Edward Yang’s 2000 film Yi Yi won him a dizzying array of accolades from multiple film festivals and film associations, including the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Asian Film Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The film, however, never really received a widespread theatrical release in Taiwan despite it being Yang’s first film to receive commercial distribution in the United States. Commenting on the situation, Yang combatively suggests that the local critics in Taiwan had treated him unfairly:
The negative image that the media has given to Taiwanese films really has settled in on the general public. I’m not a hero. I’m pictured as the bad guy who killed Taiwanese cinema because my work would never sell, because I’m only interested in film-festival awards. Filmmakers don’t have time to deal with these things. I’d rather spend time thinking about my scripts. I’d rather spend time with the people who finance my films, or telling them how to market them.1
Yang’s response highlights the peripheral position the Taiwanese New Cinema – a film movement that Yang is key to – occupies in the cultural consciousness of Taiwan. Films from this movement sought to present narratives that were “different from the escapist love stories and utopian martial-arts films of the seventies, as well as the traditional Confucian ethics of the ‘Healthy Realist’ cinema promoted by the government.”2 Rather, they aimed to make films about “the common experiences of individual people and Taiwan society”, and they usually achieved this by shying away from the mainstream Taiwan cinema’s approach towards dramatic conflict in favour for “observational realism and modernist expressionism”.3 Filmmakers typically associated with this movement, like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chen Kun-hou, do well within the film festival circuit, bringing Taiwanese cinema – and a corresponding form of “Taiwan-ness” – to an international audience; yet, at home in Taiwan, the local critics were already declaring the Taiwanese New Cinema dead in 1987, just a few years after its inception.
From this point of view, Yang’s comments about Yi Yi’s lack of distribution in Taiwan betray an uneasy sense of what Flannery Wilson has described as “the alienation of modern-day life in Taipei” that his films have a tendency to display.4 Narratively, Yi Yi follows the life of the Jian family as they are simultaneously knitted together and alienated by both their family and the city of Taipei. The film begins with the matriarch of the family falling into a coma as the family attempts to adapt, cope and continue their ways of living: her daughter, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), moves into a temple to deal with her existential crisis; her son-in-law, NJ (Wu Nien-jen), left to run the household, negotiates his company’s transnational financial adversities alongside a chance encounter with an old flame from his school years; her granddaughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), experiences the trials and tribulations of teenage love; and her grandson, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), gets into photography and learns about the nuances of growing up.
Stylistically, throughout the film, characters are regularly framed in wide-angle shots – their silhouettes rendered almost insignificant by the cityscape of Taipei – as they go about their routines. Through the cinematography and the mise en scène, the characters’ very existence is sewn into the fabric of the city, but, at the same time, isolated by their surroundings. This is not to say that the film is suggesting that city life, and the globalisation and modernity that come with it, alienates. Through the audiovisual editing, characters associated with past, present and future are intimately linked and brought together. In one moment, as NJ and his old flame Sherry (Ko Su-yun) roam around Japan reminiscing about their childhood, the film intercuts scenes of Ting-Ting going on a date with a boy, as the affect of love is brought together across time and space, highlighting that these interpersonal connections are perhaps not as singular as they might be.
In another moment, Yang-Yang is in school watching a documentary about the science of weather formation, and, simultaneously, mesmerised by the sight of a girl whom he has a slight crush on. As he, occupying the shot alone, isolated from his classmates, watches both the girl and the documentary, the sound of thunder emerges from the world of the documentary, and the film cuts to a wide-angle shot of Ting-Ting standing, alone, in the rain, waiting to cross the road. Similarly to the aforementioned scene, the thunder bleeds into Ting-Ting’s diegesis before slowly fading away, leaving the audience with just the sound of the rain pattering onto the streets. Again, then, the feelings of alienation experienced by both Yang-Yang and Ting-Ting are not isolated but – paradoxically – shared.
This atmosphere of apart-yet-together-ness that permeates the film is also achieved, in part, through the length of shots in Yi Yi. As James Udden observes, Yang’s later films are significantly slower than his earlier films, such as That Day, on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986), which “never exceeded 15 seconds per shot”, with the average shot lengths of the later films increasing to “anywhere from just over 25 seconds to just under 50 seconds”. 5 Here, I suggest that the long takes coupled with the long shots that saturate Yi Yi actively place the audience in the position of an observer, as they are invited to soak up the film’s affect as well as observe the interactions between the characters and their surroundings – the audience invited to, for example, look at the cityscape of Taipei outside Min-Min’s office whilst also looking at her having an existential breakdown in front of her colleagues as they attempt to comfort her.
Yi Yi, thus, paints a nuanced and intimate picture of Taipei and the people living in it, as both the city and the self delicately dance between loneliness and community. In this sense, then, the film goes beyond the “ethos of sadness” that Meiling Wu argues has come to characterise films typically associated with the Taiwan New Cinema,6 and, instead, presents an affectively subdued and complex representation of modern-day Taiwan.
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Yi Yi (2000 Taiwan/Japan 173 mins)
Prod. Co: 1+2 Seisaku Iinkai, Atom Films, Basara Pictures, Pony Canyon Prod: Shinya Kawai, Naoko Tsukeda Dir: Edward Yang Scr: Edward Yang Phot: Yang Wei-han Ed: Chen Po-wen Prod. Des: Peng Kai-li Mus: Peng Kai-li
Cast: Wu Nien-jen, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Ko Su-yun
- Edward Yang, quoted in Robert Sklar, “The Engineer of Modern Perplexity: An Interview with Edward Yang,” Douban, 18 October 2010, https://site.douban.com/106789/widget/notes/127384/note/95974619/ ↩
- Chris Berry and Feii Lu, “Introduction” in Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Chris Berry and Feii Lu, eds. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005), p. 5. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Flannery Wilson, New Taiwanese Cinema in Focus: Moving Within and Beyond the Frame (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 50. ↩
- James Udden, “’This Time He Moves!’ The Deeper Significance of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Radical Break in Good Men, Good Women,” in Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts, Darrell William Davis and Ru-Shou Robert Chen, eds. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2007), p. 193. ↩
- Meiling Wu, “Postsadness Taiwan New Cinema: Eat, Drink, Everyman, Everywoman” in Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh, eds. (Honolulu: Univesity of Hawai’i Press, 2005), p. 76. ↩