Yi Yi: A One and a Two… (2000)
*** Spoilers ***
Disclaimer: I know even less about Asian filmmaking than I do about filmmaking in general, which isn’t that much in the first place, apart from the fact that I’ve watched a lot of movies. I am a sino-cine-naïf, whereas, on the Filmspotting boards, for example, there are a great many most-knowlegeable Asian-film types. For example, the Far East Bracket boards contain a multitude of interesting discussions of Eastern films, including much about the films of the director who is at the center of this piece, Edward Yang.
Continued disclaimer: What I know about Japanese movies, for example, would probably fit in a haiku. What I know about Chinese movies, whether from the mainland, from Taiwan, from Hong Kong, or from Singapore, even less – perhaps into a cheng yu gu shi (four-character Chinese idioms – simple stories that have a deep meaning: “Shou zhu dai tu” (Don’t be lazy and rely on luck), “Zi xiang mao dun” (Your action contradicts your words), “Ye gong hao long” You claim to love it but you actually fear it). How would I know if the acting I’m watching is good or not in a Chinese movie? How would I know if the line readings are well done – especially in the case of an argument? Do subtitles undermine a movie? Every translation is a lie, they say. Or Nabokov or somebody said. Therefore, consider yourself warned. The following is less reliable than, yes, Wikipedia.
A couple of notes up front on cultural differences between the Western viewer and the Asian movie: (1) One bit of Chinese culture that didn’t work for this Westerner: Yang says that Chinese women are very strong-willed and he includes a number of moments in Yi Yi that I take to be demonstrations of this strength. For example, two of the movie’s adult leads are spending some quality time together in a hotel room when the female half of the pair suddenly goes off like a rocket, standing and delivering, in what to my ears is a shrill voice, a brief, loud speech of protest. Didn’t play as strength, exactly, to me. (2) Karaoke – Vaguely comic when involving serious mature businessmen? Yang didn’t know why Asians like karaoke so much, but he didn’t included the scene for comic purposes, at all. Naturally I googled the question. My favorite answer: “I don’t know why Westerners don’t like karaoke, just like they don’t understand why Asians are obsessing about it. Maybe because Westerners tend to do strenuous exercise while Asians like relatively peaceful activities.” (3) It occurred to me to wonder, while watching, which the elements in the film were present to demonstrate Yang’s unhappiness with Taiwanese culture in general and which were elements that he took for granted, while Western eyes looked upon them as sub-par. Cigarette smoking, I’m guessing, would be normal, whereas Yang misses the buses and trains of his childhood, now replaced in Taipei by automobile traffic.
So. Yi Yi is a movie about an urban Taiwanese family, the members of which respond to a variety of challenges in their lives, over a brief period of time.
The family members – since I refer to them frequently below – are NJ (father), Min-Min (mother), Ting-Ting (daughter), and Yang-Yang (son).
Before watching Yi Yi, with its excellent reputation, I happened to learn that its writer/director, Edward Yang, was diagnosed with colon cancer around the time that the movie was released. He died of the disease seven years later. Although no one knew it at the time, Yi Yi represented the culmination of Yang’s twenty-year film career, a career during which he made many respected films, little-known and hard-to-find in the U.S.
Knowing that the movie was Yang’s final work, instead of the brilliant production of a master filmmaker just entering his mature years (he was 53), rather cast a pall over Yi Yi for me, the first time through at least, dealing as the movie does with the fundamental issues of life. It had occurred to Yang as he wrote the screenplay that if he followed each member of a family of four, he could examine all aspects of life, and so he does. Although the work concludes with an affirmation, a sadness pervades it for me, perhaps my sadness, experiencing Yi Yi now ten years after it was made and three years after Yang’s death. Even the introductory music seemed valedictory to me, and the film left the father of the family at the latter part of a long road of thought and hard work with no obvious future success or happiness ahead of him. Yang’s commentary on the Criterion disk is especially touching.
Jackie Chan: “When I heard the news, I felt it was such a pity. Even though I knew that his death would come eventually, I didn’t know when. But why I would know that such thing was going to happen? Because I had been talking with director Yang to make a movie together and we discussed the possibility of making an animation called The Wind. After our third discussion, we found out that director Yang had fallen ill. Later on, he went to the States to get medical help. When I was making Rush Hour 3 in the States, he even said that he would come and have a meal with me. But he didn’t come, and I couldn’t find him. Who would have thought that after I finished Rush Hour 3 and came back to the Mainland for a new movie, I would receive the sad news of his death? Sigh! That’s life. There’s birth, old age, sickness, and death.”
Fragments from “The Wind” have been presented here or there and Yang’s wife, Peng Kai-li, has appeared occasionally to speak about this final project.
Yang cast his friend Wu Nien-Jen as TJ, the lead in Yi Yi. At the time, Wu was a respected director and author (twenty-three screenplays listed in IMDB; over seventy mentioned elsewhere) and had done some acting as well. He directed Duo Sang (A Borrowed Life) (1994), which is on Martin Scorsese’s list of favorite works and which Scorsese calls one of the most influential films of the 90s (I haven’t seen it, or I’ve forgotten it). But Wu disappears from IMDB following Yi Yi, save for one bit part in 2006. (Oops! A friend tells me that Wu is a fixture on Taiwanese TV. And, like Peng Kai-li, he appears at festivals from time to time.) The actress who plays TJ’s daughter in Yi Yi (Kelly Lee) never worked in another movie. TJ’s wife and son in the movie have a credit or two to their names since then but as I watched the movie, I felt the weight of time in a way that no simple drama can apply – as if everyone involved in it remained suspended there forever… Two weeks after shooting wrapped, a 7.6 earthquake struck Taipei and damaged the building where most of the movie was shot, causing everyone to move out.
