Edward Yang | 2hr 53min
While three generations of the Jian family live in a comfortable home in Taipei, each dealing with personal issues that vary in relative significance, Edward Yang never condescends to any of them so much that they are made to appear less serious than others. They are bound by all the big events that any middle-class Taiwanese family goes through – weddings, christenings, funerals – but while these occasions lay the foundation of Yang’s formal structure, much of Yi Yi is spent chasing the stories that lie between them, separating husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters into their own lonely worlds. Whether these characters are wandering a pier on a business trip or gazing out windows through reflections of city lights, we remain fully engrossed in those long, static takes that let them move at their own pace, contemplating decisions that could mean the difference between life and death, or maybe just love and loneliness.
It is more in the scope of Yi Yi than its scale that Yang builds it out into a stirring domestic epic, drawing on the dominant influence of Yasujiro Ozu in both his thematic focus on familial relations and his painstakingly detailed mise-en-scène, shooting through doorways and windows to create the sort of framed compositions so reminiscent of the Japanese auteur. When the elderly matriarch of the family falls into a coma early on, a mournful gloom settles over the entire household, but it seems to be the women who are most affected. Her grown daughter, Min-Min, begins to wrestle with her faith, leaving for a Buddhist retreat to heal alone.
Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Ting-Ting, bears the weight of her heavy conscience – she was the one who was meant to take out the trash that her grandmother ultimately took care of when she unexpectedly collapsed. The side angle with which Yang shoots the entry into her bedroom where she lies unconscious drastically narrows the opening to a mere sliver, so that whenever Ting-Ting or any other character goes to visit their ailing loved one, they are visually squeezed out of the composition by the masses of negative space that lie on either side. There are many frames to be found in Yi Yi that purposefully isolate characters within their stifling environments, but few so suffocatingly oppressive as this.
This isn’t to say that Min Min’s husband, NJ, or their son, Yang-Yang, aren’t grieving in their own way though. Unlike his sister, the young boy does not find comfort in speaking to his comatose grandmother, and instead turns to a camera he has received as gift. In it lies the potential to capture a range of perspectives beyond his own, which becomes a source of intrigue for him. In a delightfully amusing conversation between him and his father, he enigmatically asks “Can we only know half the truth?” When prodded further, he explains.
“I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half the truth, right?”
The photos he later snaps of the back of people’s heads are justified by a similar line of reasoning. It is a point of view that everyone else in the world can have of us, except ourselves, and expanding the boundaries of our horizon in such a way is a mission that is quite unique to visual arts, whether through photography or, in the case of Yang, cinema. When the communication barrier is finally broken between grandson and grandmother, he confesses his own belief in her wisdom, which inspired him to chase this ability he has so passionately sought after.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you. I think all the stuff I could tell you… you must already know.”
Like the rest of his family, NJ also feels a crushing loneliness that seeps beyond his home life and into his professional work. His chance reunion with his first love, Sherry, leads to another meeting further down the line. As she follows him on a business trip to Tokyo, Yang’s camera drifts down the busy streets where city lights and office buildings glow an unnatural green colour, distinguished from the deep reds and soft pinks associated with the scenes in Taipei. What the two cities do have in common is Yang’s ever-present use of city lights bouncing off windows, whether we are looking in at corporate desks obscured by the reflections of car headlights, or gazing out at busy urban streets that clash with the mirrored glare of bright offices. Behind these harsh illuminations, members of the Jian family look like ghosts, only semi-present in images that blend interior and exterior worlds together in impressionistic renderings of an alienated modern world.
In scenes that see past betrayals and romances between NJ and Sherry brought to the surface in private, Yang cleverly intercuts the film with the blossoming romance of Ting-Ting and Fatty, the boyfriend of her neighbour, Lili. Between both couples we compare imperfect, incomplete affairs, both unable to fully commit to the socially transgressive nature of their relationships. Sherry’s suggestion that she leaves her American husband for NJ is less of a seduction and more a desperate deliberation, contemplating a life that might be better than the one she has, while Ting-Ting can’t quite shake off the guilt of knowing the heartache she will cause down the line should she submit to her impulsive feelings. Perhaps this is for the best though. Later in the film, we will discover a devastating culmination of twisted affairs that lie just outside Ting-Ting’s immediate view, and which she may have been embroiled in had she followed through on her attraction to Fatty. As it is, the segments that Yang keeps his main characters enclosed within are isolating but protective, holding them back from fully understanding the parallel trials of their neighbours and family members.
Despite the cold remoteness that draws dividing lines between characters and narrative threads, there is a warmth in Yang’s mise-en-scène drawn deeply through his production design in rich shades of red and pink. It emerges most prominently in the opening scene at the wedding of A-Di, Min-Min’s brother, where the family congregates in a function room draped in cherry curtains and lined with clusters of pink balloons. These colours continue to weave through the patterned carpets, tablecloths, and walls, where distinctly East Asian stylings ground these characters within specific cultural traditions and at a pivotal point in time before their experiences begin to branch out. Even when that separation does take place though, Yang’s distinguished red hues never fade, carrying through in the beautifully curated décor of the Jian family’s apartment building, bedrooms, and even in A-Di’s own home.
Because even while these characters never quite come to fully grasp each other’s struggles, Yang does not see reason why this should keep them from holding back their desires and expressions of meaningful love. In a single, transcendent moment that breaks from reality and disappears into Ting-Ting’s fantasy, her grandmother awakens from her coma, and a scene of cathartic forgiveness takes place that releases the young woman from her guilt. Within one of Yang’s tightly framed compositions that forces his characters into the space of a single doorway, we which a family reunion unfold, though where this shot had previously served to segregate individuals, it now connects them under the mournful shadow of their grandmother’s death. Within the sound design, conversations and stories overlap in an Altmanesque manner, bridging the gaps in this tiny community.
Yi Yi never quite settles on either side of that taut line dividing loneliness and company that it is drawn along though. Even in the final minutes as the Jian family grieves their loved one at her funeral, Yang ones again frames them as separate units, with the open windows visually splitting them up. On a broader level though, this oscillation is simply part of life’s cycles, just as much as the births, marriages, and deaths that the children, adolescents, and adults of Taiwan each experience through different lenses. Yang playfully suggests that the ability to adopt the perspectives of others is only limited to the youngest and oldest of this clan, but it is also evident in the very structure of Yi Yi’s multi-linear narrative threads that such tender open-mindedness is inherent within the film itself.
Yi Yi is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.