Yi Yi (A One and a Two)
Written and directed
by Edward Yang
It's hard to imagine a Taiwanese saga soaring into American movie
theaters these days without the benefit of wires, as hung in so
many of Asia's gravity-defying, better-known exports. But wouldn't
it be nice if Edward Yang's masterful family drama Yi Yi,
already lauded at Cannes and around the world, proved the exception?
There's no kicking, crouching or hiding here: only the dignified
bearing of the modern world by one extended Taipei clan, the Jians.
Yang's triumph lies in his deepening of their everyday trials into
something profound; Yi Yi is several lives beautifully observed
and quietly made sacred--to watch them evolve over three hours is
to realize how much more films could be (or might have been) if
they spoke instead of shouted.
Yi Yi translates closer to "one-one" or "individually,"
and while Yang's chosen English-language
title, A One and a Two, captures much of his film's easy-going
pulse--the continuum of life, both inexorable and comforting--its
true subject has less to do with pace than nuance, the richness of
personal experience. Nor will a simple recounting of structural essentials
(Yi Yi starts with a wedding, ends with a funeral and is neatly
halved by a birth) do justice to its gradual unfolding of reaction
and response. Like an early establishing shot that slides intimately
across the cozy Jian household--from Grandma seen reclining unsteadily
through her open bedroom door, to the living room table set for dinner,
to Daddy's hand opening the front door--it's what's densely in between
"I can only see what's
in front, not behind."
The temptation is great to try to find a prismatic character to
focus all this dramatic light--perhaps the middle-aged father, "NJ"
(Wu Nienjen), whose circumstances seem most in flux: a partnership
in a computer company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, plus
some precarious second-guessing that comes after a charged encounter
with an old flame. (Wu's performance is a complex marvel of domestic
befuddlement yielding to spontaneity.) But such a single identification
would be a violation of the film's most provocative gesture, a complete
eschewal of close-ups, revealing in their absence the directorial
manipulations of even the most sensitive of family albums like Ingmar
Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.
Magically, the effect isn't cold or distancing, but a portal to
a deeper way in; Yang seems to have discovered that by taking several
steps back, he can embrace all his players' interiors at once--a
community of privacies. This is filmmaking at its most graciously
egalitarian. It's also tribute to a superb company of actors who
fill the spatial remove with tender uncertainties: NJ's wife Min-Min
(Elaine Jin) breaks down before our eyes as she grasps futilely
to convey her daily routine to her mother in a coma; their teen-age
daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee, fearlessly na•ve), awkwardly embarks
on a first date; her inquisitive kid brother Yang-Yang (Jonathan
Chang, eight years old and already formidable) possesses a strange
serenity even while grappling with some rather advanced philosophical
questions with the help of a still camera: "I can only see what's
in front, not behind."
Choice and fate play out in an electric city: Taipei, with its
roiling economy of digital fortunes, seems to inform the push and
pull of Yang's orchestration of mood. A bluish image of a fetus
kicking in a sonogram plays over a business pitch for a new computer
game promising "the limitless future." (Yang, who studied computer
science, provides examples of technology mirroring life that are
uncommonly sophisticated and humane.) Glinting streetlights reflected
in glass strike refreshing resonance with the natural world's sparks;
as in the recently released In
the Mood for Love, rainstorms signal not gloom but charged-up
passions. In one scene, Yang-Yang slips into a darkened classroom
of girls watching an educational film about the origins of life;
we're witnessing nothing less than his sexual awakening.
Another thread subtly woven through Yi Yi concerns music--more
specifically the refinement involved in echoing the melodies of
others (presented as both enviable and hurtful). Two great artists
emerge from the film's periphery: Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata, his voice
a beautiful purr), a Japanese computer genius hoping to contract
with NJ's company, and Lili (Adrian Lin), Ting-Ting's slightly older
neighbor, a cellist. Both make indirect overtures to their new friends
(Ota, in particular, casts an unbreakable spell over a raucous piano
bar--and the entire film--with a darkly romantic rendition of the
"Moonlight Sonata") and inspire them to follow their own pursuits
of the heart. Love though, like music, has its own tricky rhythms,
and Yang only deepens the theme with every tenuous step: Father
and daughter, two unsteady soloists, are cross-cut on separate dates
in the film's tour-de-force conclusion.
There hasn't been a film in years that has so purely devoted itself
to the dreams and anxieties of the middle class. For good measure,
Yi Yi also includes moments of sheer exuberance: a rollicking
marriage procession that's almost deliriously giddy amid the hot-pink
decor of a banquet hall; a well-deserved soaking of a nasty teacher
with a water balloon. A review can only sketch what the rarest of
films do so fully. This is one of them.