In 1976, Gail Sheehy wrote the bestseller Passages, which popularized the idea that there are characteristic stages in adult life, just as there are for childhood. In the general conception, the young adult builds a first adult life structure and then, in his or her late twenties, experiences a stretch of time lasting five or six years during which it is psychologically possible for the individual to rethink his or her path through life, perhaps abandoning a career, perhaps entirely remapping future life plans. Whether this notion retains its validity today, I don’t know and haven’t bothered to check out, but in my case, I dismantled my “first adult life structure” completely and permanently at the age of 29. I was thinking about this while reading Edward Yang’s bio. He devoted himself to high-tech pursuits after graduation from college, but began to waffle and search, and finally at the age of 33 (just in time), returned from the U.S. to Taiwan and found a job in the movie business. Life provides second chances.
Providence then allowed Yang twenty years to work in an industry that he loved before imposing his mortal illness upon him at the age of 53, just as he reached the top of his profession with the release of Yi Yi (commercially, at least, if you count Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (A Brighter Summer Day) (1991) as his greatest work. It’s a four-hour epic about a boy who murders his girlfriend (in the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale), which I acquired the hard way.). In the subsequent seven years, Yang taught, founded a company, and worked on various projects, active in the industry, before his disease killed him. He made no more movies. Perhaps he said all that he had to say in Yi Yi, and in the films that he made before it, but I doubt it. Perhaps his illness changed his outlook on life, but I doubt that too. Perhaps it’s just a matter of health and available energy. Colon cancer is a brutal disease. I have several friends who are survivors, but their cures, temporary or complete, stretched out over many a debilitating month, and none of them exactly stormed back in their respective professions.
Finally, though, I realized that Yi Yi remains, endures, a monument to Yang – a lasting remembrance, and a much finer one than most of us leave behind, not counting our children.
Yang named the movie Yi Yi (according to his sometimes explanation) because Yi is the first character encountered in the typical Chinese dictionary, and Yi means “individual.” The movie is about individuals and the connections between them. The English title (also according to Yang) refers to the fact that the Chinese character for “one,” written twice in vertical alignment, can be viewed as meaning “a one” or as a single character meaning “two.” So, “A One and a Two.” Yang: “This signifies that what’s following the title (the film, that is) is not something tense, or heavy, or stressful. Life should be like a jazzy tune. Music is a fundamental part of Yi Yi, in the score and in the script.
A Taiwanese friend points out that Yi Yi is also a nickname for young children, such as is Yang-Yang in the movie. Yang-Yang is Jonathan Chang’s nickname, according to Yang; he retained it in the film to help the young man feel more comfortable.
Running time for the movie, 173 minutes. I presume that Yang crafted the film with the idea that I would be sitting in a theater to experience it. Are his calculations affected by the DVD and torrents and streaming and the viewer at home, who might watch the movie in one piece or twenty? A three-hour movie once seemed imposing to me; it often included an intermission that provided a break (not to mention additional popcorn revenue), but now, with 18 hours of a Lost season running like a movie on disk, a three-hour movie is a mere nothing. If a director has final cut, he/she can fashion the film without reference to running time, beyond artistic considerations. Otherwise, of course, a three-hour movie is likely to be trimmed by the studio. The shorter the movie, the better to move crowds through the cinema. For more, refer to Watching an Extremely Long Movie.
Because I knew the general arc of the movie in advance (we meet the family at a wedding, stuff happens to family members, we say farewell to the family at a funeral), just for fun I divided Yi Yi into 18 ten-minute segments, wrote down the numbers 1-18 on separate slips of paper, shook the slips in a cup, pulled them out one-at-a-time recording the sequence as I did so, and watched the movie for the first time in the order 1 13 2 11 6 5 17 10 8 7 12 18 3 16 4 15 14 9. Yep, by chance segment 1 came up first – a sign from the movie gods? My theory when I did this was that watching the movie in this way would allow me (or force me) to focus on the essential story elements without being distracted by the melodrama,… or was it to focus less on the story elements while I concentrated on and studied and admired Yang’s scene structure? Actually, I forget what I was thinking. Maybe I was just bored with/at the prospect of a three-hour family drama, even knowing that it was supposed to be a good one. For some reason, I’ve been ignoring or dodging Yi Yi for a decade. I’ve had it sitting on my desk, on my escritoire, on my ammunition locker. I’ve started it multiple times and bailed in minutes multiple times. Perhaps the Sixth-Generation mainland movies that I’ve watched, like Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace, 2006) and Er Di (Drifters, 2003), almost drove me nuts and phobiatized me to such an extent with their wordless-staring-off-into-space scenes, smoking and non-smoking, that even though New Wave Taiwanese movies are a whole different animal, I shied. A movie like Mang jing (Blind Shaft, 2003), entertaining as it was, didn’t ameliorate my dread. Or maybe I’m intimidated by all the Asian movie knowledge present amongst the habitues of some of the sites that I frequent, and wanted to cover my ass wrt reviewing the movie. Or, my God, am I just transmogrifying a classic film into a faux Chinese (500) Days of Summer? Is it just a damned stunt? Or on the other hand, if the movie is a classic, doesn’t it deserve multiple viewings; doing one like this – is that so wrong? I called three Taiwanese friends in the industry (Hollywood, not Taipei). They all agreed that wherever he is now, Yang won’t mind. It’s a movie. It’s an adventure. It’s not like I turned the screen upside down or watched the whole thing on rewind…
However, starting by chance with minute 0 of this extended-family drama, as I did, I found myself hoping for maximum introductions to family members in that first ten minutes. As the segment end drew near, I had met father, daughter, grandma, father’s wife’s brother and his bride, a jilted woman, a lovelorn man, another female family member, a bunch of kids, including a little boy getting picked on… and then got distracted as I learned that “riding the bus without a ticket” means sex before marriage. And then the segment was over and I was transported to minute 130. Felt like I was watching Lost.
