Friday, July 20, 2012

Yi Yi (2000)

A One and a Two, Taiwan/Japan, 173 minutes
Director/writer: Edward Yang
Photography: Wei-han Yang
Music: Kai-Li Peng
Editor: Bo-Wen Chen
Cast: Nien-Jen Wu, Issei Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Su-Yun Ko, Shu-shen Hsiao, Adriene Lin, Pang Chang Yu

Don't act surprised, but I'm having a hard time translating "yi yi" based on hasty Internet searches. Good old Wikipedia tells me that "yi" means "one" and "yi yi" means "'one one,' in the sense of 'each one,'" whatever that means. It goes on to mention that the Chinese characters for it (一一), when vertically aligned, mean "two" (which at least helps explain the off-point British adaptation of the title, A One and a Two). Thus, the best I can make out is that it may be an idiom describing an aspirational level of spiritual integration, a oneness. At least, that happens to be the very state that every single person occupying this vast picture of small family drama (not to mention you and me) yearns for every minute of their waking lives.

In fact, with these insights, I find it helpful now to remember the old joke about the Buddhist monk who encounters a hot-dog vendor and places his order: "Make me one with everything." Set in modern Taipei, Taiwan, a city of some 3 million, it's that profound human yearning as much as anything—I mean for spiritual integration, not hot dogs—that drives the poignant complexity of this deeply meditated story of an extended middle-class family coping with death and life and meaning in a modernized Western society. It's charming, provoking, sad, and lovely by turns, with the deceptively placid feel of a Lifetime movie whenever the music starts to play (I say that as someone who appreciates Lifetime movies, but don't worry, the music doesn't play that often). It's nearly three hours, with a host of complicated characters and interrelations, but it goes down easy, as one simply enters into this life, immediately engrossed even if it is ultimately mostly uneventful.

Or, no, that's not right. It's not uneventful. There is plenty going on here—a matriarch on her deathbed, fractured marriages, bruised relationships, lost children of all ages. But it's so good at approximating the flow of everyday quotidian life, with climactic events rarely grasped fully in their moments, but rather only later, well after the moment itself. The lack of such dramatic contrasts is good in terms of the literary realism, the Western style into which Yi Yi fits most naturally, with memorable, stark drama emerging organically out of the welter of incident. But it can be a little confusing to sort out too.

It is so rich with detail it is like a big feast, a smorgasbord. You never have to wait long for the next pleasure to arrive. Take the character of Yang-Yang (played by Jonathan Chang), the eight-year-old son who first and most obviously delivers an undeniable cute factor of impressive reach and shelf life. He is just adorable, a familiar figure in all the promotional material for the movie. In manner, he plays it something like a pint-size Buster Keaton (taking after his father NJ in that regard, who is played by Nien-Jen Wu, a regular in director Edward Yang's pictures)—stoic and stone-faced, teased to terrific comic effect by the girls in his school. An early scene at a wedding, with Yang-Yang and the girls posing for a photo and the girls secretly teasing him to amuse themselves, is a remarkable little set piece (you can see a snatch of it in the trailer here, which also has the Lifetime movie music going).

But Yang-Yang, for all his massive imposition of cute, is also the one to raise the most profound and interesting issues, which somehow manage both to fathom the largest themes of the picture and also to sound like any 8-year-old asking a lot of questions: "Daddy, I can't see what you see and you can't see what I see," he says at one point. "How can I know what you see?" (NJ tells him, "That's why we need a camera.") But he has more questions in this scene: "Daddy, can we only know half the truth? I can only see what's in front, not what's behind. So I can only know half of the truth, right?"

This observation stuck and was still ringing in my ears the next time I saw the remarkable scene where Yang-Yang's mother Min-Min (played by Elaine Jin, also a Yang trouper) is speaking to NJ, her husband, about her mother, who lies comatose in the apartment. Min-Min speaks with her back to a mirror, so we see her from the front and back at once—yet even so, one of her profiles is obscured. Thus, in Yang-Yang's formulation, we still can't know the whole truth about Min-Min even as we see her front and back in one of the most nakedly confessional moments in the whole film.

It's an amazing scene, opening up in numerous ways to a variety of bottomless emotional places, and a total marvel of economy, such that after it passes you don't even know exactly what hit you (the picture is packed full of such turns). In the very moment, Min-Min is confronting and trying to understand and accept her mother's imminent death, speaking to NJ in their bedroom, who simply listens in his usual gentle brooding way. Then the neighbors in the next-door apartment begin to have a loud, vicious fight. NJ closes the shades and turns down the lights. In the darkness from the window we can see the headlights of traffic on a freeway. All at once we can hear the traffic, and Min-Min's wracking weeping, and the couple squabbling and saying horrible things to one another. It's a powerful, indelible moment.

As a realist tale, the characters and their stories are pushed well into the foreground, but Yi Yi is also a beautifully composed film. Many scenes are shot a great distance away from the characters, to the point where it's almost hard to pick them out sometimes, even as we distinctly hear them speaking, as if to emphasize how easily these particularities blend into scenes full of other people and life and motion. Another recurring strategy is to shoot through the glare of great slabs of reflecting plate-glass, as in the tall windows of modern office buildings. This also obscures the characters, who become ghostlike even as their dialogue remains sharp and crisp, the frame resolving to shapes and colors flashing against surfaces, reflections of people, traffic, logos, office interiors, all abstracted and effectively mushed into a uniquely modern miasma. This is done often, but also subtly, not constant but rather continual.

It's a sprawling modern domestic landscape that we experience here, and it feels as if it could as easily be Chicago or Cape Town or Tehran, with an immediacy that gets you the first time and more to tell as repayment for visiting again. It's a total keeper.

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