The very first shot of the movie is that of a wedding party; you'll notice the bride is some nine months pregnant. Right from the start, we're met with an image that grabs us. Other shots, also of great wonder, quickly follow: an army of girls harass a young boy while they wait for a picture to be snapped; anonymous banquet hall employees fill heart-shaped balloons in preparation for the reception; the brother-in-law of the groom arrives with a massive portrait of the new couple, which he carelessly leaves upside-down on the easel - a small warning, perhaps?
Writer/director Yang is a master of composing images for the screen. But this is not limited to his more noticeable shots, the ones that come carefully planned and strike the viewer as a thing of great beauty (these images often involve the camera observing the action via mirrors and/or long distances, as well as delicately chosen bits of urban landscaping that divide the screen in peculiar ways); even in his less showy moments, the shots that look casual, almost candid in their capture of everyday life, there's something that catches the viewer's eye. I often find myself leaning in when watching this film, always looking, always enthralled.
Yang also provides us with an economy of storytelling - which is surprising, considering the movie runs just shy of three hours long. But it's true. His expositions are compact and effortless, revealing so much with so little, which then allows more time for us to simply soak up the characters. This is a patient movie, and it shares its patience with its characters: late in the film, two characters are on the verge of an affair, when one asks the other to stop and think things through for a while. Here, finally, is a story where the characters understand the idea of consequences. Instead of cheap melodrama, we get thoughtful, introspective human drama.
But to get us there, we need to learn a lot, which we do fairly quickly. From the opening scene at the reception, we discover that: the groom, A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chan), has a habit of borrowing money for failed schemes; A-Di left a now bitter ex-girlfriend in order to marry his bride; A-Di's brother-in-law, N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu), runs into an old flame, whom he abandoned decades earlier; the family grandmother is tired and ill, and perhaps disapproving of the new marriage; N.J.'s teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) has eyes for a friend's boyfriend; new neighbors have just moved in next door; and N.J.'s young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is forever tormented by girls. If this feels like a lot to soak in, it is, but it does not seem like so much, considering Yang's grace with doling out the details.
The grandmother suffers a stroke and winds up in a coma, which could be described as the launching point of sorts for this family's season of change, although changes and conflicts and questions come even earlier, beginning with that very first scene. Launching or no, the coma serves to ground our characters, to reveal so much to us, as the family is told to always talk to her - the dialogue will help her recover. N.J.'s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), breaks down in one scene, discovering that she had run out of things to say - is her life that empty, that unimportant? Ting-Ting, feeling responsible for her grandmother's condition, cannot bear to talk to her, at least not until a key scene late in the film. N.J. finds the discussions to be like prayer: "I'm not sure if the other party can hear me, and I'm not sure if I'm sincere enough." Yang-Yang, ever the young philosopher, does not wish to talk, for what can he say that she does not already know?
There is plenty of philosophical introspection here, with all the characters contemplating their place in life. N.J., through work, spends much time with a Japanese businessman, Ota (Issey Ogata), quietly, poetically debating the meaning of everything; Ota reduces life down to a card trick, and things become so clear. (Film studies majors take note: compare Ota to the unseen Ato, a rival for a deal with N.J.'s company. If Ota represents all that is honest and good in the world, what must Ato represent?) There is something magical about Ota. He calms us and makes us look inward with his words, just as he brings a hush to a noisy karaoke bar by following a bouncy tune with a piano recital of a somber chamber piece.
N.J.'s penchant for quiet contemplation has been passed on to Yang-Yang, who asks some serious questions: "I can't see what you see, and you can't see what I see. How can I know what you see?" And later, on the notion that we can only see in front of us, and not behind: "Can we only know half of the truth?" N.J. suggests to his son that the answer to his first question is a camera - which Yang-Yang then uses to take snapshots of the backs of people's heads, so at long last they can finally see the whole truth.
Watching Chang as Yang-Yang is one of the movie's greatest joys. This is a child wise far beyond his years, but although he "feels old" (as he describes in one moment), he maintains the innocence of youth - just try to watch without smiling as he takes to figuring out the mysteries of creating a water balloon.
Chang's thoughtfulness carries over to the rest of the cast. These actors handle the material so expertly that we never notice just how quirky and slanted some of the plotlines become - surely no child talks like this, but the rest of the screenplay is so firmly grounded in reality, and it's all presented with such firm conviction by the players, that we don't giggle. Instead, we marvel. We fall silent and listen to these people's conversations, and we learn a little more about ourselves in the process.
"Yi Yi" has earned its reputation and then some. It is a flawless work, an endlessly fascinating work of film craftsmanship, but that is only a supporting role in helping tell such a moving story. This is universal stuff, a tale of modern angst that translates around the world with great ease. Watch it once, and its ideas, its compassion, its heartbreak, and its warmth will stay with you forever.
Previously released on DVD by Fox Lorber, "Yi Yi" gets an all-out upgrade courtesy of the Criterion Collection. As you'd expect, Criterion delivers a disc worthy of a movie this remarkable.
The new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is a stunning improvement over the previous, grainy release. The image is spectacular, bringing the most out of Yang's careful compositions. Simply outstanding.
The Dolby stereo mix is solid, dutifully handling the soundtrack's delicate mix of dialogue and music. Optional English subtitles are provided (I believe these are newly translated titles).
Gone from the earlier release is the Yang commentary track. It's been replaced with a newly recorded commentary, featuring Yang and Tony Rayns, a scholar on Asian cinema. The dialogue is as lively and informative as all commentaries should be.
A video interview with Rayns (complemented by a wide variety of video footage) packs an awful lot of information into its fifteen minute running time. We get a digest history of the Taiwan film industry, capped off with plenty of notes on the "New Taiwan Cinema." Most interesting fact: Yang's dislike of the nation's film scene has led to his refusal to run his films in Taiwan; to date, "Yi Yi" is still not available there outside of bootlegs. This featurette is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Rounding out the disc is a trailer for the film. It's rather grainy and shown in a non-anamorphic letterbox; it looks like it was lifted directly off the previous disc.
Also included is a booklet containing an excellent essay on the film by film critic Kent Jones, plus some notes from Yang, who discusses the two titles' meanings, as well as casting and production.
That "Yi Yi" ranks among the best films in recent memory is enough to land this disc in the DVD Talk Collector Series. The outstanding presentation from Criterion only backs this up. "Yi Yi" is a rare work of beauty, a thoughtful, touching, compelling study of humanity that demands to be seen.
(As for fans of the film who already own the Fox Lorber disc: yes, this is absolutely worth the upgrade. Keep the older release if you want to hold on to that Yang commentary, but you really should grab this one. Better video, better audio, better extras.)