And fooey, I only realized much later that segment 13 actually included minutes 120-129, not minutes 130-139, just as segment 1 comprised minutes 0-9, not minutes 10-19. I should have put a 0 on one of the slips of paper to rationalize the sequence. So that if I continued as I was, I’d miss a segment, and even though I thenceforward picked the correct segment, I perforce had caused myself to miss one by switching, because I couldn’t remember when I switched from incorrect to correct. Plus, because the movie in that incarnation of my viewing resided on two disks, I had to subtract 77 minutes to calculate any segment on disk 2, and I have a hunch that I didn’t always do so correctly. Jeez, trying to watch a movie!!
Before all this was revealed to me by the auditor in my brain, while still blissfully ignorant, when I jumped from 1 to 13, I did get what I wanted! In medias res! No waiting! Father desperately struggling to work a business deal. Father involved with a squeeze not his wife. Squeeze weeps alone in the dark – and this is two hours and ten minutes into the movie. Daughter/boyfriend relationship fraught. Father’s partner a problem. Japanese deal-maker a mysterious dude who does mysterious things. Chinese and Japanese men conversing in English. All this after less than twenty minutes of segment hopping. That’s movie-watching! Spare me the details.
And by random chance I then returned to minute 10 (hm, I got that right, for the “2″ segment) for more character/family introductions and setup, and then back to minute 110, now knowing that the squeeze is the father’s long-lost love and they’re out for a night at the movies and a hotel room.
One thing I noticed immediately and was hoping wouldn’t continue: as we move from thread to thread in the story – or am I jumping the gun after only four segments? – between seven-year-old son, fifteen-year-old daughter, mother, father, in-law couple present for comic relief – the weight of the father/first love relationship seems so much heavier than the young boy’s interactions and philosophical questions, and the teen girl’s puppy love, and the mother’s angst, and the in-laws’ fecklessness – that I’m suffering a little from Julie/Julia syndrome, just waiting to cycle back to the father. (The fact that he’s played by Nien-Jen Wu, and that his situation most closely approximates mine might also have something to do with my attraction to him, and to the winsome first love that he’s starting up with again (Su-Yun Ko, who’s first movie was also Yang’s first movie. She lives in Vancouver as of this writing, as does her character in Yi Yi). Wu – writer, director, actor – is interesting just standing there onscreen with a worried look on his face – what is he thinking, this ordinary-looking dude with the beautiful wife and beautiful first love? Nien-Jen Wu as LJ I bought completely.
Also, with respect to the initial impact of the characters on me: Yang originally wrote the son, Yang Yang, as a ten-year-old. While auditioning ten-year-olds, he met Jonathan Chang, seven at the time, and decided to take a chance on him. In the same way, he signed a thirteen-year-old (Kelly Lee) to play the daughter of 15. 7 and 13 are not 10 and 15; does this decrease the weight of Yang Yang’s and Min Min’s screen presence? Did Yang rewrite to accommodate? To be determined.
Also, alternating between the older couple (father and first love) and the younger one (the teen Min Min and her interest, Fatty), each out walking hand-in-hand – does that increase the disparity in the individual dramas? Because Yang does a lot of this sort of alternating. I’m saying no at this point, the juxtaposition works, at least as I start out – original naïvité vs the “what happened and why” of the grownups.
The traditional Hollywood romantic arc begins with the meet cute and builds to increasingly intimate interactions, with a major dip just before conjunction (to grossly simplify). I think that 13-2-11-6-5 conforms to the formula for LJ, but it’s hard to keep track.
I’m picking up some early, seriously negative vibes about Taiwanese business practices and economic culture compared to that of a Japanese company and its owner, Ota, played by Issei Ogata, a well-known stand-up comedian in Japan. This reminds me that Taiwan was administered by Japan from the late 1800s up through WW II. The towns, bus and train systems, and cinema were all Japanese in nature. Not many cars and no freeways. Then, after the war and up through the present day, China, together with the West and America in particular, have been the dominate cultural influences, and not always in a good way. Cars have replaced the buses and trains, the populace chases the almighty dollar, and Yang, in reaction, made his movies.
When I was a kid, Taiwan was still called Formosa, at least in the U.S. The island had been administered by Japan from 1895 to the end of World War II and during that time, the Japanese attempted to convert the inhabitants of the island into Japanese themselves. That didn’t happen, but in the process the Japanese vastly improved the infrastructure on the island, building railroads, bus systems, and neighborhoods in the Japanese style (Yang grew up in one of them). They were benevolent overseers. Before the war, cinema on the island was completely Japanese in nature. (Portions of Yi Yi are shot in neighborhoods established by the Japanese and built in an old-fashioned Japanese style. Xi meng ren sheng (In the Hands of a Puppet Master) (1993), a film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, deals with this Japanification of Taiwan.). Moviemaking lapsed during the war. The Koumintang took charge of the island in 1945. In 1950, Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang (the Dragon Lady) and the Koumintang army arrived, supposedly for a brief stay before returning to the mainland to chase away Mao in the name of democracy. A quantity of nationalist movie makers came along. (Tony Ryans talks about this on the Criterion Yi Yi.)
