YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO)

Written and directed by Edward Yang

With Wu Nienjen, Issey Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee,  Jonathan Chang, Ke Suyun and Yupang Chang

Distributed by WinStar

****



Now that the 90s are over, it seems pretty obvious that Iranian and Taiwanese cinema were the two most important "New Waves" of the past decade.  Although Iranian cinema has firmly caught the attention of American distributors, Taiwanese cinema still remains consigned to the esoterica bin. (After decades of neglect, Korean cinema now seems to be catching on here.)  It took Yang 17 years of work and 7 features  to get a film released in this country. While YI YI  isn't always easy to follow, it may prove to be a good calling card for him. His best work since the 1991 masterpiece A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (which made my list of the 90s' 10 best films), it fits squarely into the fashionable post-SHORT CUTS Urban Panorama genre, although Yang's fondness for  complex narrative webs and urban landscapes far predates their recent vogue.

YI YI revolves around the Jian family: NJ (Wu, an accomplished screenwriter/director in his own right),  his wife Min-Min (Jin), their teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Lee) and  8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). However, it brings on such a large cast of characters that WinStar's press kit helpfully includes a family tree and an extremely detailed plot synopsis. Several  family crises spark  the narrative: Min-Min's mother is hospitalized after falling  after a stroke, the computer firm where NJ works teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, and he runs into Sherry (Ke), a woman he dated in high school but hasn't seen for 30 years. (She emigrated to the U.S. shortly after they broke up.) Min-Min's realization of her mother's mortality leads her to take refuge in religion, while NJ is tempted by the possibility of sleeping with Sherry, having never really fallen out of love with her. Meanwhile, Ting-Ting is discovering her own budding sexuality with her troubled boyfriend Fatty (Yupang Chang), and Yang-Yang develops an  interest in photography.

With YI YI, Yang once again proves himself a master of camera placement and framing. Generally avoiding camera movement and close-ups, he almost always shoots his characters in medium or long shot. While some of his characters are perfectly willing to express emotion directly, the distant camera set-ups seem to  place their emotional outbursts into a larger perspective.  When a woman tries to break down her bathroom door in order to rescue her boyfriend from a suicide attempt, Yang only shows us one image: a static view of her living room, in which she rarely appears. After another apparent suicide attempt, Yang waits several minutes before letting us know exactly what happened, as Hou Hsaio-hsien did with a kidnapping  in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE. At his most extreme, Yang plays the voices of two characters over an extreme long shot of train tracks in which they never appear (unless I missed some tiny detail.)

Just as early Godard films like BAND OF OUTSIDERS and PIERROT LE FOU probably never could have been made by a man over 40, YI YI could only have been made by a middle-aged man. It's tempting to read NJ's  position as an "honest-looking" figurehead in a failing company as a reflection on  Yang's marginalization in Taiwan's film industry. (After his  last film, the 1996 MAHJONG, flopped in Taiwan and failed to get any distribution in the West,  he had to turn to Japanese financing to get this one made.) NJ's eventual  acceptance that following one's heart isn't always practical and disappointment and disillusionment are inevitable is  reflected both on the level of story and visual style.  However, it also does justice to the passions of the younger characters, some of whom are so volatile that  suicidal or murderous impulses are only a step away, and Yang obviously identifies with them as well .  He even makes the connection between himself and Yang-Yang explicit by   cutting from a series of the boy's photos, all images of the backs of  heads, to a shot of him standing by a pool, similarly framed from the back.

The onset of democracy in late 80s Taiwan had a tremendous impact on Hou Hsaio-hsien, freeing him to explore the nation's repressed historical traumas in films like CITY OF SADNESS and GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN, but its effect on Yang seems more diffuse. If anything, it only intensified his commitment to examining the contradictions of Asian modernity. (Even his one period piece, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, takes a look at the roots of Hou and Yang's baby-boomer generation.) In YI YI, his political concerns fade into the background: the anger about globalization and Taiwan's brand of  hyper-capitalism that was so apparent in A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION and MAHJONG has died down. While much of the Jian family's stress clearly comes from living in a transitional period between traditional Chinese notions of familial devotion and Western individualism, this is not the film's main concern. When NJ takes his son to McDonald's and Ting-Ting and Fatty hang out at a shop called NY Bagels, it's is a fact of life, not a metaphor for American cultural imperialism. Since MAHJONG suffered from straining too hard to capture the zeitgeist, especially in its  awkward introduction of European characters, Yang may have done wisely to focus on more personal concerns. Even so, the subplot involving Sherry, with whom NJ broke up  because she was always pushing him towards business, does an excellent job of showing how economic and political concerns impinge upon "private" life.

While YI YI will  undoubtedly remind some American spectators of MAGNOLIA and WONDERLAND, Yang avoids melodrama exactly where those films embraced it, even if he uses a similar structure.  Unfortunately, his detachment  may reinforce essentialist stereotypes about Asian emotional reticence, yet I think it serves mainly  to focus emotions, rather than  a sign of coldness. The film may be all the more moving because it keeps at bay the illusion that we could completely understand its characters. In fact, YI YI comes closer to reviving the sensibility of Ozu (while still having plenty to say about life in the year 2000) than any film I've seen in years.