Criterion // 2000 // 173 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 9th, 2011
"Why is the world so different from what we thought it was?" -- Ting-Ting
Edward Yang was a prime mover in the New Taiwanese film movement of the 1980s. Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness) transformed Taiwanese film from mostly drab, formulaic, and shoddily made genre pieces to elegant pieces of art that incisively explored life in Taiwan. Though the first wave of the New Taiwanese movement ended around 1990, Yang continued to flex his creative muscles and exert his vision on the Taiwanese film landscape until his untimely death in 2007. Made in 2000, Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is Yang's penultimate film. In it, he demonstrates masterful control over all aspects of filmmaking, from story structure, to visual design, to the performances of his actors.
Yi Yi examines the cyclical nature of life through the drama of two generations of the middle-class Jian family, who live in Taiwan's urban capitol, Taipei. In the absence of his wife, who has retreated to a Buddhist monastery to cope with a midlife crisis, NJ (celebrated screenwriter Wu Nien-Jen), the patriarch of the family, worries about his struggling business and a high-risk deal with a Japanese videogame company that could mean riches or ruin. He begins to question the entire trajectory of his life when, by chance, he runs into his first love and is faced with the opportunity to reignite his romance with her. NJ's teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee in her only screen credit), tries to navigate her attraction to her best friend's boyfriend, unsure how to balance her longing with her sense of loyalty. Her confusion is compounded by insomnia brought on by guilt that her negligence may have led to an accident that has left her grandmother in a coma. Meanwhile, Ting-Ting's precocious 8-year-old brother, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang, God Man Dog), whose playful creativity is squelched by his school teachers, experiences the first stirrings of attraction to the opposite sex.
In Yi Yi, Edward Yang uses elliptical, interconnected storylines in a multi-generational tale to construct a rich tapestry of themes and meaning. We only receive oblique references to NJ's teenage tryst with his first love, but we're able to infer the emotional landscape of the relationship through Ting-Ting's passion for her best friend's boyfriend and her subsequent rendezvous with him in a Taipei hotel room. NJ's directness, honesty, and decency, which do not always serve him well in business, are reflected in the playful innocence of Yang-Yang, whose antics are often misunderstood and nearly always unappreciated by the teachers at his elementary school (in one scene, the kid is taken to task and publicly humiliated by his homeroom teacher for bringing a condom to school, though he earnestly believes it is a latex balloon). In terms of narrative and structure, Yi Yi isn't particularly groundbreaking, but Yang delivers his story with a surplus of artistic elan. Despite subplots about adolescent love, potential marital infidelity, and comatose grandmas, Yang resolutely favors understated, closely observed drama over melodrama. And the director's loving imagery of Taipei makes a character of the city.
Yang's casting of Yi Yi is impeccable. Wu Nien-Jen, a major business and artistic force in the New Taiwanese film movement, brings and unusual dignity and stillness to NJ. Wu's own integrity as a businessman translates well into NJ's desire to act honorably in his dealings with a brilliant Japanese videogame programmer with whom he finds that he has much in common, regardless of the lazy and predatory impulses of his business partners. Wu also plays NJ's desire for his first love with a quiet restraint that draws attention to the screenplay's focus on the woman as a symbol of the path not taken by NJ. She is his version of a midlife crisis, and his final decision about their affair has less to do with an erotic impulse than a choice about the sort of man he wishes to be. That NJ's travails in business and love merge in powerfully thematic ways by the end of the movie is a tribute to how successfully Yang builds narrative artifice out of subplots that have a naturalistic texture. Yi Yi is the sort of tightly structured story that is able to imitate randomness and serendipity only because its maker allows it to sprawl across nearly three hours of running time. Sitting down with the disc, I wasn't quite sure if I was in the mood for a foreign family drama of such bladder-taxing length, but Yi Yi is surprisingly crisp and focused given the way it avoids histrionics and melodramatic turns of plot.
While Wu was a known quantity in Taiwanese film, Kelly Lee and Jonathan Chang, the actors whom Yang tapped to play NJ's children, were unknowns. Though NJ is the movie's central character, in many ways the film was destined to live or die based on the performances of its youngest actors. They acquit themselves well, largely because of Yang's careful guidance. Lee and Chang move through their respective plotlines with such understated naturalism that one never thinks of them as actors playing roles. Yang's long takes seem to provide the time necessary for Chang to forget the presence of the camera. In scene after scene, he simply behaves like a child, unselfconsciously and with a maximum of guileless charm. In one segment, after watching a girl on whom he is developing a crush swim the freestyle in his school's pool with an easy, practiced stroke, he strips to his underwear in the family bathroom, stands on the toilet, and times how long he can hold his breath by plunging his face into a sink full of water. He does this again and again as another family member pounds on the door, demanding that he finish up so she can use the restroom. Kelly Lee, meanwhile, delivers a dynamic performance in a role demanding much range and subtlety. Required to express a slowly dawning awareness of her own sexuality, intense guilty, mental exhaustion, and basic adolescent awkwardness, Lee pulls it off without a single false note -- no doubt thanks in large part to Yang's careful direction, which was focused on creating an atmosphere in which his actors could be their characters.
This Blu-ray release is a straight-up high definition upgrade of Criterion's fine DVD release of the movie in 2006. The presentation is 1080p in the MPEG-4 AVC codec at the movie's original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The image is quite solid. Detail isn't consistently crisp and vivid, but during brightly lighted scenes, as when the Jian family matriarch is taken to a Taipei emergency room near the beginning of the film, depth and clarity are impressive. Colors are accurate and consistent throughout. Any minor limitations in the image appear rooted in the source, not the transfer. The film looks beautiful.
The movie's original stereo audio track has been slightly expanded into a bright and clean Dolby stereo surround track. It delivers clear dialogue and full-bodied music.
Extras are thin, but sufficient considering Yi Yi is a movie that is best experienced rather than analyzed to death. There's a fine feature-length audio commentary in which Asian film scholar Tony Rayns essentially interviews Edward Yang about the film. Given Yi Yi's nearly three-hour running time, the duo is able to cover a lot of substantive and interesting ground. Raynes also provides a 15-minute video interview in which he delves into the New Taiwanese film movement, and Yang's role in it.
In addition to the onboard extras, Criterion provides a 22-page insert booklet with detailed technical notes, a fine essay by film scholar Ken Jones, and a reprint of press notes written by Edward Yang for the movie's U.S. release.
Criterion's DVD version of Yi Yi was released prior to Yang's death. Unfortunately, other than a special dedication in the insert booklet's credits, the Blu-ray has not been updated to acknowledge the director's passing.
Yi Yi is one of the finest films by one of Taiwan's finest directors. Criterion's Blu-ray offers nothing new in the way of extras, but a noticeable upgrade in both image and sound. Fans of the Yang shouldn't hesitate to indulge in a double-dip.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 173 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated