Edward Yang’s masterpiece Yi Yi works on you slowly. At nearly three hours, it takes its time, lingering on scenes after a more conventional director would have cut. Yang waits to see what happens after the catharsis. Yi Yi reminds me of the epic movies from the 1970s in America – Reds (with its intuitive and non-literal piecing-together of events, via small scenes that feel “caught” as opposed to planned for and acted-out), The Deer Hunter (with the giant meandering opening wedding sequence which is the epitome of taking its time, it’s the first THIRD of the movie, that scene) – films where the directors did not feel obliged to race to story story story (as in plot), realizing that it is through the characters, and their behavior when they are NOT just acting out the obligations of the plot, that the real story will be revealed. Yi Yi never drags, however, and that is a testament to Yang’s skill as a director, not to mention the work of Wei-han Wang, the cinematographer (a more consistently beautiful-looking movie I have rarely seen) and the superb editing job of Bo-Wen Chan. Yi Yi tells the story of a family in Taipei, and the peripheral people who come in and out of their lives, neighbors, business associates, boyfriends. It is a highly observant film, gripping in its detailed and complex psychological portraits of an entire family, and how they operate, as a group and as individuals.
There is the patriarch, N.J., played by Nien-Jen Wu (a real pioneer in Taiwan cinema, a fascinating man). He works as an executive for a software company, surrounded by business associates who are more openly accepting of the drudgery and silliness of some of the job requirements. N.J. has a family, a wife and two children, but he spends most of his time, even when in the presence of his family, with his headphones on, listening to classical music. It starts as a small character bit, something you notice about someone else, in passing (“Oh, he listens to music all the time…”) but gradually, it becomes one of the most important things to know about this man. His desire to escape. Yet his desire (at least at first) is not for a big gesture, running off to join the circus, for example, or having extra-marital dalliances with young drunk hotties … His desire is muted. He does what he can. He is obviously a loyal man, although he doesn’t have a great love for his wife, yet there is something missing for him. He finds it in music. He can get lost there. He is a good and involved father, but there is a crack in his psyche. Missed opportunities, lost hopes and dreams.
In the first scene of the movie, a wedding (which is hilariously and lingeringly filmed – the bride is hugely pregnant, and everyone is scandalized but trying to be okay with it), he runs into a woman in the elevator of the swanky hotel where the wedding takes place. Their encounter is charged. They obviously knew one another long ago. It is a brief encounter, and you might miss it, but it starts to open up the cracks. It is the catalyst. She was a woman he had once loved and lost. The only woman he has ever loved. We don’t realize this until much later in the film, however, but none of Yi Yi would take place without that fateful run-in in the elevator. It is a small moment in a long day, with lots of different elements – the scandal of the wedding, the fact that an ex-girlfriend of the groom shows up at the reception and makes a scene, having to be escorted out of the joint, NJ’s elderly mother, sitting off to the side, starting to feel ill so that she has to be taken home … the tapestry of a family. Into this mix, comes the love from the past, played by Su-Yun Ko, and with just a couple of words, “N.J.! Fancy meeting you here!”, etc., N.J. starts to unravel.
Min-Min is NJ’s wife, played beautifully by Elaine Jin, a superb actress. She has an office job, and there are a couple of scenes where you can see, in her interactions with some of her coworkers, that she, too, is dissatisfied with life. Only it is hard for her to pinpoint what, exactly, is wrong. A coworker has been spending time with a spiritual guru, going on weekend retreats, and Min-Min is curious about it, but doesn’t take action. There is a sense in Yi Yi that life can be an eternal treadmill, you step onto one specific path, and then, with little choice on your part, you are carried on to logical ends. You have very little say in the matter. Why can’t Min Min, on her own, start to pursue spiritual truth if that is what she is feeling called to? Well, we all know that feeling of WANTING something, and wondering: but, how will I make it work? Could I just go away for a weekend and leave my family? What exactly is my problem anyway, and why am I dissatisfied when I am so lucky and blessed? Who am I to want something more? It’s a head trip. The catalyst for Min Min also occurs on the day of the wedding when her mother-in-law, who has been feeling ill, suddenly slips into a coma after being dropped off after the reception. She comes to live with NJ and Min Min for her recovery, but she is comatose. The doctors tell NJ and Min Min that she is aware of their presence, that they should talk to her, to keep her mind active. So the family starts to take turns, talking to the unresponsive grandmother. It is this which undoes Min Min. She is the one who organizes the schedule (“It’s your turn to talk to Grandma …”), and yet when it comes to be her turn, she finds that she has nothing, zero, to say. N.J. returns home one night after a business meeting to find his wife in tears. The actress has a tour de force of a breakdown. It is one of those cinematic moments when you forget you are watching an actress who has memorized lines. As she speaks, her sense of disconnection and grief and loss intensifies, and it goes to an even deeper level for her. She is hysterical. It brought me to tears watching it. What she says to her husband is:
