puffin’s review published on Letterboxd:
Standing at a distance, Edward Yang gives a kaleidoscopic view of a family in its many facets, hobbies, and complicated little webs we get caught within. And for a director in which every film he made felt like a culmination of a career's worth of a style he was so quickly willing to pick up and drop, Yi Yi being his actual last film lets his own contemplation, on his culture and on his own career as a filmmaker, mull over in his hard effort, and in his quiet unpretentious style.
Yang, as the sole writer and director, takes to task a story that is as large in scope as A Brighter Summer Day had been nine years prior. But Yang, like few masters, if any, seems as comfortable in the era he began as the era that let him continue. The techniques used here, both the ones seen in his previous films (already well ahead of their time, with films like Taipei Story and The Terrorizers being wild watches even today), or ones unique to this film, are absolutely stunning and never irrelevant to the finer points of the film. Multi-layered images of the city through a window, the reflection of a main figure or figures, and background discussions/actions from other characters make for probably Yang's most honest ever style of shot, one that observes one scene on another on another all through the sole reference of a window or a reflection. Many turns come from the reflection of windows, connecting images while still allowing the creativity for Yang to say and do different things with each. And while these shots may be the most obvious examples, the more subtle details are just as terrific to Yang's final vision. He always emphasizes the "honesty" of said image, with the beauty coming from its human glance, its lack of immediate and obvious stylism... and all the while prioritizing atmosphere just as much. The culture that builds these situations is always being dived head-first into, or creeping well through the windows of even the film's most private and alone moments. Taipei is never not a factor. But it is still, first and foremost, a human story. But the construction of these humans don't just come from their interpersonal relationships. It is what lies beyond the windows and windshields and walls that matters just as much, if not more silently.
And Yang gives time for that silence. While not nearly as long as Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, three hours is plenty of time for his brand of observation, whether that be at his most conversational or his most private and patient. But it all feels purposeful. That silence isn't Yang with nothing left to say. The silence speaks volumes already. It is the context in which it appears, which makes it always justified, always understandable, and always powerful. As opposed to a director who seems more confused with his silent moments, which in my case would be Nicolas Winding Refn. His silence, at his worst moments at least, seems to be him resting on one especially complicated idea or interpretation without considering where else he can build such ideas. It feels less minimalist and more hyper-focused, uncaring about the greater detail or ambition of his work... again, at his worst. And I bring this up not to dismiss Refn entirely, but to argue that a purpose to silence can be tricky even though it's relatively understandable. Do you NEED a reason? No, not at all. But if the effect felt by your film's silence is apathy or emptiness, that is a bad effect. And Yang's quiet contemplation, between what is otherwise a very wordy film, is always to great effect. Not often does it feel like the "obvious" choice necessarily, but the strength in Yang's own building of the situation makes it hard for me to imagine his scenes done any differently.
To speak further of Yang's brilliance, in addition to editor Chen Po-Wen (who has also worked with Yang on A Brighter Summer Day and A Confucian Confusion), despite the film being spread out over a ton of characters and stories, there is often this feeling that Yang put these stories in a deliberate order. The transitions from one distant scene to the next seem paired by a similar theme, whether that be in the scene itself or specifically in the edit. As well, the overall rhythm of the film feels consistent and never jarring or bulked in one way or another. The slow scenes aren't all paired together, but you also won't get an awkward juxtaposition of fast and slow scenes either. Yang focuses a lot on that gradual sense of time between scenes, one that can sometimes be fragmented but never to the point that the scene hasn't been given the care or the relevance that it, and its characters, deserve. All the while balancing the difficult line of hardship and humor.
An alternate sort of city symphony, perhaps an extension on the gentle observations of Yasujiro Ozu. Less considered with the nostalgic simplicity or emotional minimalism of a Good Morning or a Late Spring, it still manages to keep every key movement, every city light in frame. Yang turns to the reflection of his images and the rhythm of his edits to push film forward again, one final time.