One of modern cinema’s greatest tragedies is the death of 59 year old Taiwanese director Edward Yang (from colon cancer in 2007). He made his directorial debut at the age of 35 in 1982 with “In Our Time”. The eight films he made in his career were highly regarded among art-house & festival circuits, but his films didn’t reach wider audience like the works of other film-makers, belonging to Taiwanese new wave – Hou Hsiao-hsien & Tsai Ming-liang. Yang’s four hour sociopolitical epic “A Bright Summer Day” (1991) and the multi-generational masterpiece “Yi yi” (A One and a Two, 2000) were the works that reached and grabbed the attention of cinephiles around the globe (he earned ‘Best Director’ award in Cannes for ‘Yi yi’). Personally, Yang’s “Yi yi” has on lasting influence on me. The film takes us on a one year trip into the lives of a Taipei middle-class family. It examines all kinds of emotions an ordinary family feels with an unbelievable amount of nuance.
“Yi yi” starts with a Chinese wedding and ends with a funeral service, which might make the viewers to easily observe the ‘circle of life’ message. But, Yang’s simplistic yet philosophical narrative approach bestows a one of a kind movie experience. The middle-aged father NJ Jian (Wu Nienjen) is one of the partners in a computer hardware firm that’s going through a transitional stage. The film opens with the marriage of NJ’s brother-in-law A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen). The visuals of easygoing wedding celebrations make us feel at home. Then a distraught woman arrives, crying in front of the family matriarch (A-Di’s mother): “It should have been me marrying your son” and she asks “where’s that pregnant bitch” (addressing A-Di’s bride). As the title-card emerges, we get a closer look at the elegant grandmother (Ru-Yun Tang), a former teacher, who feels too old to encounter all the familial strife.
The grandma suffers a stroke as the family is attending the wedding reception. She goes into coma and the doctors recommend that they take her home and hope that she regains consciousness. They also recommend the family members to take turns in taking with the grandmother to elicit some response. The other members of Jiang family are: working mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin), whose depression increases after tending to her comatose mother; teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), who is for the first time feeling polarizing emotions like love and guilt; eight year old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), a lively boy who is obsessed with the idea of ‘showing stuff people haven’t seen’. NJ has a chance meeting with his old flame Sherry (Su-Yun Ko) in the wedding. She asks “Why didn’t you come that day? I waited and waited and never got over it, you know”.
NJ gets a chance to rendezvous with her in Tokyo, while his wife Min-Min seeks a cure for her depression in a local religious outfit. Ting-Ting experiences her first love with the disdained boyfriend of her next door neighbor & friend Lili (Adriene Lin). The family is gradually getting to be dysfunctional, but ‘Yi yi’ isn’t your typical suburban drama, where sexual release and throwing expletives at each other becomes a way to cope with the aloofness. This is a family whom we could relate with our personal experiences and the breakdowns and recuperation in the narrative never sting our senses with melodrama.
"Dad, I Can’t See What You See"
Adorable Yang-Yang, who expresses wisdom far behind his years, says to his father at one point: “Daddy I can’t know what you see and you can’t know what I see! How can I know what you see”? The boy asks this amazing question about human perception, but the father gives a more practical answer: “That’s why we need a camera. Do you want to play with one?” The boy then photographs mosquitoes on his apartment corridor and few other things to show to his parents, since these are the things they can’t see. He goes to develop the photos during school recess and gets caught by a teacher, who dismisses his work as ‘avant-garde’ art. Apart from lending a charming series of scenes, the question itself seems to be subtly haunting each of the characters. Mother Min-Min cries out to her husband, one night, because she doesn’t have much to tell to her unconscious mother. She is not only crying for her inability to communicate, but also dreads a future, when her own children wouldn’t be able to relate to her.
NJ hints at his past on why he grew distant from his former lover, Sherry. “You pushed me to become an engineer. Did you ever ask what I wanted” says NJ to sherry, stating how she thought of a better future without ever perceiving the inner-thoughts of her partner. A-Di runs into problems because he lacks perception on everything: from marriage to business. Ting-Ting, after going through the throes of early adolescence thinks how perception is so different from what happens in reality: “Why is the world so different from what we thought it was”. Grandma feels too old because her family members can’t see what she perceives and vice-versa. In the final ambiguous scene, Ting-Ting asks her grandma: “Now that you’re awake and see it again…has it changed at all? Now I’ve closed my eyes…the world I see is so beautiful". Yang’s cinema works into viewers’ mind to express how each character perceive things and he also subtly shows how unbridled love & communication could eradicate this perception problem.
"Daddy, Can We Know Only Half of the Truth?"
Yang-Yang clicks photographs of the backs of people’s head. The reason is that he wants to show things people can’t see. Throughout the film everybody knows only half of the truth. The whole narrative is about enduring the abrasions by learning the other side of truth. NJ & Sherry’s rendezvous in Tokyo, Fatty & Ting-Ting’s brief relationship and Min-Min’s unseen religious retreat exhibit what the other side of the truth looks like.
