Director: Edward Yang
Writer: Edward Yang
DP: Wei-han Yang
Editor: Bo-Wen Chen
Score: Kai-Li Peng
Producer: Shinya Kawai
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issey Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Su-Yun Ko, Shu-shen Hsiao, Ru-Yun Tang
Distribution: Kuzui Enterprises
Length: 2 hrs. 53 min.
Thought many describe Edward Yang's film as a portrait of everyday life, that's not wholly accurate. It's a portrait of the Jian family's life during a certain period of time, but it's a period when they begin to separate from the standard facets of "everyday life." Or maybe it's that there's really no way to approximate "everyday life," because for all that we fall into patterns, people never really stop moving. Friction is inevitable; maybe the frictions depicted Yi Yi are a little extreme, but they still resonate because they're brought on by a special case, prompted by a specter of death hovering over the characters heads.
Near the beginning of the film, the eldest member of the Jian family suffers a stroke and falls into a coma. The characters are encouraged by the doctor to speak with her to stimulate her senses, and throughout the film they enter her room alone to speak with her. NJ, the family's father, says he feels that conversation with the comatose elder is like praying: "You're not sure if anyone's listening and you're not sure if you're sincere." Talking to her is lonely, a case in which feelings of limitation and doubt are unshakable.
Yang favors large structures and shots of characters through windows, between pillars, or through open doors. It doesn't dwarf or trap his characters; it gives them a measure of privacy, but also overlap with other characters. They have freedom, but also willfully tie themselves to certain things. Glass are isolating but the reflections on them are broad and open, simulacra of broad cityscapes, and characters travel freely across the globe; modernity is relevant in this film because the world beyond the characters' private realms is always nagging at their attention. This isn't just urban middle-class ennui, though, because the conditions are not examined nearly as much as the responses. The world isn't an affliction, it's just something that's changed since the incipient Taipei of Yang's 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, and the characters adapt with it (or sometimes fail). There's love in this family, but the film leaves no room to idealize it.
So, for better or for worse, Yi Yi illustrates the fragmentation of the Jian family. Early on in the film, Min-Min, the family's mother, finds herself overcome with anxiety and goes to stay in the mountains with a group of monks for a time. She does not return until the end of the film. NJ finds himself longing for things beyond his reach, and pursues them when he travels to Japan. It's a gap in perspectives, not any kind of conflict or resentment, that causes the fragmentation in Yi Yi. When the characters interact, we find that they can be thoughtful and giving toward one another, but they don't consciously pursue this interaction. Instead, each of them probes into worlds outside the realm of their family unit.
The film tells many stories in parallel, and NJ's story most straightforwardly reveals one of the driving forces of this film: the passage of time and the change that unavoidable comes with it. He says he can recall that his mindset in youth was different from his present mindset, but cannot quite say how. The film places NJ in a situation that exposes him to something foreign from his personal world, and also affords him the opportunity to engage with a moment from his past. He encounters two people in the film that pull him away from his home. One is Ota, an executive of a Japanese company that makes video games. Ota has interesting stories, musical talent, and an optimistic outlook on life; compared to NJ, Ota is clearly a man from a different background and with different ideals. Ota makes it clear to NJ that he may not have the means to help him, but NJ ends up on his side even when things don't work out. The other person NJ encounters is Sherry, his first love from 30 years ago whom he left behind because he felt he needed to take control of his own life. They discuss their old relationship, Sherry revealing how much it hurt her that NJ left her behind and NJ revealing that he felt he had no other choice.
NJ's possibilities have diminished with age, but it would be drastically disruptive it for him to pursue new ones. The rest of his family deal with problems that are similar in origin, but distinctly different because of their respective ages. His children apparently struggle with the infinity of possibility still open to them because of their youth. His adolescent daughter Ting-Ting seems uncertain about her decisions in a way that keeps her at a distance socially. His younger son Yang-Yang takes part in amusing but potentially dangerous explorations of the world. NJ's superstitious in-laws have to repel people harassing them in an attempt to recover the past as they negotiate a brand new personal world in unexplored territory.
Though the characters are dealing with very different issues, the one thing they all have in common is that they're prompted to test their freedom in Yang's larger world. But eventually, they all return to their private world. The film maintains a tension between the characters as constantly moving agents and the fact that they're players in a larger whole.. Their possibilities are not simple and inherent; they evolve differently, influenced by both individual traits and the way those traits interact with others'. The film's fascination with music reflects this, with many of the characters being musicians, the Chinese and English titles both being references to musical terms, and the way music is used to mark the few scenes of true harmony between characters.
Its musicality is comforting, but without simple resolution; perhaps appropriate, considering that the anxiety it hopes to address is born from the sudden, unexpected presence of death. Familial closeness becomes a force in opposition to the arbitrariness of life that leads the characters to question whether they have control. The mysteries lost with age will be inherited by the next generation, and bridges in perspective can contribute new, ever-changing variations.
Failing that, some characters in the film find that everything remains completely unfathomable and inaccessible to them. Their possibilities become limited by circumstance, and they don't want to face that. The film frames violence the same way it's framed in A Brighter Summer Day: As a desperate device used to destroy one's own future when the prospect of moving forward becomes unbearable.
When Ota comments on the violence in video games, he sees it as a product of failing to understand people. One of the characters speaks of films as an opportunity to access new perspectives, but he ends up committing violence anyway. These ideas, as well as the film's musicality and Yang-Yang's photography (it's no mistake he shares the director's name) suggest that art has potential to offer people the exploration and perspective they need. However, it takes rigor, awareness, and constancy.
When Yang-Yang reveals what motivates him to photograph the backs of people's heads, he says "You can't see it, so I help you." He wants to show people things they haven't seen, and yet he knows that because he's so young, most people have seen a lot more than him. So, Yang-Yang tries to look at familiar things in different ways. Edward Yang's film is not just an effort to show us things we didn't know before, but to show us that it's possible to look at the same things differently. His world is compartmentalized but not segregated; the character's perspectives remain isolated, never intruding on each other, but still can interact intersubjectively by expressions of will. Perhaps some will debate about how true this is, but it's undeniable that believing it's true is a part of Yang's perspective, and as an emotional experience, Yi Yi: A One and a Two is undeniably persuasive.