gets just right. In a single shot, he perfectly catches the tone of post-celebratory exhaustion as the family drives home after A-Di’s wedding reception. No one speaks over the hypnotic hum of the car engine, and Yang-Yang is invisible, presumably sleeping in the backseat on his mother’s lap. After Grandma has had her stroke, Ting-Ting lies in bed in the dark as her parents return from the hospital. She strains to hear what happened to Grandma amidst the distant murmurs of her parents. Though her face is hidden in shadow, her yearning to know is palpable. And when NJ and Sherry are waiting for a train in Japan, in an extreme long shot, Sherry tenderly edges NJ back just a little from the tracks as a train pulls in. The way this instinctual, affectionate gesture is performed could only occur between two people who have had a world of history between them.
But the richness extends beyond the main characters. Every character, no matter how peripheral, feels real: a bartender at a karaoke bar who imparts his worries about his poor business to NJ; an affable neighbor who finds Yang-Yang taking pictures of mosquitoes and assures him that she has talked with his mother and knows the noisy fighting across the hall (courtesy of Lili’s mom) does not come from his apartment; a brash army youth who irritates Lili upon his noisy return to his friends at a café; and the demure waiter at a Japanese restaurant who asks Ota and NJ with some trepidation, “You are not gambling, are you?” then immediately follows with, “Who won?” All of them appear in the movie for less than a minute, but their presence as fully-developed entities is indelible. At any point, one could wander off to entire other stories going on concurrently, all of which could be just as interesting.
This richness points to an expansive world at the edges of all our personal narratives. It seeps in every once in a while, hinting at universes beyond our singular perspective, so often consumed by the obsession with self. It is important to note that everyone has his or her own perspective, no two being alike. Yi Yi in Chinese means “one one,” but it has a double meaning in its appearance that makes it possible to read it as “two,” the Chinese character for “two” simply being a doubling of the single slash that means “one” (which is why the English title is amusingly “A One and a Two”). This double way of seeing – depending on what perspective you take when looking at the title – plays up this theme. The play on names extends beyond the title with the names of most characters reflecting the title’s doubling – Yang-Yang, Ting-Ting, Min-Min, Yun-Yun, NJ’s business partner, Da-Da, and even Lili.
Yang also arranges his visuals to reflect the idea of being able to see only “half of what’s going on.” Once armed with his father’s camera, Yang-Yang takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads, signifying what they cannot see. Edward Yang shoots the back of NJ’s head every time he gets sideswiped by an event he does not see coming: the first time he bumps into Sherry; then late in the film when Da-Da calls him at the hotel in Japan to talk about an abrupt change in contract plans; and again while NJ is on the phone with the hotel’s receptionist inquiring about Sherry. Yang also frequently shoots through glass, utilising reflections to show the audience what is both in front of and behind the glass at the same time. Metaphorically, however, the characters are only aware of what is happening on their side. One such shot shows NJ talking to his secretary through the window of his office. In the window is a reflection of the secretary’s workstation. The camera stays in place as NJ leaves and we see the secretary return to her desk in the reflection. The secretary picks up a call from Sherry, which NJ has missed, having come from the other side of the glass. This is a masterful use of film space to enhance theme through the location of character and action within the frame.
The reflections do not just set up divisions between what the characters know and do not know, but also show that the world is a much bigger picture than any one perspective can attain. After Min-Min has a breakdown, NJ closes the blinds, turning their bedroom window into a black mirror reflecting the heavy traffic below. It is a shot of breathtaking beauty, but it also indicates that their story is but one of millions in the city. Yang also frames these reflective shots so we never forget that lives do not go on in a vacuum, but in a community: Min-Min has a quiet moment to herself in her office while immersed in the reflection of a cityscape; A-Di and Yun-Yun deal with personal matters in a café whose windows show us the bustling city block outside; and Sherry cries despondently in her hotel room, her body barely visible, almost enveloped by the reflected image of the Tokyo Tower at night. Yang thus emphasises surroundings, reminding us that environment impacts on behaviour.
Yang has shown this interest throughout all of his films. From Taipei Story (1985) and The Terroriser (1987) to A Confucian Confusion (1994), he has investigated the effects of capitalism and modern mores on a Taiwanese society that has valued ancient traditions until very recent times. In Yi Yi, Yang both indicts the ruthlessness of modern times and pokes fun at tradition. We see the effects of the former in the principles NJ must sacrifice in the name of business. In relation to the latter, Min-Min and brother A-Di’s reliance on superstition has mixed results. A-Di has delayed his wedding until a lucky date, but that in turn clashes with another propriety – A-Di embarrasses his family by allowing his fiancé to become grossly pregnant in the meantime. In addition, A-Di’s insistence on his child having the perfect name leaves the kid nameless while he decides. He has truly lost his perspective. Min-Min has too, and as a result, her life has become nothing more than daily routine, a life running on autopilot. After Grandma has her stroke, the doctor instructs the family to talk to the comatose woman to enliven her senses, but Min-Min quickly runs out of things to say while realising her life is the same uninteresting, daily pattern. Yang effects this idea in more subtle way too. NJ does not remember what he is looking for in the apartment when he comes back home with Ting-Ting between A-Di’s wedding and reception. In another instance, during the reception, Da-Da forgets why he comes downstairs in the elevator.
This also demonstrates the characters’ lives reflecting one another, and Yang intercuts among them to reveal the parallels. For example, NJ and Sherry’s reminiscing about their first date is interspersed with scenes of Ting-Ting experiencing her first date. When Min-Min’s spiritual master visits NJ for a contribution, NJ’s polite refusal to join the group owing to his skepticism is intercut with Yang-Yang trying to figure out scientifically how to fill a water balloon in the bath. While retrieving items from the kitchen, Yang-Yang’s towel falls off and his nudity symbolises NJ’s baring the master’s pretenses in the next room. A-Di’s current situation also mirrors NJ’s old one. Both abandon a romance with a former classmate and marry someone else.
If our limited perspectives often make life miserable, Yi Yi also suggests the delight in finding new perspectives. That is what makes life interesting. Our perspectives are forever changing. NJ sees Ota embrace experience in all its forms, and he himself overcomes regret to find value in what he has. Edward Yang may be a little too precious in his suggestion (via Yang-Yang) that perhaps a photographer (or a filmmaker) can provide us with perspectives we cannot find on our own. But, in the example of Ota’s card “trick,” Yang also says that there are no simple answers. Ota says there is no trick, that he taught himself, and Yang shoots it without the tricks of editing, in a single take. Yi Yi is all about balancing the pursuit of the material and the spiritual, and how difficult modern urban life makes that quest; but also how, once we gain perspective, we can be satisfied just in the trying.