At that time, the indigenous population didn’t speak Mandarin. In 1962, for example, 117 movies were made in Taiwanese and only 3 in Mandarin. However, in the 60s as Taiwan modernized, the government-created Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC) began producing Chinese-culture-oriented moral melodramas, “healthy realism,” to compete with the popular local kung fu and romance movies (e.g., Yang ya ren jia (Beautiful Duckling) (1965) and Ya nu qing xin (The Silent Wife) (1965), both of which I checked out from university, and which are also available online, but which are of no particular interest.) By the late 70s, there was no audience left for these mediocre films, or, in the face of superior Hong Kong product, for the local popular genres either, and Taiwanese movie-making became moribund.
At this point, with home viewing on the rise, the CMPC signed up two writers, Hsiao Yeh and Wu Nien-Jen (the lead in Yi Yi), to write some movies that the locals might want to watch. The two themselves were watching Hong Kong movies like Xin shu shan jian ke (Warriors from the Magic Mountain) (1983) as new filmmakers knocked out the old. The two writers had the idea of putting together movies made up of short films done by different directors. Guang yin de gu shi (In Our Time) (1981), their first effort, which launched the first New Wave in Taiwan, included four stories about Taiwan; Edward Yang directed one of them, Desires. (I’ve also seen cited Yang’s Hai tan de yi tian (That Day, on the Beach) (1983) as the era’s starting point.) The stories focused on daily life, urban and rural, rather than melodrama and martial arts.
As someone put it, “One of the wonders of late 20th Century world cinema was the sudden wave of extremely talented directors who emerged in Taiwan during the 1980s, an incredible efflorescence that essentially reinvented a national cinema where only its pale shadow had previously existed.” (If you wrote that, I apologize for the lack of a citation. And while I’m thinking of it, there are some passages in this post that don’t seem familiar. Hope I haven’t been incorporating noted material into the text that I didn’t actually write.) The young directors (some names in addition to Yang: Te-Chen Tao, I-Chen Ko, Yi Chang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang) developed a new style, emphasizing the linear nature of real life rather than the dramatic arc that features a climax at its end. Some of the films that I’ve seen remind me of Italian neo-realism. Yang himself focused on city life, and the (ill) effects of materialism and technology – urban life in Taiwan in the 80s and 90s. His contemporary, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, focused more on the countryside. Yang plays with time-lines in “That Day, on the Beach.” In his next, Qing mei zhu ma (Taipei Story) (1985), Hou Hsiao-Hsien plays a former Little-League baseball star struggling with a sense of loss in the big city. Then Kong bu fen zi (The Terrorisers) (1986), featuring crime and alienation a la Antonioni. Yang related movies to real life; he held that a motion picture can create something that we, the audience, might otherwise miss in life. At one point Fatty tells Ting-Ting that the relevance of movies is that they allow people to live more lives than they are allotted. Through a life of watching movies, we are adding “two times as much life” in what we see on film. Kung Fu extravaganzas don’t count.
The New Wave resulted in many wonderful movies in the 80s that won awards, while the populace meanwhile continued to spend its money on the creations of Hollywood and Hong Kong. Yang himself was never concerned about commercial success. His brief stint at Southern California’s film school turned him off to that aspect of cinema. How do directors try to make their movies commercial successes, anyway? I thought about this, and pursued Google hits about it, for maybe a minute. The simplest answer is that they try to make money. Ticket sales, DVD sales, various other media window openings – each generate a revenue stream. How to ensure a torrent rather than a trickle? The answer, famously provided by William Goldman in a different context: “Nobody knows anything.” Some lengthier attempts to prove him wrong state that a movie must contain a critical mass of star power, a story that feeds the viewers’ dreams, etc., etc. What made New Wave films less commercial, less viewer-friendly? Lack of melodrama? Non-linear schemes? Quotidian subject matter? What makes a movie “more commercial”? Throughout the 2000s, Taiwanese directors have tweaked up their movies to make them sell. How? Backing away from art-house and returning to formula? And what, again, did New Wave emphasize? Does Yi Yi add commercial elements to the New Wave formula or not? As Yang pointed out somewhere, one of his movie budgets would cover about 20 seconds of a Hollywood film. Is it all about bigger budgets, more action, dumbing down, quicker cuts, more closeups? All these questions are moot here, because Yang paid zero attention to them. Which means that I can save my answers for another day.
The New Wave directors at the outset were a group of young men with common goals and purpose. Twenty years later, Yi Yi is full of Yang’s friends, co-workers, and actors who have appeared in his previous films. Through the 80s and 90s, making movies and teaching movie making, Yang lectured in a hopscotch leapfrog way and then hung out with his students drinking coffee and talking about movies and how to make them. He liked teaching others, but mostly he wanted to make movies his way. In the U.S., as mentioned above, he dropped out of his film courses as a student at Southern California because he felt that there was too much in the coursework about the financial and commercial aspects of the art – aspects that never interested him or affected his own film making, which helps explain why his movies never made much money and are so hard to find (pace Yi Yi). Hard to believe that a masterpiece like A Brighter Summer Day isn’t available everywhere; I used a torrent to download it (and saw it for sale on eBay, of all places). Amazon has an Hou Hsiao-Hsien package of four films, which is a start. How western are Taiwanese films? Somewhere between China and Hollywood… Most important in acting is being honest.
