Yi Yi (2000)


Director:  Edward Yang
Cast:  Wu Nien-Jen, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata
Plot:  Each member of a family in Taipei asks hard questions about life's meaning as they live through everyday quandaries.

Genre:  Drama 

Awards:  Won Best Director and nominated for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  173min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.


The passing of a great filmmaker is always greeted with sadness.  Edward Yang was no exception.  One of the most influential of Taiwanese filmmakers, Yang belonged to a class of film directors whose films resonated strongly with the society he lived in.  

He made a number of pictures during the 1990s, but his most lasting legacy was Yi Yi, a film released at the turn of the century (or millennium if you will), which through the perspective of a single, but extended, middle-class Taiwanese family, provided viewers with an honest and insightful reflection of living in a modern, technological age.

Structured around three very important cultural ceremonies, namely the wedding, the baby shower, and the funeral, the film brings as many characters as possible to the fore, and then breaks them up into smaller 'units' for an in-depth study of their lives.  This congregation and dissection of characters is the reason Yang’s film is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to see a slice of themselves on screen, portrayed to a very realistic effect.

Expertly developed, the elaborative narrative may seem deceptively complex but it is really just a series of simple observations of daily occurrences spliced together on film.  Shot with honest objectivity, Yang’s film sometimes also spotlights on the subjective emotions of certain characters, most notably that of Yang Yang (a somewhat reserved boy with a camera), his school-going sister (who discovers the fleeting emotion of love for the first time), and their morally-guided father (a mid-level boss of a corporation who meets an old flame).

Of course, in a film like Yi Yi, which spans nearly three hours, these characters are multi-dimensionally developed.  So much occur in their lives that their ups and downs captured in Yang’s film are merely a 'cross-sectional' view of their current circumstance.  

Apart from the above-mentioned cultural ceremonies, another common point that ties all the three main characters together is the grandmother, who suffers a nasty fall and enters into a coma.  Interestingly, the unresponsive grandmother becomes sort of a 'human mechanism' for catharsis, especially for the father and the daughter.

Yang Yang, on the other hand, refuses to talk to his grandmother.  He reasons that she is old and would probably know everything he would say, so why bother telling her things that she already understands.  His relationship, or the seemingly lack of one, with her would become immensely meaningful towards the end of the film, cumulating in Yi Yi’s most touching and thought-provoking moment – the recitation of a piece of self-written text by Yang Yang to his dead grandmother during her funeral.

In quite a number of scenes, director Yang employs long shots to keep viewers a certain distance away from the characters.  Although we could hear the (slightly fainter) dialogue, we are unable to observe the subtle facial reactions that would help us to register the feelings of these characters.  In other instances, Yang uses mediated images, like that of a security camera, to capture the movements of the characters, highlighting the increase in surveillance in today’s society.

Yang also makes use of glass panels (of windows, doors, and walls) to create a 'double-screen' effect.  These glass panels give an added screen to the lens of the camera, further separating the viewer from the actors, forcing upon us the role of a 'contemplative observer' as opposed to being a 'willing participant' in the lives of these characters.  The dual reflection of objects within and outside these glass panels sometimes produce naturally superimposed images; this is most beautiful during scenes shot in the night.

I feel that Yi Yi’s most important message comes from Yang Yang’s camera, which is given to him by his father.  He takes pictures of the back of people’s heads, reasoning that these are images that people could never see, and explaining that a person’s view of the world is always halved (i.e. never complete) because of this.  This change in social perspective from an innocent boy after receiving the camera parallels that of the director’s use of the film medium to reveal that life is often treated with so much subjectivity that an objective worldview is sometimes difficult for us to fathom.  

In three hours, Yang conveys that message very convincingly.  But three hours is never enough for something that often takes us a lifetime to recognize.  There is a word for it – it’s called wisdom.


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daniel said…
Excellent review! The final speech by Yang Yang broke my heart and reduced me to tears. Such profundity from a director who is sadly no longer with us.
Eternality said…
Amazing film! If you are able to catch Edward Yang's A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, please do so without any hesitation. It's really, really hard to find.

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