Judge Brendan Babish thinks if you were moved by Adam Sandler's Click, you're going to love Yi Yi.
Our review of Yi Yi (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection, published March 9th, 2011, is also available.
"There's very little I'm sure about these days."
Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is Edward Yang's epic drama of family strife and self-reflection in modern Taiwan. Like most foreign films, Yi Yi never received a wide release in American cinemas. Despite this, the film was fervently championed by critics, and even won the National Society of Film Critics Award for best picture of 2000 (a rarity for a foreign language film). Six years later, Criterion is re-releasing Yi Yi on DVD, and provides their typical superior treatment to a film that has already become a modern classic.
Facts of the Case
Yi Yi follows three different generations of a well-off Taipei family. The film begins with the marriage of Ah-Di (Hse-Sheng Chen), an overweight and irresponsible young man, to Hsiao (Shu-shen Hsiao), an irascible young woman who has been knocked up. Stricken with grief over son's tacky choice for a wife, the family's matriarch suffers a stroke, and Min-Min (Elaine Jin), her middle-aged daughter, is so traumatized she seeks solace with a local religious cult. At the wedding reception, Min-Min's workaholic husband, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), bumps into Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), his childhood girlfriend, in a chance meeting. This encounter leads NJ to wonder how his life would have been different if he hadn't abandoned Sherry 30 years previously.
Meanwhile, the couple's shy teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), risks her friendship with Lin (Adriene Lin), by surreptitiously dating her troubled boyfriend. And then there is Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), Min-Min and NJ's 8-year old son. Yang-Yang, a curious and aloof boy, becomes obsessed with snapping pictures of the back of people's heads, so that he can then show them a part of themselves they would otherwise never see.
Like the films of Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Yi Yi is an amalgamation of several plots whirling around a common hub. In Yi Yi that hub is family. And overriding these disparate stories, in which each character re-evaluates his or her identity, is a portrait of a family that is fractured and unable to function as the support structure for which it is intended. But what makes Yi Yi so powerful is that it is a portrayal of a dysfunctional family that does not throw plates at each other or get into screaming matches across the dinner table. This is a family in which the breakdowns happen indeterminately, and largely without incident. It is also a family in which almost all viewers will recognize some similarity with their own.
One of the most telling signs of strife is the lack of interaction between family members. This inability to communicate is best exemplified by Min-Min's response to her mother's stroke. The nurses advise Min-Min to talk to her unconscious mother to keep her company. After only a few days, Min-Min breaks down sobbing in front of NJ and admits that she has absolutely nothing to say to her mother. But what really troubles her is not her mother's illness. Min-Min cries because she too will eventually be old and helpless and, like her mother, may find that her children are unable to relate to her. NJ is unable to comfort his grieving wife, and so she is driven to seek solace with a cult—an adopted family—instead of her own.
In the context of her mother's illness, Min-Min's concerns for her own future may seem selfish and uncaring, and maybe they are. But the film doesn't judge her, and most of the film's audience is unlikely to judge her as well. Min-Min's reaction is, perhaps sadly, a natural response to her mother's helplessness. These nuanced reactions to grief are a common part of the human condition, yet are rarely portrayed in cinema, and almost never shown as eloquently. And the ability to convey these dizzyingly complex human emotions in deceptively simple storylines is what makes Yi Yi a great film.
Soon after his wife leaves him, NJ meets up again with Sherry while in Japan on a business trip. Their renewed relationship (which remains chaste) is intercut expertly with Ting-Ting's first date with Fatty, a young man who until recently had been dating Ting-Ting's friend Lin. While NJ and Sherry reminisce about their young love, we see Ting-Ting and Fatty walking hand in hand through the streets of Taipei. The dichotomy, like the movie itself, is effortlessly moving and bittersweet, as one couple struggles to make peace with their painful sundering and another awkwardly embarks on a highly uncertain romance.
Even within these self-contained plots, there are storylines and characters that add color and depth to an already rich movie. There are sudden mergings of storylines, and several unanticipated plot twists. But Edward Yang has done such an incredible job crafting his characters, and his actors perform so exquisitely, that the action appears almost uncomfortably natural. By allowing natural pauses in dialogue, and allowing his character's motivations to be inferred and rarely stated, Yi Yi comes off as one of the least contrived movies I have ever seen.
Ultimately, this is a film that will force its audience to examine their own families. After witnessing the dysfunction and genuine love on display in Yi Yi, there are bound to be moments that remind you, perhaps uncomfortably, of your relationship with close relatives. And perhaps some of these revelations would have gone unnoticed if it were not for Yi Yi. It is a measure of the film's greatness that it not only entertains, but also allows us to better understand ourselves. This is a rare film, and one to be cherished.
Criterion has done a fairly good job with this DVD. Though Yi Yi is a subtle family drama, there were still moments when I was blown away by the clarity of the sound. In the outdoor scenes you'll think you were standing in downtown Taipei. The one quibble I have is that, for the $40 price tag, the extras are a bit light. There is a commentary track with Yang and Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns. This manages to be mildly disappointing because Rayns spends most of it pointing out many of the film's subtle charms and expounding on the movie's subtext. I think some viewers would rather discover this for themselves with multiple viewings. The DVD also contains a video interview with Rayns expounding on Edward Yang's work and the New Taiwan cinema movement. This is interesting, but only sporadically related to Yi Yi. Despite the dearth of substantive extras, fans of Yi Yi are not going to be too disappointed with Criterion's treatment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to offer one caveat to my recommendation: this is not a brisk movie. If Yang had produced this film in Hollywood he would have probably had to cut the running time by an hour. The drama is subtle and deliberate and there are dialogues in which pauses last for up to 45 seconds. For those who are drawn in by the film's intricate plots, these pauses are powerful; for those who are bored, those pauses are going to be maddening.
This is probably the best cinematic portrayal of a dysfunctional family since Ordinary People. But unlike Ordinary People, the family in Yi Yi does not suffer a meltdown. Instead, they exhibit the same passive, estranging behavior that is often unnoticed until someone develops a terminal illness. In addition to being a great movie, Yi Yi might cause you, like its characters, to re-evaluate their relationships.
These people have got enough issues. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary with writer-director Edward Yang and noted Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns
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