I have nothing to say to Mother. I tell her the same things every day. What I did in th emorning, in the afternoon, in the evening. It only takes a minute. I can’t bear it. I have so little. How can it be so little? I live a blank! Every day … every day … I’m like a fool! What am I doing every day? If I ended up like her one day …
It is heartwrenching. Especially “How can it be so little?” How can describing my day – meaning: my life, the life that I live … take so little time? Why isn’t my life bigger? Why doesn’t anything ever HAPPEN? “What am I doing every day?” It’s a fantastic scene, amazing acting. Here’s the thing about it: The fallout from this scene is that Min Min does go off to the temple, following a guru who promises spiritual enlightenment (the same guru recommended by her coworker). It is clear that she has had a nervous breakdown and needs to recover. So there must be a scene which shows her cracking up, a scene which gives us a glimpse of not only the loss and sadness which colors her every move, but the paralysis as to what to do about it. Where did she go wrong? How could her life be so little? It must make sense that this paralyzed woman, on autopilot, would suddenly decamp from her family and all of her obligations, and go off to live in a temple with a guru. This scene of breakdown helps us understand. The actress shows us that this is sadness that one does not recover from. You don’t “bounce back” from a breakdown like that. It’s not your garden-variety crying jag. Min Min has never before cried like this, or about this subject – and once she lets a little bit of it out, there’s no recovery.
N.J. and Min Min have a teenage daughter named Ting Ting, played with heartfelt subtlety by Kelly Lee. She is haunted by the fact that a small blunder on her part (forgetting to take the trash out at her grandmother’s) may have led to her grandmother falling ill. She can’t tell anyone. But she knows. She knows what she did. It was an accident, but it eats away at her. In the middle of the night, she slips down to her grandmother’s sick room, where her grandmother lies in a coma. In one of the few closeups of the film (it is mostly filmed in long shot, rather disorienting at first – if you’re used to the director doing all the work for you, telling where to look and when – Yang doesn’t do that), she sits in the darkness, and tells her grandmother of her guilt and how sorry she is. Meanwhile, she is doing a project for school, where she has to keep a plant alive. She struggles with it. It sits on her desk, straggly and struggling. Her classmates have bursting flowers and overflowing green coming out of their little plants, but not hers. This may sound overly obvious, and it is – but Yang handles it as a story element, as so often in life things become inter-connected. How often in life do we have a struggle, and suddenly we look around and everything in our lives appear to be symbolizing that struggle? You have a hard time, and the fact that your printer breaks down, or that you can’t get someone on the phone at the DMV, or whatever, becomes a metaphor for that deeper emotional crisis. This is what Ting Ting’s plant becomes for her (without any dialogue – none of it is on the nose). But she sits at her desk, doing homework, and you see that plant, on the sill, tiny, with only a couple of green leaves. Why won’t it bloom? She also has her own secret journey, an adolescent trying to separate herself from her parents, who obviously are having their own problems and not paying attention to her. Her friend is in the midst of a tempestuous romance, with lots of screaming fights (where they say things like, “Fuck you, bitch” to one another), and it all seems frightfully grownup and appealing to the shy Ting Ting. She is drawn to the boyfriend of her friend. Secretly, they start to see each other, going to a concert and then out for coffee afterwards. He seems like a very different person, more subdued and sweet, in her presence. And when it comes time to maybe have sex, he can’t go through with it. It’s not right. This is all part of Ting Ting’s growing-up process, which is seen in acute relief at this moment in her life since, obviously, she doesn’t have her mother to rely on anymore. And would she confide in her mother anyway? Was her mother the type who could give sex advice or relationship advice? I loved Ting Ting’s sections of the film, which, again, are often shot in long shot, Ting Ting seen from a great distance, outside windows, or through a plate glass.
Most of the shots, in the film, have some sort of interference involved with the line of vision. The characters are seen reflected in windows with the nighttime skyline of Taipei glimmering in the glass, so that we cannot see them clearly. Or we see them through the glass of the coffee shop, the camera out on the sidewalk, the actors inside. As I mentioned, you can count the closeups in Yi Yi on your two hands.
They are used very sparingly. Important emotional scenes are filmed from all the way across the park, the two characters seen as small silhouettes surrounded by the landscape, dwarfed, and the voices come at us from across the space. The sound editing for a film like this must have been quite a job.
