Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The interestingly titled Yi Yi is an excellent choice for Americans interested in taking a first look at modern Asian cinema. It's an account of one year in the life of a fairly well off Taiwanese family told with unusual sensitivity and precision by Edward Yang, a masterful director in the New Taiwan Cinema. Essayist Kent Jones describes this movement as centering on stories of urban life beset by rapid social development. The tone of the film is somewhere between a muted soap opera and a neutral observation of humans going about their daily routines. Director Yang's careful visuals and dramatic restraint soon have us concerned with the problems and hopes of a gallery of fascinating characters. Criterion calls Edward Yang a best kept secret; seeing Yi Yi puts one in a mind to immediately seek out more of his films.
NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) attends the wedding of his brother-in-law, an astrology-obsessed fool who has lost a fortune of his girlfriend's money; she shows up at the ceremony and causes a scene. NJ's quiet little son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) has a good time, but NJ is shaken by a chance meeting with Sherry (Su-Yun-Ko), an old flame from High School thirty years before. Feeling the pressure of city life, NJ's wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) goes on retreat with a trendy guru, leaving NJ to take care of Yang-Yang and his older sister Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), an insecure fifteen year-old impressed by the talented new neighbor girl, who has a boyfriend. NJ is partners in a software development company that doesn't know whether to hire the talented Japanese game designer Ota (Issei Ogata) or to go with a local imitator. NJ is elected to meet with Ota and the two men strike up a promising friendship, but NJ's flaky partners make hasty, bad-faith decisions. At home, the only contact from Mother Min-Min has been a visit from her guru, to solicit money. Yang-Yang uses a camera to creatively help other people (he thinks), while Ting-Ting falls in love with the neighbor girl's discarded boyfriend. While in Tokyo to see Ota, NJ keeps a potentially adulterous rendezvous with Sherry. Unattended in Taipei, Ting-Ting simultaneously goes out on a risky date with the much more experienced boyfriend.
Yi Yi is a film with an arresting, disarming style. It uses many static camera angles but is never boring; we often observe groups of people from afar or watch couples in long shot while the entire city goes about its business around them. We can't help but read meanings into these held shots. When two teenagers standing under a freeway ramp finally kiss, we see a traffic light go green in the background as if magically approving of the romance of the moment.
People tend to talk less and feel more, leading lives that range from quiet desperation to quiet reflection. The father NJ says that we all need time in our lives to think, and there always seems to be some pressing problem that needs his brand of quiet concern. NJ is the only one of the software partners not to burst into meaningless emotionalisms, and he typically greets his ebullient-but-troublemaking brother-in-law with understanding looks and a willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. When Min-Min claims that she's unhappy and zips away to luxuriate at the guru's mountain retreat, NJ doesn't protest. He's doubly interested in the wellbeing of his children, but expects them to largely take care of themselves. NJ seems a great father to the quiet but precocious Yang-Yang. Told that people think they know the truth but really only see half of any situation, Yang-Yang shoots dozens of pictures of the backs of people's heads. What at first seems a kid's waste of film turns out to be a supremely positive act.
Director Yang doesn't push his camera deep into every dramatic confrontation; the key to his style seems to be reserved intimacy. A succession of strange visitors and arguments from next-door remains a mystery to Ting-Ting until the sad truth comes out. Min-Min doesn't know what's troubling her, NJ doesn't pry and the director imposes no magical insights. More often than not Edward Yang will position his camera at a discreet distance or aim it from one room to the next, giving us the closest viewpoint that a stranger might have without intruding on the drama. Some of the best moments are the most simple, such as when Yang-Yang becomes infatuated with an older girl, just by seeing her standing in front of an instructional movie about the beginnings of life on Earth.
The occasional static scenes are unlike images in European Art Films or Jim Jarmusch movies that go for easy alienation effects by purposely boring the audience. Yang's camera holds still but his frame is alive with moving context, often drawing our attention to specific actions to discover the truth of what's going on. Ting-Ting dresses to go out on her date, perhaps secretly hoping that she'll be making love. We know this is a possibility only because her evening out is inter-cut with her father and his old girlfriend a thousand miles away in Japan. Ting-Ting seems to be restaging the unfortunate love story her father experienced thirty years before, a parallelism that reminds us of the romantic films of Frenchman Jacques Demy, especially Lola.
Yang's script brings several of its characters to the brink of disaster, leaving us unable to intervene. Ting-Ting and Yang-Yang appear to be heading for tragedy. Extraordinary things do happen, but as in real life they're never predictable. The most impressive aspect of Yi Yi is that we care deeply about NJ's family, even though we know little about them.
Criterion's DVD of Yi Yi is an immaculate transfer of this immeasurably rich movie. The detailed image is always fascinating to look at and has been compared to work by Japanese masters. Seeing the DVD, we ask ourselves if Criterion will one day be putting out Hi-Def discs ... if this already striking transfer can get better, we want to see it.
The long film comes with a full commentary from writer-director Yang and the critic Tony Rayns, who also collaborated on the new subtitles. Rayns appears separately in an insightful interview about Yang and the New Taiwan Cinema. Edward Yang has never allowed Yi Yi to be released theatrically in his home country; Rayns reports that the Taiwanese film industry is "effectively dead." A handsome insert booklet contains essays by Kent Jones and notes from the director on how his film came together - he found the actress to play his Taiwanese-American character Sherry by re-contacting the first actress he ever worked with, who in the interim had moved to Canada.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Yi Yi rates:
Supplements: Commentary by writer-director Edward Yang and Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns; Video interview with Rayns; Theatrical trailer; Booklet with a new essay by Kent Jones and notes by writer-director Edward Yang
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson