ImmigrantFilm’s review published on Letterboxd:
5.0/5.0 = Masterpiece
My criteria for a five-star review is honestly not very complicated. I don't expect absolute perfection at every turn. Instead, I seek out artistic singularity, a lasting impact, and a clear definition as to why this story had to be told in the cinematic medium. The latter is perhaps the most important: a film needs to justify itself. Why couldn't the same story have been told on paper, on the stage, through sound, or in a single photograph?
With that in mind, Edward Yang's YI YI does something very special. It is a film that channels the meditative introspection of a novel, but relies on audience participation to fully function. YI YI is charity for our imperfections: a film that accepts individuals at face value, and celebrates life as well as the remedial qualities of loss. Yes, I do think YI YI might be a perfect film. There is no false note, no weak performance, no hackneyed writing. For a film about everyday life, it is unquestionably layered, causing its profundity to grow out of its own enigmatic complexity; poetics found in the everyday.
Breathing through its languid, meditative three-hours, it is perhaps the closest thing a film will ever come to being a novel, but it absolutely insists on its existence within the cinematic medium. It is a film about lived experiences, captured moments in time; the past, the present, and the future. Only through performance on celluloid can we fully digest the breadth of this tapestry.
YI YI challenges structural conventions with kindness, not pretense, allowing incidents to build up only to downplay them entirely. A boy's near-death experience goes entirely unnoticed by his loved ones, a man's attempt to start an affair ends before it is even seriously considered. It is about the snap decisions that define us: occurrences that can be captured in a single photograph but ripple for decades to come.
Yang's film is anchored by the hypocrisies of its leading characters: each a believably flawed member of an ensemble. And yet nothing feels predetermined. There is no sense that Yang's film has been manufactured to fit a mold or reach a logical conclusion. YI YI doesn't operate in act structures, because life has its own twisted way of resolving itself. It ebbs and flows until it reaches its logical conclusion. A character's weakness doesn't receive a clever payoff in the third act and nothing introduced at the beginning propels itself forward with intense significance.
Instead, each scene navigates itself, coming to a clever, insightful, and eloquently profound resolution all on its own. Deeply satisfying in short burst but doubly rewarding when viewed as a collective. Yang's film operates akin to a short story collage, allowing each character's experience to inform on the state of another. Where some films mechanically maneuver themselves to an ending, and others lazily play on autopilot, YI YI hang glides, letting the wind carry its narrative. While countless American auteurs have tried their hand at the parralel-narrative anthology, YI YI's interweaving of disparate plot threads feels effortless, and not forcibly anchored by space, time, or theme.
And that's what excites me about Yang's vision. He is playing with a naturalism reminiscent of Kiarostami and Haneke, but allows his form to contextualize any deep-seated thematics. What's fascinating is that YI YI isn't about anything of note; in fact I'd go as far as to say that it's realism is so intense that any conclusion we reach is one made of our own accord. But I think that's precisely the point. YI YI is about our spectatorship just as much as it is about the lives of its characters.
"My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies". Yang passes judgement on us just as we pass judgement on his flawed characters. Who are we to call out a girl for breaking a boys heart, especially if we care so little about the feelings of a recently married, pregnant bride? Whoever Yang frames in the center of his narrative gets the most empathy from us, and that's how YI YI tugs at our heartstrings.
These formalist tendencies play into something I'd dub expressive photorealism; navigating through the scenery with stoic naturalism but using connecting threads (whether auditory, meta knowledge, or previously acquired information) to come to a formalist conclusion. Aside from obvious narrative themes of family, domesticity, love and the cyclical nature of youth, age, life and death, there doesn't seem to be a clear connecting thread over the films runtime.
What Yang does instead is draw us into the family, only to point the proverbial mirror back at us. As we mourn the death of a loved one, we don't shed a tear for an unlucky man that was murdered on the street corner. Why not? Because we barely saw him on screen? Because he wasn't a lead? YI YI dares to challenge the very definition of that word. If all life is sacred, why does cinema only focus on a lucky few?
And that is why YI YI insists on being a work of cinema. It necessitates our voyeurism. Were it written on paper, Yang could never evoke such a direct response. As viewers, we form conclusions en lieu of the film's quasi-gossip. We begin to associate relative importance to certain characters when in actual fact they are all of equal significance. Yang is aware of our own understandings of the cinematic medium: notably the need for a relative centrism.
We enter the world of YI YI with tunnel vision when in actual fact Yang presents us with a panorama. Because he can frame an individual on the periphery of a scene, he is able to formulate his thesis through the basic tenets of cinematography. Everything begins to have importance here: the rule of thirds, who is framed in the center of the frame, and how a scene may ripple into the life of a sidelined character. With that in mind, YI YI does navigate with a spiritual, contemplative, self-examination that only a novel's interior monologue can accomplish, but necessitates the qualities of cinema in order to toy with who we relegate importance to.
Yang operates with such human restraint that nothing in YI YI feels mechanized. Not the performances, not the settings, not even the camera capturing the action. It is cinematic naturalism at its finest, and understands how to holistically incorporate visual storytelling, allowing the film to take on an unusually formalist aesthetic thanks to its clever synthesis of sound and picture.
And that's what brings YI YI back to its most indelible theme: that of the captured image. If the poster or the blu-ray menu are any indication, Yang insists that we view his film as a third party's introspection into Taiwanese domesticity. These characters change resplendently, but they do so with such microscopic precision that the change is almost invisible; like watching the setting sun.
Yet Yang isn't landlocked to his milieu, dissecting universal experiences, and letting his characters inhabit the world they have created for themselves. As a little boy states in the film, "you can't see the back of your head, so I did it for you". YI YI isn't about understanding someone else better, but knowing ourselves more completely. Feverish with compassion, dense but never inaccessible, profound but never academic, YI YI might just be the best film ever made.