Yi Yi: Criterion Collection
July 27, 2006
Edward Yang is part of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, a group of filmmakers that depict the effects of living in urban environments in post-World War II Taiwan. Among his contemporaries are Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang. They are all interested in the social patterns that exist in urban environments. Yang, in particular, creates what Kent Jones describes in his essay included with this DVD as “city symphonies,” beautifully orchestrated, intimate epics about city life.
Yi Yi (2000) begins with a wedding between a young, twenty-ish Taiwanese couple. It is this event that provides us with a look at this middle class family. We are introduced to everyone, from the youngest child, Yang-Yang (J. Chang) to the elderly grandmother. The film does a wonderful job of showing the little melodramas that affect various members of the family. For example, the minor scandal of the new bride who is pregnant before the marriage or the father, NJ (Wu), flirting with an old flame.
Yang’s film is also filled with many small moments of simple beauty, like the shot of Yang-Yang, unhappy with the food at the wedding reception, contentedly eating food at a McDonald’s while his father patiently looks on. Another striking image is that of a businessman alone in a room with a bird perched on his shoulder. He whistles to it, coaxing it to stay as he moves gracefully around the room. It’s an image that comes out of nowhere but is mesmerizing in its simplicity.
Yi Yi shows how everyday life is filled with drama, comedy and tragedy – all ripe for cinema so why shouldn’t it be accurately depicted and reflected in movies? Yang displays an incredible level of authenticity, such that it feels like we are actually observing the lives of a real family. We see them perform the same kinds of mundane tasks and face the same problems that we all do. For example, NJ is going through a rough patch at work. His company’s profit margin is declining and he and his co-workers are trying to think up ideas to fix things.
NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Jin), works at a busy office and has to deal with her mother suffering from a stroke that has put her into a coma. The doctor warns Min-Min that her mother many never recover from it and, naturally, this puts her under a lot of stress as she tries bravely to keep it all together for the sake of her family. Yang uses Min-Min’s plight to show the emotional stress a sick loved one can cause. Her mother’s coma is taking its toll on Min-Min. She feels helpless and lost in everyday life, upset that she hasn’t done anything meaningful with her life.
Ting-Ting (Lee), the teenage daughter, is wracked with guilt over the thought that she might have caused her grandmother’s stroke because she might have forgotten to take out the trash and that’s what she was doing when she had the stroke. It causes her to have sleepless nights and she ends up dozing off in school during the day. Later on, she acts as a go-between for her friend Lili (Lin) and her boyfriend “Fatty” (Y. Chang). Lili is keeping her romance a secret from her mother who is divorced and seeing a man who it turns out is Lili’s English teacher.
NJ and Mr. Ota (Ogata), a client from Japan, go out for a night on the town and end up having a series of fascinating discussions about their fathers and life in general. They go to a karaoke bar and it turns out that Mr. Ota is quite a talented pianist, playing a moving piece of music that puts NJ in a reflective mood.
Yang-Yang ends up being the inquisitive one, asking the film’s thought-provoking question, “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?” It’s an incredibly perceptive comment that his father is unable to answer. The small child poses this question early on and you find yourself pondering it as you watch the rest of the movie that depicts the lives of these people with honesty and humanity, refusing to resort to any of the clichéd stereotypes and devices that ruin so many Hollywood films that try to do the same thing.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Edward Yang and Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns. Yang states simply that the film is about everyday life across multiple generations of a family. Rayns is on hand to ask Yang many perceptive questions about the movie and keeps the commentary going. Yang talks at length about Taiwanese culture and customs which is particularly illuminating if you’re not familiar with this facet of cinema. The director also touches upon his casting choices – why he cast a certain actor and who they are. Yang is very well-spoken, delivering an informative track with the help of Rayns.
“Everyday Realities” features Rayns talking about New Taiwanese cinemas and Yang’s place in it. This is an excellent primer as the film critic briefly examines the history of this country’s cinemas and how it informed this new movement. He outlines its most significant figures and its traits.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.