This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Nihar’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Yi Yi begins on an unseeming note, where three young girls tease an eight-year old Yang-Yang by tapping his head from behind as they all pose for a family wedding portrait. He tries to find out who it might be, but fails every time he turns around. In such a delicate and simple manner, Edward Yang has introduced his film, its characters, and its themes in mere seconds. Yang-Yang wonders if he can never see the entire world, whether he will always know the half truth, because he can't see behind him. It's an innocent question, but Yang explores many of its nuances, how we are limited by our perspective, what pushes us forward everyday, and how we deal with such limitations. Yi Yi is all of this and more, a spiritual quest for understanding and a portrait of family life, reaching levels of emotional involvement that doesn't exist in cinema.
When the film opened on a wedding, I wondered if Yang would reach for melodrama to tell his story, but despite the nature of the narrative, he is entirely restrained in his approach. It is contemplative throughout, as he keeps the camera at a distance letting us decide what to focus on. He does not want to tell us what to focus on, what to understand, but rather just choose on our own. We decide what we want to see, and those moments become the story. This is immediately apparent at the reception, where the groom and his friends engage in a drinking competition. While the center of the frame features this competition, there is a man passed out on a table to the left. His father tries to wake him up to cheer the groom on, and he does, momentarily, only to pass out again. There are employees in the background, just smoking a cigarette, enjoying the family's chaos, and there's kids chasing each other around the banquet hall giving no attention to the madness. This distanced approach could lead to a lack of intimacy, but Yang's approach adds richness to the characters and their world.
In Chinese, Yi Yi means "one one", but it could also mean "two", hence the title "A One and a Two". This double meaning of the title, changes our manner of seeing its meaning, one which he explores with his visuals. The camera will always be placed behind character's heads when they come upon an event they weren't expecting. Yang would shoot through glass, to give us differing perspectives on what is going on using space and distance to enhance our understanding. There are numerous shots of characters, often from high-rise buildings looking down below to the cityscape. NJ looks to the traffic down below, Ting-Ting tries to catch a glimpse of her friend meeting a boy on the street, and Sherry cries in her hotel room as an image of the night lights are reflected onto her. They are very much a part of the city, one with their surroundings as the surroundings are with them. Ting-Ting kisses Fatty under an overpass, but Yang never goes in for a close up. He highlights their location, the bustling cars, the small business, and the decaying buildings.
These visuals showcase how this family's story is so everyday, so normal, so very much the identity of Taipei that it blends into the environment and becomes consumed by it. It's a city that feels so incredibly tangible, so lived in, you feel a part of it. I may never have stepped foot in Taipei, but I can draw countless comparisons to my own childhood in Mumbai, the similarities in architecture, on the effects of capitalism, the modern society clashing with ancient traditions, it all feels personal to Yang, yet universal.
There are times when Yi Yi can feel incredibly depressing, as individuals seem to dwell on their mistakes, on their regrets and their lack of action, but Yang never holds on these emotions for too long. He's rather optimistic, hoping that we can search for new opportunities, new experiences, as our perspectives keep evolving. Ota, one of NJ's business partner, engages in magic, in singing, and embracing life in a unique way so different from NJ. It gives him a chance to overcome whatever challenges he had in his life, to search for something new that life offers. Yi Yi is just that, an understanding of our past, and a look into the future, as we grow, laugh, cry, and share in the difficulties of modern life in our constantly evolving world.