Megan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Edward Yang's swan song 《一一》 is an achingly poetic portrait of a few weeks in the life of a family in Taiwan; it is also an observant examination of hope and disappointment, skepticism and clarity, vice and virtue. It lingers in both houses of feasting and houses of mourning, authenticating the joy and sorrow that we should come to expect, living in this world. At the same time, even when the film filters through the interstices of these grand events, it illumines the most quiet and ordinary of moments, elevating emotional stakes to their most human apex. The film chronicles the struggles faced by three generations in the Jian family. NJ, the father, faces challenges in his workplace in an era of rapid commercialization, which he believes may compromise his integrity and vision. He also runs into his old lover, Sherry, whose presence conjures memories and unresolved questions about the past. Ting-Ting, NJ's daughter, is caught in a love triangle with her next door neighbor, Lilli, and Fatty, Lilli's boyfriend. Yang-Yang, NJ's young son, is bullied by the girls at school and does not know how to fit in; he develops an interest in photography that assists him during these troubles. In these three narrative threads, Yang plumbs the depths of hurt and healing, evoking questions that everyone will ask at some point in life, constructing a masterpiece of transcendent genius.
In 《一一》, Yang's wisdom is most apparent in his delineation of how we question and process pain in our everyday experience. Every character feels the pull of agony in some way, arising from losing a parent, never marrying one's true love, experiencing heartbreak, being bullied, feeling devalued by one's community, owing money, or facing jealousy over a partner's romantic history. Yang unpacks this suffering with a poignant honesty, letting expressions and words - whether said or unsaid - fill the craters within these broken experiences. The central concern that haunts each character is how to question and process one's hurt, and thus find healing in it, and Yang offers several breathtaking snapshots of how this occurs. NJ's wife Min-Min, worried about her dying, unconscious mother, has taken to a routine of talking to her. As NJ enters the corridor of their home, Min-Min's soft cries are audible in the frame, and as NJ peers into the room, he is greeted by Min-Min in desperate tears. She cries, recounting the experiences she tells her mother: "I tell her the same things everyday: what I did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. I have so little. How can it be so little? I live a blank! Every day… I’m like a fool. What am I doing every day?" This speech is followed by a beautiful palimpsest of images: The flicker of the street lights in the window, Min-Min’s reflection in the mirror, the animated rush of cars on an open boulevard. Yet, Min-Min's cries are also shattered by Yang's glimpse into a fight between the neighbors - Lili’s mom and another man. It then it cuts back to NJ and his wife, where NJ closes the blinds as the film cuts straight to the traffic and rush of cars, focusing squarely on the constellation of lights. Here, existential drama about one's worth and seeming purposelessness is fused so lyrically with the cityscape - one characterized by business and the toll of needing to continue, to traverse, to progress. Personal disappointment about not living a life filled with grand moments also is compared to a jarring conflict - a grand moment that one would rather not live.
This beautiful editing not only begs the question of how to contextualize one's position and pain in this world, but also the cyclical nature of purposelessness that can sometimes feed one's life. Min-Min recalls that her routine with her mother is marked by sameness day in, day out; the cars and the traffic below conjure cycles of activity that do not relent; similarly, the fights by the neighbors down the hall merely are habitual conflicts that unfold the same way each time. Here, Yang discusses the cycles of pain and mistakes that we all endure no matter what station we find ourselves in life. Sometimes, it involves trying to find a reorientation in the disorientation. In one scene Min-Min - struggling with the burdens in her marriage and family - has not left work, and she stares out at the city lights and the part of the office is reflected in the window. Then, their silhouettes are all the audience sees, as she asks: “Where can I go?” The cycle of her returning back home is disrupted as she articulates this question to a co-worker, who offers her assurance and a hug in a shadow-tinged shot juxtaposed with the glare of the city lights. NJ, when trying to talk to his unconscious mother-in-law in a routine, describes how despite the predictable comfort of his days, he does not know how to communicate his helplessness. He reflects: "It’s like praying. I’m not sure if the other party can hear me and I’m not sure if I am sincere enough… There’s very little I’m sure of these days. I wake up feeling unsure about almost anything and I wonder why I wake up at all just to face the same uncertainties again and again. Would you want to wake up, if you were me?" The cycle of praying, a task undertaken throughout life as an acknowledgement of our need for a listener who is "the lifter of my head," is shattered because of the counterparty's seeming inability to listen and process the prayer's sincerity. The cycles of waking up to an uncertain reality also throb with the pain of facing an identity that threatens to dissolve because of new changes in one's work and family life, prompting one to question the purposefulness of this mundane season.
