Yi Yi ★★★★★

Added to: Sight and Sound Greatest Films
Added to: My 250 Favorite Films of All Time

The Rearward View of Life

Near the end of the film Yi Yi, there is a funeral, the little boy Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) reads out the letter he wrote for his deceased grandma (Ruyun Tang), saying he would like to be a person of showing stuff others don't see, and now when he sees his baby cousin, he would feel old too. Every time when I watch this ending, I can imagine director Edward Yang expressing his motivation in making films via Yang-Yang's words, He's here to show us stuff that we neglect, details we overlook, or truth being hidden from our view.

The philosophical dilemma Yang-Yang questioned his father NJ (Jian Nianzhen) is the thematic core of Yi Yi or perhaps in all Edward Yang's films, "how could you know what I see when you are not me?", "We can only see half the truth as we could only see the front but not the back". The way Yang-Yang takes photos of the back of a person's head is a direct, simplified demonstration to present the concealed side in its barest form.

In Yi Yi, also known as A One and A Two, every character is trapped in a sort of dilemma. They are physically consumed by the metropolitan landscape, often shown by the way of superimposition between mirror reflection and the lone human figure. It's the mirrors, windows, lens inside the camera in photography and cinematography that are used to reflect one form of the truth. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), it provides an opportunity for perceiving reality in a detached form. NJ, a man at the age of midlife crisis, has been tangled with identifying the truthful side in his business and romantic relationship throughout the entire film. His boss and former classmates teased his honesty, and by that NJ is sent to deal directly with the potential Japanese business partner Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata).

NJ and Mr. Ota immediately build an affecting friendship on a personal level, but the potential obnoxious deal between NJ's and a copy-cat company places him in an embarrassing situation. His physical and emotional fatigue is an end-product of realizing the dishonesty and wickedness in humanity. His hopeful cure is perhaps a reignited relationship with his first lover Sherry (Suyun Ke) whom he abandoned many years ago unjustifiably. They stumble across each other by chance, and during a business trip in Tokyo, they recall the past and the truth behind their breakup. However, as Mr. Ota showing NJ there is no magic in reality by the use of a card trick, there is no magical cure for NJ's dilemma, or in other predicaments experiencing by the various characters in Yi Yi.

They might try to flee, hide, and hope the situation will automatically get better, like NJ's wife Wu Min-Min (Elaine Jin). After her mother fell into a coma, Min-Min realizes her everyday life is just a repetitive mundaneness. The sudden epiphany of living a meaningless life urges her to turn to the religion of Buddhism and leaves the family for spiritual practice in the mountain. The husband and wife relationship is devoid of constructive support, but ultimately both NJ and Min-Min have to learn to accept the life as they are having.

Each family member has his/her own moment of misery and realization, yet they rarely speak it out to each other. NJ's teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) feels guilty for her Grandma's sudden fall down, but she only expresses it secretly at night during a conversation to her comatose Grandma. And her unresponsive listener is the only source of comfort Ting-Ting gets when she is embittered by a failed romantic relationship. She unexpectedly intervenes between her neighbor Lili (Adrian Lin) and Lili's lover Fatty (Chang Yupang) when the couple is in a brawl. Fatty starts to pursue Ting-Ting, but before she even understands the meaning of love, Fatty reconciles with Lili.

The first date between Ting-Ting and Fatty is cross-cut with the reminiscing trip of NJ and Shelly in Japan, foreshadowing a doomed first love. Ting-Ting's realization of the difference between expectation and reality is an echo to the teenage couple Ming and Xiao Si'r in Edward Yang's former masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day (1991) where the world is perceived as unalterable and any efforts paid are deemed to be idle. Thus it's unsurprising that there is a similar outcome in the format of murder in both films.

Yi Yi is epic in the sense of its meticulous structure and layering of story, it's like a maze of life. Yi Yi begins with the wedding of NJ's brother-in-law A-Di (Xisheng Chen) and later the birth of his child, and ends with the funeral of the deceased. The story goes across the spectrum of life while Edward Yang filled it with warm and cold colors simultaneously. Taiwan in Yi Yi is far more empathetic and humanized than previously depicted in other Yang's films, for example, the estranged, past-haunted Taiwan in Taipei Story (1985), or the internationalized, kinetic Taiwan in Mahjong (1996).

The ferocity one felt in these former works is now turned into an undercurrent of intensity, it's the "back of the head" of Edward Yang we haven't seen before, and sadly not afterward. Yi Yi is Yang's last finished film before his death in 2007, it serves rightly to be a summation of his filmmaking process and the ideology in presenting the multifaceted reality of a historically and politically displaced "country". As the character Fatty said, with the birth of films, humans have been experiencing life three times longer than before, it's that kind of viewing experience that transcends film into arts, into the arts of living.