05th Mar2018

‘Yi Yi’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion Collection)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Nien-Jen Wu, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Su-Yun Ko, Adrian Lin | Written and Directed by Edward Yang


Taiwanese writer-director Edward Yang’s final film starts with an ironically schmaltzy piano score playing over a scene of a slightly dismal wedding. It immediately sets the arch, bittersweet tone of the film to come.

A couple of hours into this intimate three-hour picture you might think you’re becoming used to Yang’s beautifully precise compositions and bold use of colour, but then he’ll pull something new and evocative out of the hat – a desperate midnight telephone call shot entirely in silhouette, for example – and you’ll remember you’re watching the twilight work of a master.

For all its stillness and its characters’ lack of impetus, it’s a fast-moving film. Its dry humour might lack punchlines, but the scenes themselves are punchy. It’s a family drama employing a very loose narrative, which gradually coalesces into a convincing and detailed texture of overlapping lives. It isn’t one for those demanding high concept storylines.

NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) is the apathetic head of the Jiang household. A psychologically passive man who let go of the chance of being with his childhood sweetheart, NJ is a middle-aged emotional drifter. His company is struggling. He goes to meet Mr Ota (Issei Ogata), a Japanese businessman, in the hope of a partnership. It’s a revelatory moment as the trip puts NJ back in touch with his old flame, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). However, this is not a film of heart-warming Hollywood justice and life-affirming moments. Back home, NJ’s despondent wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), is on the cusp of packing in family life altogether.

Their daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), is a lonely teenager who spends most of her time watching her best friend Lili (Adrian Lin) enjoying herself with boys, while getting little such attention herself. Ting-Ting gives her comatose grandma an impossible ultimatum: Wake up if you forgive me. But forgiveness for what? It doesn’t matter. It’s just a form of self-harm.

Then there’s the youngest, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). He’s an oddball kid who’s being bullied by the girls at school. Anxious and lovesick, it looks like he could be following the melancholy path of his elders.

“Why are we afraid of the first time?” Mr Ota asks. “We never lead the same day twice.” It’s this very unpredictability that imprisons the Jiangs. They are essentially good people taken advantage of by others. Too fearful to make assertive decisions and too decent to risk harm, they suffer a hereditary lack of confidence. The film’s title has been whimsically translated as “A One and a Two”, although it literally means “one, one” – or better still, “one after another”.

Yi Yi is a film about the disconnect between people. Our unknowability. Little Yang-Yang points out that we cannot see what another person sees, so how can we really know anyone? He photographs the backs of people’s heads. This seems mildly tragic at first – until we realise that he does it so he can give the pictures as gifts so people can know themselves a bit better. Likewise, Yang has his own unique way of capturing his characters, often shooting through windows, from distance or via mirrors. It’s as if the camera itself is shy, embedding our gaze with a sense of guilty voyeurism.

It could be argued that some of the dramatic angst is contrived. Everyone seems to be in the midst of an existential crisis, and amongst these smart, educated people there are few signs of absurdist or self-deprecating humour – humour of any kind, in fact – outside of Mr Ota. Perhaps it’s a cultural self-reflection that’s lost on me.

Opening with a wedding and closing with a funeral, it’s a glass half empty kind of movie – we’re left in no doubt that there is no grand cosmic balancing at work – but it is not without hope. The final scene implies a break in the Jiang curse: a new openness, a new compassion.

Yi Yi is long but engrossing, and eminently rewatchable. Don’t let the critics’ “best of” accolades put you off – this is a genuinely warm, accessible and moving film.

Extras are limited to a commentary from Yang and film critic Tony Rayns; a video interview with Rayns, discussing the New Taiwan Cinema movement and Yang’s place within it; and the trailer.

Yi Yi is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, March 5th.


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