In the 90s, the New Wave transmogrified into a Second New Wave, which became a little friendlier to its audience (i.e., more commercial). Ang Lee made his first movie in 1991. By the time Yi Yi arrived in 2000, the tide was out on the New Waves, to confuse a metaphor. Taiwanese main-stream cinema flowed on. There were a few successful Taiwanese titles in the first decade of the 2000s, but Taiwanese cinema continued (and continues) to struggle vs Hollywood and Hong Kong. The exception: Hái-kak chhit-ho (Cape No. 7) (2008), a box-office bonanza, which, when last I looked, was second only to “Titanic” as the top grosser on the island – the year it came out, it doubled the receipts of “The Mummy,” the next best grosser in 2008. Why Cape 7? Good production values? Characters and a story line that appealed to a wide audience? Its mix of Hoklo Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Japanese? Can it happen again? Nobody knows.
Yi Yi was released in a period when the West’s awareness of Asian film-making was taking a big step up. It won the New York Film Critics Circle best foreign-language film of the year award and the National Society of Film Critics award for best film overall. Jackie Chan became well-known; Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000) brought subtitles to the cineplex and was the top-grossing foreign film of the 2000, allowing Lee, maker of, for example, The Ice Storm, to go on and make The Hulk and Finding Woodstock (and Lust, Caution, to be fair); Wong-Kar Wai’s Fa yeung nin wa (In The Mood for Love) (2000) won 32 awards, with 23 more nominations, and was a top commercial release; John Woo came to Hollywood; Korean cinema blossomed. 6 of the top 20 foreign grossers of the 2000s were Chinese, Crouching Tiger being number one and the only Taiwanese film on the list.
But now, in 2010, the last I checked at least, down at the Taipei multiplexes audiences still prefer Hollywood and Hong Kong entries, and Taiwanese cinema continues to struggle, although following Cape No. 7 the industry has produced a number of quality films that have made some money, if not truckloads of it like Cape No. 7 did. The government has provided some funding, but there have also been some calls for rules requiring the theaters to screen more local film. There have also been a number of Taiwanese directors in addition to Ang Lee working outside the country, and a number of movies made outside the country that deal with Taiwan. Also notable, Blue Brave: The Legend of Formosa in 1895 (2008), the first Hakka-spoken feature-length film ever made.
Reading about Taiwanese cinema made me wonder what Asian cinema is available at my local libraries, here in the States (not counting the university holdings). Quite a few movies, it turns out. I counted 150 sitting on the shelf in a local branch library, from the mainland, including Hong Kong, and from Taiwan (e.g., 2 Young (2005), Lan (2009), Addicted (2002) (hmm, this branch of the library has put all of its Korean films in the Chinese section with a “Chi” on the spine of each DVD box)). Plus films with a broader distribution, like Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and the Film Movement selections, not sequestered in the Foreign Films sector.
The first thing immediately apparent in Yi Yi, to me at least, is the studied, planned character of the cinematography. I was rewatching a couple of scenes from the movie the other night and then switched over to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). This was like leaving a museum and crossing the street to a Safeway. As Matthew McConaughey, whom I’ve always said I couldn’t stand but whom, after I watched HTLAGI10D, followed by The Ghost of Girlfriends Past (2009), and read about him and his child, I decided I liked after all, though McConaughey and Jennifer Garner, what a pair of odd birds. But jumping from Yang to HTLAGI10D, I was struck immediately by the visual contrast between the two movies. The ordinariness onscreen of the latter, the feeling of flatness, clutter, lifelessness, when compared to the intelligence that can be felt in Yi Yi and Wei-han Yang’s shots. For me, sort of like spending a week in a spare but beautifully appointed bed-and-breakfast cabin and then coming home and stepping into my living room. After Yang’s precise and thoughtful artistry, after his compositions onscreen, HTLAGI10D seemed shapeless. The characters act in front of the furniture, whereas in Yi Yi, environment plus characters together equal a statement as well as a context. Yang composed the movie. He wrote the dialog, modified the plot to fit his subsequent casting decisions, chose his locations, and crafted every shot and scene to support his vision. The setting, the frame, and the actors are integrated.
I was confronted with a second demonstration of differing cinematographical approaches one night later when, again after watching several scenes from Yi Yi, I switched over to Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht (2007). Reygadas, like Yang, aims to create an environment/actor gestalt through the composition of his shots. However, one difference between the two directors, quickly apparent, is in their use of time. Yang’s shots run in real time, even in the longer static takes (which are never especially, too-longishly long). Average time between cuts in the first 20 minutes = 30 seconds. One click less than stately? Automobiles pass; characters, after standing and staring, move. The dreaded commercialism impinging upon the purity of stop-time meditation cinema? Yang, fastidious in his disregard for commercialism, doesn’t let such considerations impose a regime on his work. Reygadas in SL, meanwhile, dials back time to fit the timelessness of northern Mexico. He announces his purpose at the outset with a long, long, longggg nighttime take that gradually brightens with the dawn to reveal a new day on the farm, time lapse that at moments seems not to be lapsing at all, save for the odd cockcrow. Never in Yi Yi did I experience the feeling that, unlike the seized-up screen in front of me in SL, or the inaction in the mainland Er Di (2003) or Summer Palace 2006) or the Turkish Three Monkeys (2008), for example, the sands in my personal life hourglass were running out to no purpose as I sat watching a boat on the Bosphorous pass glacially before me, or a young man – in reality a young actor with no lines of dialog to be found on the next 10 pages of his script – sitting and smoking without emotion. Someone described Yang’s method as “deliberate pacing.” For example, Yang has the camera fixed on Fatty (Ting Ting’s teen-love interest) in one of those lingering shots from across the street and I found myself watching the traffic light to see if it would change from red to green during the take. It would have, in the movies that I mention above, but because Yang moderates the length of these takes, in the same way that he moderates his distance from the subject of the take, the light did not have a chance to change. In long takes, while I am presumably expected to sit contemplating the dramatic situation, or the composition of the scene, or the meaning of it all so far, in fact I’d be thinking about traffic lights that I’ve known. Or maybe that’s the whole idea. If Yi Yi is in fact a meditation on urban life, what better to focus on than a stoplight? But it’s not to be. Yang isn’t in any hurry, but he doesn’t let that light change.