N.J.’s family is rounded out by little Yang Yang, played by Jonathan Chang, with that kind of preternatural ability that some child actors have. It’s a serious business, being a child. How do you make sense of your world? Or the incomprehensible behavior of adults? Edward Yang takes Yang Yang seriously; in many ways, Yang Yang is the budding filmmaker, the autobiographical hook. He is just a little boy but he is fascinated with photography. Not for the art of it, but because he can’t understand events, if he could only try to SEE them, maybe it all would become clear. He also becomes fixated on the fact that nobody knows what the back of their own head looks like, so he decides to take pictures of the backs of people’s heads – “to help them” he explains to his father, in a moment so sweet and true it brought tears to my eyes. Jonathan Chang is so adorable, so in his face, the way children can be, and Yang handles him perfectly. He must be wonderful with children – just a guess. He treats Yang Yang’s curiosity and also his troubles at school (being teased by a group of saucy girls) with seriousness and no condescension. Yang Yang’s journey here is just as important and serious as that of his mother Min Min’s, with her crackup.
N.J.’s brief encounter with his old love in the elevator starts to expand in his mind, especially with the departure of his wife. It becomes clear that 30 years ago, he and Sherry had dated, briefly and intensely, and then, for some unknown reason, he left her. Without a word as to why. He has heard through the grapevine that she did not take it well, and that, in some way, it has become the defining element of her life. She never fully recovered. She is now married to a successful American businessman, but all you have to do is watch her body language in the elevator when she sees NJ, to realize that feelings for him still vibrate. She has moved on, on the surface of it. Because what else is she going to do? But it was a wound. To quote Cat Stevens, “The first cut is the deepest.”
I really felt for her.
And I felt for N.J., too. Over the course of the film you start to realize that he is living a default life, not the life he would have chosen. He had never questioned, “Is this the life I want?” until the events of the wedding went down, and the repercussions began to reverberate.
He has a couple of business dinners with a wealthy Japanese software innovator named Ota, played by Issei Ogata. To my mind, except for little Yang Yang (and, perhaps, the grandmother), Ota is the only character in the movie who appears to be living the life that he has dreamt of. Not because he’s successful and rich, although he is those things, not because he is lucky or has good fortune – no, it’s because he appears to be actively engaged with his own subtext. He does not spend the majority of his time on earth, like so many of us do (and certainly like most characters in Yi Yi do) trying to ACTIVELY avoid what is REALLY going on. The only way to get over a lost love is to eat that pain and find someone else. Grit your teeth and bear it. That is, if someone else equally as awesome doesn’t come along. But Ota, in his gentle manner of doing business (he is a curious man, patient, and he seems to pick up on emotions in the way that other characters do not), in his easy way of incorporating WHO HE IS into the business of WHAT HE DOES … seems to have found a kind of peace with himself. He doesn’t Deepak Chopra it up, he’s not egotistical about it or a pontificator. He just appears to live life on a deep level, in touch with emotions, not just actions. The two men go out to a cheesy karaoke bar, and after watching people bumble their way through “Proud Mary” or whatever, Ota goes up onto the stage, sits at the piano (in a very unassuming shy way) and slowly, feelingly, starts to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. And in that slick neon-lit atmosphere, it is clear that something else has entered the room. Something true, and real, full of memory and kindness and sadness. Ota makes space for ALL things in his life, not just the comfortable things, the easily-known things. N.J., a man who tries to shut out the world by listening to classical music on his headphones, looks on from the bar, a world of emotion and thought on his face. Ota has somehow incorporated art, and his love for it, into his life, where he maneuvers in the cutthroat world of new technology and international business deals. This is merely suggested, in Ota’s behavior, and how he plays the piano, how he listens to N.J., how he does business.
It is no coincidence that after the night with Ota, listening to him play the piano in the bar, that N.J. goes to his office in the middle of the night and calls his old love, Sherry, leaving a message on her answering machine. His words gripped my throat. It is so much what I am dealing with right now, and also is so much what I have been working on in that script of mine.
Sherry? It’s me, NJ. I’m glad it’s the machine. Otherwise I’d be tongue-tied. Da Da said he spoke to you. He says you’re doing well, I’m so glad. Before, I’d heard your life was tough. I felt it might be my fault. You asked why I vanished without a word 30 years ago. There were many reasons. Now they all sound stupid. I’m glad that you have a good life. I’m really happy for you. All my best wishes.
Yi Yi, with its web of stories, its numerous characters, and languid pace, is an experience, rather than a story. By the end of the film, there is an almost transcendent experience of having gotten to know these people, and also of being given an opportunity to go deeper into our own lives, to examine our motivations, our losses, to try – try hard – to see the backs of our own heads.
Because who knows what’s going on back there? We can’t ever see it, not without “help”, from a mirror or a photo, or a film like Yi Yi, perhaps, but it’s a worthwhile goal. To at least try.