Why do people go to the movies these days? For entertainment and escape. To feel or remember what they've forgotten. To experience vicariously the lives and places of others. In this post-postmodern world of fast food, faster computers and fast education, audiences want it all and they want it now. Few people even sit through credits at the end of a movie. Edward Yang's glorious Yi Yi, at three hours, requires patience. But its rewards are tremendous.
Virtually unknown in the U.S., Yang has been exploring urban Taiwanese strain and doubt for two decades. In dramas ("Taipei Story," 1985) and comedies ("Confucian Confusion," 1995), he's portrayed the Taiwanese as a people without time for reflection. Society is rapidly commodifying everything, including its traditions.
Yet little of Yang's skepticism of commercialism as crass and destabilizing appears in Yi Yi. Here the world economy is matter-of-factly evidenced by references to and images of Western culture (McDonald's, Yahoo, New York Bagels). Meanwhile, the film suggests that people are considering their past and future in the aftermath of the late 1990s meltdown that abruptly halted economic growth.
Translated from Chinese, "Yi Yi" means "one, one," referring to individuality. The English title is "A One and a Two," as in counting off the timing of a song or numbering the individual stories in the film. Rather than focusing on one character through the many stages of life, Yang chooses one family whose members are each at moments of crisis and decision.
The story revolves around the family of 40-something NJ (Wu Nienjen), his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), her mother (Tang Ruyun), their teen-age daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and precocious young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who, bearing the filmmaker's surname, serves as the movie's reflective conscience. Yang-Yang takes photos of people from behind. He explains, "You can't see it yourself, so I help you." He shows people the other half of truth, and Yang-Yang's endeavor provides viewers with a way to understand the film -- living in the present, looking to the future, but remembering the past.
"Yi Yi" begins with a pregnant bride and ends with a funeral. In between, the film mines the everyday realities that provide both satisfaction and a longing for something else. NJ lives with regret and gets a second chance at life; Min-Min takes a hard look at herself; Ting-Ting experiences first love and heartbreak; and Yang-Yang finds his calling. In contrast to Hollywood fare, the deliberate pacing allows viewers to inhabit the characters' stories for a short while.
Yang's territory is the educated and relatively affluent professional-managerial stratum, evident here in NJ's computer-company partners and his "first love," Sherry (Ke Suyan). When NJ's company is about to go under, they seek out a Japanese game-maker, Ota (Issey Ogata), to save them. Ota serves as NJ's soul brother and guardian angel. He asks,"Why are we afraid of the first time? Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new. We never live the same day twice." He's amazed at the paradox.
Winner of the 2000 Director's Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and named 2000's best film by the National Society of Film Critics, Yi Yi lingers over small gestures and long still shots, often through windows. Voices speak even as actors remain off-camera. Point of view shifts from one character to another, intersecting predicaments and allowing us to choose with whom we identify.
To say that nothing really happens in "Yi Yi" is to miss the point that everything happens. In one scene Ting-Ting's boyfriend says, "Movies give us twice what we get from daily life." You'll be touched and doubly rewarded by this remarkable one.