Some rainy day when I’m in the mood, I might just take a quick census in Yi Yi of closeups, middle, and long distance shots. I’ve been noticing the closeups in 30s and 40s Hollywood movies lately, some of them appearing suddenly, almost as a shock, up there in that old-fashioned square form factor that was just made for portraits. I mention this because Yang’s use of distance shots also stands out in the movie. With the exception of closeups (of which, offhand, I remember none), Yang mixes close, medium, and long shots in a way that puts a lot of air into the frame, the opposite of the claustrophobic or closed-in atmosphere found in some urban dramas. In the first twenty minutes, Yang includes more than ten shots that involve long views down hallways, through doorways, off balconies, so forth. These aren’t cutaway, placing, or Ozu’s “pillow” or “curtain” shots, put there to provide breathing room. They’re integral to the plot, the action, frames or framing for actors at work…. #8: (start of disk 2) NJ writes check to Min-Min temple; boy in bathtub; brother-in-law wiped out by Piggy; boys drop water balloon on teacher… How many scenes per 10 minutes?  2 full plus 2 partial Ting Ting and fellow, LJ with Sherry at hotel, China + Japan card trick; hotel on phone; # 53 – 63 (103)… Especially striking is Yang’s preference to withdraw from his actors to a distance during their more intimate conversations. The Turkish director Nuri Ceylan in Üç maymun (Three Monkeys) includes a couple of long shots of conversations like this, but in his case I think that he was looking for the scenic Malik shot and used, for example, a couple arguing fifty yards away as an excuse to frame a landscape, which, in that case, led me to imagine that the two actors were tying up the 7th green while I waited impatiently, debating whether to play through. I do like the distance shots. I remember looking forward to Dersu Uzala (1975) because I thought that it was filmed in Mongolia (Dersu was a Mongolian) – this was long before films such as The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) and Mongolian Ping Pong (2005) and Tuya’s Marriage (2006) – and I expected to get a good look at the countryside. But no. The film felt as if it had been shot in a closet. No scenery. (How come there are so many Mongolian movies around lately, or did I just name all of them?).
The life in Yang’s shots is not just a matter of thoughtful composition. He brings humor and energy to the task. Early on while making Yi Yi, Yang noticed the profusion of reflections appearing in his shots, Taipei being a modern city full of windows and architectural glass of all sorts. The only reflections in the countryside are found in rivers and lakes and the homes and shops of villages. In general, directors filming scenes through or in front of glass work to minimize reflections, mirror work excepted, but Yang began playing with the reflections. Exegesis followed their appearance in Yi YI, but I think that in general, or at least initially, Yang was just having some fun. That’s the way I relate to the reflections in Yi Yi, anyway – as a little eye candy. The movie contains scene after scene of conversations in moving cars, shot from in front of, beside, or behind the car, through the windows, with passing buildings, automobiles, and pedestrians clearly visible and moving on the glass; the movie contains scene after scene of conversations held in a cafe or apartment, shot from outside a window, with passing traffic reflected on the glass (the family’s apartment is located in a high-rise next to an elevated freeway). In one such shot, at night, outside Min-Min’s office looking in, with the office lights off, the city’s reflection on the window dominates, and Min-Min stands brooding while a blinking red light at an intersection pulses directly over her heart – a nice touch that was fortuitous, as Yang, off at an angle, didn’t notice it until he saw the day’s rushes. Then, as Min-Min cogitates, a coworker turns on a light inside the office and we are transported in a blink from the city outside at night to the office inside, with the two women in it. Nice. I happened to watch Man Push Cart (2005) shortly after this and was interested to compare the young Ramin Bahrani’s city work (he was 30 when he made the film) to Yi Yi. MPC features some reflections, in mirrors, but not in windows. Bahrini’s car and shop windows seem transparent. He shoots several scenes with the inital setup in the mirror, but this might just be a way of dealing with space constraints in small places. Nothing more than that, I hope. YY vs MPC in the reflection department: Japanese tea ceremony vs three-legged race at the company picnic. The fun that Yang has here is reflected in his comment, “Filming on location is magic.”
At one point the reflections put me in mind of a Chinese restaurant that I visit, which has two walls covered with mirrors, making the room look much larger than it really is. In addition to the scene in front of us, we’re often provided with a simultaneous view of the space behind the camera – interesting given Yang Yang’s project in the film of photographing the backs of people’s heads, to show them what they can’t see and help them know what they can’t know. So, a little amateur interpretation: in Yi Yi’s reflections, it is always character vs city, character in city, of city, but distinct from city. Man and his urban environment. The characters layered with the city, but individuated from it.
One editorial technique that has not been helped by my watching-by-segments is Yang’s habit in Yi Yi of overlaying the audio of the following scene on the video of the scene that precedes it. It’s an enjoyable way of connecting characters otherwise afloat on their own inner tubes in the ocean of life with other family members, by suggesting similarities or contrasts in their actions and situations. For example, as a nurse performs an ultrasound procedure that displays a mother’s unborn child, the soundtrack shifts from the nurse’s description to that of an NJ business associate predicting the future of video gaming – a beat in the movie that gives pause, offers a moment of insight if not into life, at least into Yang’s thinking – but that is lost and mystifying to a viewer like myself who is jumping randomly from scene to scene. In another example, we listen to NJ describe his first love while we watch his daughter’s first date.