Another cyclical paradigm that Yang explores is the nature of mistakes; how mistakes often are made and replicated. Regarding her lost love, Sherry complains bitterly: "Why do I always make the same mistakes, even though I know I’ll regret them for the rest of my life?" The time-inconsistent self makes these mistakes, and Yang avers that despite the fact that Sherry did live a materially better life than what NJ could have given her, she paid a heavy emotional cost for her actions. Yang also explores the nature of counterfactuals; individuals adopt counterfactuals as a reference point for their lack of satisfaction. This can slip into territory that unduly taxes one's bandwidth. For example, when NJ tells Sherry that "we all need time to think; carefully think," the thinking that both of them engage in sought to understand their own motivations and pride, but ultimately was a counter-productive exercise as they both had practical responsibilities to consider. NJ finally reflects: "My first thought was that I could make things turn out differently but they turned out the same, or not much different. I suddenly realized that even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn’t need it; I really wouldn’t." Even though NJ faces the same uncertainties in his waking hours every day, he realizes that resolving this uncertainty will not come with a concrete event or a tangible reward. Rather, closure comes when one makes the active choice to let go of the counterfactual's hold, and strive for contentment in one's present circumstances.
Cycles of uncertainty and lacking knowledge on what is right course of action plague each of the characters; Yang offers insight into how this is related to the manner in which people observe and see. Yang presents images of observant children like Yang-Yang, who are witnesses to situations that are more adult in nature than they can understand, such as NJ's accidental run-in with Sherry, talk about his grandmother's physical condition, and subsequently the fights between the next-door neighbors. This leads to Yang-Yang's comment that: "I can’t see what you see and you can’t see what I see. How can I know what you see? Can we only know half of the truth? I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half of the truth, right?” And indeed, a human problem is that we cannot see the entirety of a situation; part of waking up each day is to open ourselves up to uncertainty and doubt. Working together with others can be difficult precisely because we do not see eye-to-eye with the other person, and thus simplify these interactions by making assumptions about others. Yet, even though we can only see what is in front of us in a direct, physical sense, life does not offer such a parallel, because in life we only know past memories in a vivid sense, and not the future in front of us. Understanding ourselves based on calibrating experiences in our sensory reality, then, becomes an onerous task. It also opens us to the urgent desire to inform others' understanding, such as is Yang-Yang's premise of taking photographs of the backs of people's heads, to help them see what they cannot see. He summarizes at the film's end: "I want to tell people things they don’t know. Show them stuff they haven’t seen. It’ll be so much fun." There is joy in the uncertainty of creating, because the process of revealing truth to people has become a lost art. People either do not want to know parts of themselves that are uncomfortable to hear, or do not like being exposed to experiences outside their repertoire; inertia can be comfortable in its predictable lull. Yet, the inertia itself not only forms a cycle of not knowing what to do next, but it also can indirectly cause other cycles of pain and mistakes.
And when life is beset with uncertainty and causes us to think more about the uncertainty than on any lived experience, Yang reorients the uncertain person back to the movies. Movies are a cornerstone of memory, not only in the significance of film in preserving a cultural vision, but also as a treasured hobby shared between family and close relationships. Going to the movies, undoubtedly, is a popular pastime during a fledgling romance. NJ reflects when talking to Sherry: "The first time I held your hand, we were at a railroad crossing, going to the movies. Now, I’m holding your hand again. Only it’s a different places, a different time, a different age.” The film then cuts to Ting-Ting and Fatty, the boy she is dating. They are talking about a movie that they watched together, and Ting-Ting complains that the movie didn't have to be so serious and sad. "Life is a mixture of happy and sad things. Movies are so lifelike, that’s why we love them," Fatty says in response. Ting-Ting argues: "Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life." But Fatty replies with sage words about the virtue of film: "My uncle said, 'We live three times as long since man invented movies.’ It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life." Living life is undoubtedly a blessing, but movies offer additional joys and sorrows that one might not learn about otherwise. The most masterful of films are able to capture the "happy and sad things" in an effortlessly lifelike fashion. They make us feel as if we have lived far fuller, richer lives, because we live vicariously through a movie's characters, who cause us to contemplate, learn, and mature in the process. In the greatest films, whether we identify with a character's situation, or are awakened to realities so divorced from us in context and focus that we learn from this unfamiliarity, we encounter a gamut of new experiences that at their best, humble and encourage us, informing our decisions to lead more fulfilled lives. And indeed, this wonderful lengthening - of life and of time - was true to my experience with《一一》.