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
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.