Having said all that, Yi Yi is primarily a dramatic ensemble movie with six or so threads, not an exercise in auteur cinematography. Regardless of the thought and effort put into the images onscreen, that thoughtfulness doesn’t obtrude, never bespeaks itself, and never binds or otherwise limits the pace and focus of the film – except, for me, in those long shots of intimate conversation – and then in a good way.
With regard to those ensemble actors, I spilt some ink writing about child actors when I reviewed O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (The Year My Parents Went On Vacation) (2006). In fact, I’m still receiving spam from several of the agents and casting directors whom I interviewed on the subject. Could it be that I gave them a false impression, to whet their appetites, some promise of access for them to a bonanza of young local talent? I called these folks because at the time, I was wondering why there seemed to be so many good young actors around. I had just watched a string of movies with excellent acting by young people, movies including Mother of Mine (2005), Wondrous Oblivion (2003), Birth (2004), and Kabluey (2007). I never figured it out, but when I learned that Yang rewrote his script after casting Jonathan Chang and Kelly Lee, because they were younger than Yang-Yang and Ting-Ting in the script, I remembered that director Cao Hamburger did the same thing when casting OAEQMPSDF. In Yi Yi, Yang-Yang was originally meant to be 10, not 7, and Ting-Ting 15, not 13.
It occurred to me as I watched the first scenes with Chang in them that Yang might have been better off with a ten-year-old Yang-Yang. Jonathon Chang, at 7 – and perhaps it was just my mood at the time – seemed like a little kid, the child of one of Yang’s friends, reading the lines that Yang had written. A ten-year-old might have seemed a little more in touch with the world, a little crazy instead of just young, rendering his lines, a Yang-Yang more likely to be interested in girls than the seven-year-old onscreen could be expected to be, script or no script. Ditto Kelly, mutis mutatis, although at 13 she might have passed for 15 in my eyes if I hadn’t known that she wasn’t; and she did a lot of wordless work, which isn’t so age-dependent. Of course, I have no way of knowing how Yang’s script read before he rewrote it, but he was clearly plastic in his concepts if age 10 could become 7 and 15, 13.
Let me back up and disentangle this. In Yi Yi, Yang meant for Yang-Yang to do two (mutually exclusive?) things: discover girls for the first time and voice fundamental philosophical questions about life. No accident that Yang named the boy Yang-Yang. Meanwhile, Ting-Ting was to experience romance for the first time, and LJ, in his back-story, was to undergo life’s first true love and its loss. Yang kept Yang-Yang’s discovery of girls in the movie, along with a variety of symbols and portents relating to it, but a seven-year-old discovering girls is not a ten-year-old discovering girls. A second- or third-grader discovering girls is not a fifth-grader discovering girls. In Yi Yi, the energy in the trope is discharged somewhat by Yang-Yang’s extreme youth. But I view this as a good thing and I think that Yang probably did too, in the end. The voice for Yang’s naive but powerful questions about life did not need to be, could not reasonably have been, inflected by crosscurrents of sex, no matter how innocent, and a ten-year-old asking such questions (“I can only know half the truth because I can only see in front of me, not behind me.”) would have seemed just plain weird in any case. Yang also puts a camera in the young boy’s hands, making him an observer of life and its follies – an unspeaking, non-judgmental, passionless observer. As he takes repeated pictures of what he calls mosquitoes, and which nobody believes that he sees, his youth allows him the positive aspects of savant, wise fool. One critic saw him as the Puck of the movie, but I don’t see this boy saying, or thinking, anything like “What fools these mortals be.” He is not a trickster or mischievous or a wise knave and he doesn’t find those around him to be fools (trying to dump a bucket of water on a girl from the school balcony doesn’t count). He isn’t a personification of a land spirit or fairy or sprite. He’s a little human.
In a similar way, Ting-Ting at 13 is too young for her first romance to carry the energy that Yang meant it to. He introduces the bad girl Li-Li to steal Fatty away from Ting-Ting, but Fatty was gone already. When he bolted from the hot-pillow hotel room, it seemed natural to me that his flight was motivated by Ting-Ting’s youth. Or by simple mental illness, already manifesting. Two additional years on Ting-Ting and the scene would have felt different altogether.
And finally, LJ’s back-story with Sherry, first love lost, took place when he was 15. Again, too young to carry/hold/enclose the dramatic energy necessary? Or does the clock run faster by a couple of years in Taiwan?
Anyway, because of these age-related issues, the romantic threads in the storyline felt unequal in their dramatic weight to me. Perhaps this also had something to do with my watching of the segments out of order, so that arcs could not build power, or that as a consequence of my greater interest in LJ’s twin crises of late-life career angst and a revisit of his first love than I am in the awakening of a child to gender differences or the travails of an newly-minted teenager.
The dramatic-weight issue is partially redressed in Yang-Yang’s case by his function as the movie’s philosophical message-bearer, unencumbered by the weight of worldly experience. He’s obviously speaking Yang’s written lines, but, because he is a young child doing that, fact and fiction become irrelevant.
