Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Nienzhen Wu, Elaine
Jin, Issey Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang
Director: Edward Yang
Audio: DTS HD Stereo Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 173 minutes
Release Date: May 15, 2011
"Music makes me believe life is beautiful."
Recently, the highly-respected British film magazine Sight and Sound published results of a poll listing the ten greatest films of the past quarter-century. Among the obvious films making the cut were such classics as Raging Bull, Fanny and Alexander, and Do the Right Thing. But also included was Yi Yi (A One and a Two...), an unassuming little family drama from Taiwan. The film's director, Edward Yang, may well be one of Asian cinema's best-kept secrets, as he is perhaps the finest Taiwanese filmmaker today, despite his relative anonymity in world cinema.
Yang's early career coincided with a renaissance in Taiwanese cinema in the 1970's (previously, the government had controlled the film industry for propaganda purposes). Yang was among a group of young filmmakers who sought to instill artistry and a sense of a personal voice into Taiwanese cinema. For the past several decades, Yang has endeavored to create remarkable films addressing the urbanization of Taiwan and the incorporation of traditional values into modern sensibilities. Many of these films have seen little distribution beyond Taiwan, but most were regional successes.
Yi Yi represents Yang's finest masterpiece. Ironically, it is better known internationally than domestically, where the film never received a true theatrical release. Set within the vista of the big city, Yi Yi celebrates the rituals of life and its hardships or gaieties through the multi-generational experiences of one Japanese family, the Jians.
Father NJ Jian (Nianzhen Wu) is a struggling small businessman. Once filled with private dreams and aspirations, he now has settled into the predictable monotony of a domesticated life. His daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is a young girl on the cusp of adolescence; as with all young teens, she is unsure of herself and her emotions. For guidance, Ting-Ting looks to others, such as her free-spirited teenaged neighbor, Lili (Adrian Lin), although such influences are not always in Ting-Ting's best interests. Her younger brother Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is a child just beginning to view the world in a different light. His newfound sense of wonder and exploration is highlighted by the still photographs he continually takes with his small, handheld camera. Mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is a career woman who like her husband NJ has reached an impasse in her life; caught in a mid-life crisis, she feels increasingly unfulfilled even if she cannot articulate the root of her dissatisfaction. In this sense, each member of the Jian family is searching for something, whether it is a higher purpose in life or merely the enjoyment of life's simple beauty in a snapshot or moment's experience.
Yi Yi opens with an elaborate wedding sequence for Min-Min's brother, A-Di (Xisheng Chen), and his pregnant girlfriend Xiao Yan. As is habitual within Asian societies, the wedding has been planned carefully to coincide with a "lucky" day. Despite such precautions, this day also represents the start of an auspicious string of family crises, beginning with a small scene by A-Di's jilted girlfriend Yun-Yun (Xinyi Zeng) before the evening's wedding party. Furthermore, the grandmother, the Jian family matriarch, soon falls ill, remaining comatose for the remainder of the film. Ting-Ting in particular develops a child's sense of overwhelming guilt over her grandmother's condition, that somehow she is responsible for her grandmother's present state. If Ting-Ting loves her grandmother enough, will such feelings bring her back? Such a flood of raw emotion, encompassing Ting-Ting's sense of unreciprocated love, is eventually projected outward in her own first romantic experience (and heartbreak).
The father, NJ, also develops his own romantic crisis. A former childhood flame, Sherry (Suyun Ke), turns up unexpectedly at the wedding. NJ learns that she now works regularly in Japan. Coincidentally, NJ must travel eventually to Japan to conduct business with a Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata), a remarkable businessman with a Zen-like philosophy on life. NJ's subsequent conversations with Mr. Ota open his eyes to the realization that unresolved issues in his past, such as his interrupted relationship with Sherry, will continue to haunt him until he confronts them.
Such parallel experiences among the family members reflect the sense of innocence lost and experienced ever so briefly again that is at the heart of Yi Yi. Even young Yang-Yang discovers one day, perhaps to his amazement, that the dreadful girl who teases him so incessantly at school is, in fact, a rather attractive girl.
Yi Yi offers a mixture of the traditional and the contemporary, reluctance and timidity with bold risk-taking and spontaneity. It is a family drama with equal moments of pathos and ironic humor, a celebration of the cycle of life. Just as a new commencement (a wedding) opens the film, so does a memorial close the film, yet Yi Yi's conclusion is not a bittersweet ending but rather the poignant commencement of merely a new cycle of experiences.
At nearly three hours in length, Yi Yi is epic without feeling so. It is an absorbing ensemble film that draws its audiences into the quaintly ironic world of an Asian nuclear family. Like Yang-Yang's still photographs, Yi Yi presents snapshots capturing the essence of everyday life, uncovering the sublime in the seemingly mundane. Yi Yi is a film about choices, some easy and some difficult. It is a film about what is and what might have been or what still can be. It is the epitome of the splice-of-life film, and among such films, save for Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, there are few finer examples in the past quarter-century.
This is one of the most beautiful transfers I've had the pleasure of experiencing for an Asian film. The print is quite clean and beautiful, and the high definition offering captures all the vivid detail and beautiful coloring with delightful perfection.
The DTS HD enhancement to the original 2 channel surround is a nice touch. I don't understand Mandarin, but the dialogue seemed well-presented. The sound is mostly driven by spoken words, but Criterion's offering comes through very cleanly and crisply.
Features ** ½
The main bonus feature is a director commentary by Edward Yang with counterpoint from film critic Tony Rayns (who also provided the translations for the film). Yang discusses the premise of the film and how he developed the storyline. He also points out the film's extraordinary color schemes, cultural idiosyncrasies within Taiwanese society, and the film's casting. Rayns describes various themes in the film, such as the parallel subplots or the narrative motif of seeing scenes unfold through windows. The men do take some time to lament the current, poor state of Taiwanese cinema, which of late has been supplanted at home by Hollywood product.
Everyday Realities (15 min.) is an interview with critic Tony Rayns about the development of Taiwanese cinema since its origins during the mid-1950's primarily as a form of government propaganda. By the mid-1970's, a new generation of contemporary young directors arose to steer Taiwanese cinema towards a more artistic direction with less government censorship and greater social merit. These directors embraced a new sense of realism in film, favoring extended takes, sync sound shooting, and a more autonomous director style. Rayns offers a diametric comparison between the French New Wave with this new wave of Taiwanese directors, including influential filmmakers Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang.
The disc also contains a trailer for Yi Yi.
A separate booklet offers notes from director Edward Yang and a new essay, "Time and Space" by Kent Jones. Yang reveals his interpretation of the film's title as a portrait of individuality in the dance of life. The Jones essay focuses on the film's visual themes and its importance to Taiwanese cinema.
Yi Yi is quite possibly the best Asian film of the past two decades. Subtle yet sublime, it is Edward Yang's finest film and receives my top recommendation!