"Even If I was given a Second Chance I wouldn’t need it"
The irony experienced by all the characters is that even knowing the other side of truth and the second chances wouldn’t have made immense changes to their lives. The characters acknowledge the fact that they have laid path to their life through irresponsible or loveable acts. They recognize that we human beings always yearn for missed opportunities, which once attained leaves, an acidic taste of reality. Min-Min has made peace with her life; not as a result of the master’s teachings. Her brief vacation time makes her to take a step backward and self-reflect on what matters in life. NJ, despite, leaving Sherry for forcing him to become an engineer has in reality works as a computer engineer. He adores his daughter and wants to be treating his son as a friend, and so he comes to terms that second chances wouldn’t bring back what he once experienced.
It is the backward step each character takes and contemplates these chances is what makes “Yi Yi”, a tangible movie experience. The characters aren’t pressured into making sudden romantic decisions. Their ordinary worldly experiences make them to question the transgressive phases in life, unlike what we see in the restless American suburban dramas. NJ comments to Sherry on how the hotel manager saw him when he asked two separate rooms for them (“To sleep with someone means nothing now”). He and Sherry have chosen relive a part of their youth, but smart enough to not engage themselves in an affair. At the same time, Ting-Ting checks into a hotel with Fatty, but the young man restlessly stands near the doorstep and then runs away, reciting “This is not right”. First or second chances, the characters’ decisions could be universally related by all middle-class members. Director Yang also shows how wrong choices (through Lili’s mother and A-Di) only bring ineffable sadness.
"Life is a Mixture of Sad and Happy Things"
The dichotomy we experience – happiness and sadness (perfectly expressed by the word ‘bittersweet’) – bears a great importance in shaping our lives. In a way, we all spend our lives confronting the ripples created by the waves of joy and misery. Edward Yang finds a way to imbue his philosophical insights even in a mundane dating scene. In this sequence, Ting-Ting and Fatty, discuss on the duality of life and movies. At one point in the conversation, the over-caring girl states “If we are nice to people, they’ll be nice back”. But, soon she feels how wrong her perception was and the ensuing emotional complexity makes her to embrace the duality. In fact, director Yang finds dichotomy in the two significant events in the film –wedding celebration and mourning. He finds darkness in the celebration and the optimistic side in a funeral gathering. The narrative itself is juxtaposed with morbid thoughts and genuine happiness.
The Writers’ Voice and the Incredible Performances
A majority of the wise comments made by Yang-Yang or Mr. Ota seems to have derived from the film-maker’s personal experiences. In an interview to ‘Guardian’, the director states how writing the small boy’s character laid foundation to his narrative. “I think we were all once that way, with all kinds of questions, and we didn't know which one was more philosophical than the other because we didn't have answers to any of them” says Yang. Fatty’s comments on movies; NJ’s detesting feeling on pursuing engineering studies (Yang studied electrical engineering in the University of Florida, before opting to become a film-maker) and Mr. Ota’s clear insights shows how the details could have only risen from writer Yang’s mind. But, despite these tad instructive dialogues, Yang the director gives enough space for the actors to accommodate the characters’ weaknesses and strength. Mr. Ota states a straight-forward preachy line like: “Why are we afraid of the first time? Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new. We never live the same day twice. We're never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?” But, Yang and the actor (Issei Ogata) who played Ota never make the character a caricature.
“Yi yi” marks the debut for both Kelly Lee (Ting-Ting) and Jonathan Chang (Yang-Yang). While Kelly never again acted in a movie, Jonathan has only starred in two other movies. The unselfconscious performance by two of these young actors provides an emotional anchor for the viewers. The restrained emotions were possible because they are not just pretending. My favorite brief moments involving these young actors are: when Yang-Yang gets enlightened by the busted balloon and the fleeting smile he directs at his father, while eating at McDonald's; when Ting-Ting begs her grandma to wake up as a sign of pardon. Nien-Jen Wu, who played NJ, is a veteran screenwriter. Being a writer himself, Wu perfectly brings what Yang is strives to achieve with NJ (a character with unimpaired moral compass).
Aesthetic Approach and Flawless Juxtapositions
Yang approaches buffoonery and melodramatic outbursts from a distance. The opening drunken revelry and Yun-Yun disruptive entrances (“It should have been me marrying your son today”) are only observed; not used to manipulate viewers into judging the characters. But, when Yang really wants to tap into characters’ genuine feelings – like happiness, shocks, confessions and misery -- his camera lingers a little closer. The shots of peering through high-rise apartments and offices, and glass windows states how the city is bustling with lives that are moving along, while the characters fiddling with some moments. These glass window shots hint at life’s interconnectedness, while the ‘shrouded-in-shadows’ shot gives an obscurity to the characters. In one of the many excellent shots, we see Min-Min pensively staring at the glass window of her high-rise office. The office is cloaked in darkness and she stumbles while walking to a chair due to emotional turmoil. The glass window shot creates a feeling as if she is walking on a tight rope between buildings.
Yang impeccably employs life’s ironies as well as similarities. He juxtaposes pregnancy ultrasound scans with the voice-over of Mr. Ota explaining on evolution of human beings & computer games; NJ recalls his nervousness on the first date with Sherry, while we see Ting-Ting nervously holding hands with Fatty for her first date; a nature documentary is screened with a narrator explaining on thunder and lightning, while thunder strikes inside Yang-Yang’s heart as he watches a girl, and experiences his first crush.
“Yi yi” (173 minutes) genuinely contemplates on life’s simple discoveries and paradoxes without any melodramatic contrivances.
“Basically, life, I think, is when good things have its dark side and bad things have its brighter side.” -- Edward Yang