The mother, by the way, is left out of the romantic issues, spending her screen time suffering during the illness and death of her mother, in alternating silent grief and outbursts of angst regarding her life, before splitting for her Buddhist retreat. There is a scene in which Min-Min weeps because every day she goes and speaks to her comatose mother but has nothing to say. She tells her mother what she did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and is done in a minute. Her life seems so empty, so blank. She feels like a fool. This struck me because every day I go and speak to my mother, who is not comatose but suffers from a dementia that severely restricts her speech. I tell her what I did in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening and it does not take long. In contrast to my mother’s life at the moment, however, what I tell her does not seem empty to me, even though it mostly involves no more than getting up, eating, driving, working. Just to say that it’s sunny, that’s it raining, that I ate too much, is to say that I’m still alive and in touch with the world, part of the world. Min-Min does the scene in a single take. It’s impressive, although as she suffered, I found myself watching the reflection of the freeway car headlights on the closed venetian blinds of her bedroom.
Now that I think of it, I don’t suppose that Yang is especially concerned in Yi Yi with maintaining an exact dramatic balance between and amongst the romantic threads in the movie. Instead, think of the plot as an outline, or set of bulleted points, that Yang is using to sum up the possible reactions of individuals in youth to the emotional storms brought on by sexual awakening: you can run from it, leaving echoes that reverberate throughout your later life; you can lash out violently; you can suffer passively, letting the issues vent around and over you; you can remain oblivious or unexposed; or you can study your experiences, question them, probe them, and develop a philosophical understanding of them that serves as a foundation for your future. Yang puts each approach on display. Perhaps the strength of your reaction to each will, as for me, depend upon your personal experience in the matter. (I’m talking to you, aren’t I? You’re reading this, aren’t you? So why shouldn’t I use “you”? Just asking.)
The heart of the film for me, in terms of drama and personal interest, comprises the pair of threads featuring (a) LJ’s business interactions and (b) the time he spends with his first love. There is a perfect simplicity to the plotting. As with the rest of the film, the plotting has a quality of outline to it. The righteous businessman stands on the mountaintop and sees laid out before him a righteous business future, courtesy of a spiritually advanced Japanese CEO, a future that the lesser men in his company will with the best of intentions sabotage. Meanwhile, he is brought face-to-face with the life that he ran away from in his youth, ironically, because he wanted to achieve the business future that is now denied him. With respect to the romance, living a lifetime confers the ability to now perceive that first love as a distinct individual, separate and apart from yourself. There can be no question of going back, to restart, to take up the relationship again, not with two lives’ familial responsibilities standing between you. (It happens in plenty of movies. Looking for Eric (2009) and Innocence (2000) come to mind. But when this happens, neither individual is the same as when the couple was first together, which perhaps is the point.) You can try to go home again, to the home of your youth, but it won’t be there anymore. Your family, your friends then, are gone, if only because they’ve aged like you have. LJ left Sherry to pursue a life that, as he learns, modern Taiwan dooms to failure by its pursuit of Western technology and get-rich-quick wealth, its quest to become “Silicon Island,” its political oppression now replaced by the mental and physical oppressions imposed by this pursuit. As so often happens in human society, fast economic advances, consumption, and urbanization neglect the spirit as well as the environment. In the end, LJ is left bereft, but for, fortunately, the most important thing in his life, his children. Yang-Yang delivers the director’s final summation of faith in family and future, of a hope that Yang himself, fatally ill, could only bequeath to those close to him who would live on after his death.
There is a paradoxical quality to the film. As Yang wrote the screenplay, he might have been using a checklist of dramatic elements: the puzzlements of a young boy; his first attraction to girls; the angst of a teenage girl; her first date, first kiss, first love, first loss, first treachery of a friend; the emotional conflicts and confusions of two teenage boys, in one case leading to violence, in the other to a decision revisited in middle age. Marriage; pregnancy and birth; marital strife, infidelity, separation; financial cupidity and stupidity; serious illness; spiritual crisis; career stress, betrayal, and disillusionment; organized crime and governmental corruption; suicide; murder; death and a funeral. And yet, despite this almost comical litany, the chief quality of the film is a stillness, a quiet, a contemplative, measured pace, quick cuts and edits banished, an inward, calming, and ultimately positive affirmation of life. At its heart, in spite of its endless series of melodramatic tropes, strung together like beads on a thread of film-stock, with scenes alternating rhythmically between character story lines, to mix metaphors, and in spite of the longish takes, which in most movies don’t cause us to feel still but to feel restless, here we experience the stillness. Yi Yi has that quality found in many of the greatest movies, the quality of “nothing happened but it seemed important,” curiously, given all of the dramatic events that actually do transpire in the three hours running time. Truth permeates the film like an aura. I noticed a feeling in myself while I was watching and tried to pin it down. It came to me finally that watching Yi Yi was something like time I spent with a particular therapist, who embodied a lifetime of meditation and introspection; when sitting with such a one, there can be that same quiet, stillness, in the room, and that same feeling of truth – a time to realize, share, and discuss matters of the greatest possible personal import in an atmosphere of healing tranquility. Spend enough time with a film and it can stop being a film and become a friend.
The stillness in Yi Yi does not imply timelessness or changelessness, any more than does the frozen quality of a photo from our youth, which instead reminds us,sometimes with a jolt, that everything has changed, that the photo’s world is gone, lost to us. Sherry’s presence, like the world in a photo, reminds LJ that a world important to him, that defined him, that he was part of, is gone forever and, distant as it has become, is still here in the present, but changed, changed into something beyond his ability to affect.
Finally, although for Yang, Yi Yi was just the next film in his open filmography – albeit perhaps in his mind his best yet, his most mature and fully realized – but surely only one more entry in an ouvre that would stretch on into later life – a middle entry on the list – for us, watching the movie now, with Yang’s personal history in mind, it’s impossible not to experience it as a valediction, a summing up, a final statement, Yang’s personal statement about his life, about Taiwan’s cultural situation, about Life itself. Yang reached the top of the mountain with his last film, and wasn’t required to come back down again.