Fifteen years ago, the father of one of Edward Yang’s friends was hit by a car and left in a coma. After months in the hospital, he was sent home, still locked in a twilight zone for which no medical key exists, and the now-famous director’s family was encouraged to try to talk the man back into consciousness. The incident so profoundly affected Yang that he adapted it as a centerpiece for his latest film, Yi Yi, about a family in full-blown crisis. The result is a fluid, relatively simple exorcism of several complex themes that seep from a couple’s mid-life reassessment of their relationship and own self-worth, and from the emotional growing pains of their children.
Yi Yi begins at a wedding and ends at a funeral. In between, Yang has crafted a fully realized, character-driven story that determinedly gnaws for nearly three hours on such hot-button issues as first love, second chances, regret, spiritual emptiness and moral confusion.
Yang’s delicately compassionate domestic drama is full of questions. Would you want to wake up if you were me? What’s dignity got to do with business? Did I forget to take out the garbage? Questions are also asked of other human beings. But the most deceptively mundane is sadly whispered into the dark of night. All are rhetorical depth charges that haunt the shifting emotional undercurrents of an extended, cosmopolitan Taipei family.
NJ Jian shares his middle-class apartment with his wife Min-Min, mother-in-law (everyone calls her Grandma), teen daughter Ting-Ting and 8-year-old son Yang-Yang. He is a partner with Min-Min’s brother Ah-Di in a computer hardware firm that is going bankrupt. The superstitious Ah-Di has waited to marry his pregnant girlfriend on a day that an almanac has identified as the luckiest day of the year. The almanac is wrong. NJ bumps into former flame Sherry and is filled with feelings of missed opportunity and guilt. Ah-Di’s former lover disrupts the wedding reception, and Grandma suffers a stroke and slips into a coma from which she may never awaken.
In the following months, Grandma is moved home under nurse care, Min-Min has an emotional meltdown and flees to a mountain monastery, Ting-Ting gets involved with her best friend’s boyfriend, and Yang-Yang is tormented by a group of schoolgirls and his teacher. It’s then a toss-up of what needs restructuring most: NJ’s personal or professional life. On screen, he spends time with a Japanese software sage and Sherry while Ah-Di bounces between the woman he married and the woman he jilted, Ting-Ting follows the path of her father’s first foray into love and an attempted suicide is woven into the narrative. Only an off-screen murder feels needlessly pasted into the mix.
All the double names here may look corny on paper but play without snicker in this introspective portrait of urban upheaval. The film is a sort of Asian Beauty (Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham in American Beauty was more flamboyant but just as unsure about life and relentlessly honest) without the stereotypes. The young Yang-Yang is too precocious for my taste, but Jonathan Chang’s deadpan delivery as the lad who takes pictures of the back of people’s heads so he can show them what they cannot see is smashing.
Yang, who won the best director award at Cannes for this soap-less opera, moves the story along at a languid, lyrical pace, allowing silent gazes of the camera to speak for themselves and long shots to capture the mood of characters both before and behind the lens. He also shoots through glass windows and doorways to respectively bathe his characters in reflections of an infringing, outside world and frame them like still-life paintings.
Translated literally, “yi yi” is “one one,” which means “individually” in Chinese. It relates to each character representing a specific stage of life from embryo to coffin. Yang’s English title, A One and a Two, references the call to tempo that jazz musicians mutter before a jam session. It is as if Yang himself is riffing on a quote about jazz by drummer Art Blakey: You don’t have to be a genius to understand life. All you have to do is be able to feel.