Taiwan, Japan, 2000
Directed by Edward Yang
With Wu Nien-Ju (NJ), Elaine Jin (Min-Min), Kelly Lee (Ting-Ting), Jonathan Lee (Yang-Yang), Chen Hsi-Sheng (A-Di), Hsiao Shu-Shen (Xiao-Yan), Tang Ru-Yen (Grandma), Lin Meng-Chin “Adriene” (Lili), Ko Su-Yun (Sherry Chang-Breitner), Chang Yu-Pang (Fatty), Ogata Issei (Mr. Ota)
Titles as an exercise of calligraphy: one stroke is made, this is the character “yi”, a basic element of the Chinese language that could mean “one”; then just below comes another stroke, the same kind of line, the same character, so the film’s title seems to be “one, one”; but if the two characters are read as a group, from top to bottom as it should be in Chinese, they mean actually “two”. So one and one or two, given that one plus one is two? A visual repetition suggest a double meaning, but also an ambiguous, complex work.
Summed up in broad, rough terms, the story is rather straightforward and not so unwieldy: here is the chronicle of a little family from the upper-class in Taipei in the late 1990s, bookmarked by ceremonies marking key moments in a family’s life, a wedding and a funeral. The link between the two events is the group’s discreet matriarch, the grandma, who helps hosting the guests of the wedding banquet of her youngest child and only son, A-Di, but feels unwell and is brought back to her home, which is in fact the apartment where her eldest child and only daughter, Min-Min, lives with her own family, husband NJ, teenage daughter Ting-Ting, and 8-year old son Yang-Yang. Later the old woman collapsed and it turns out she suffered from a stroke; she would spend the rest of the film on her bed unconscious and sick, unable to recover, and eventually die, which leads to the final, poignant ceremony.
As she lies on her sickbed her relatives grapple with a host of challenges befitting their age, temperament, and situation. Min-Min, a quiet but insecure career woman, is unable to take care of her mother and would go away on a spiritual retreat, NJ, a jaded and dissatisfied manager, attempts to negotiate a contract that would save the company he co-founded, Ting-Ting, a reserved but sensible girl, finds out what a love affair really is, Yang-Yang, a natural-born prankster and blunderer, explores the world and try to give it a sense, and bumbling and buoyant A-Di strives to be a good husband for his wife Xiao-Yan, then a good father for their son, and a good businessman. The narrative manages to segue from one strand into another in a fluid manner; even if the details grow richer, the editing does not add up to a rambling, meandering film and actually keeps a remarkable degree of clarity, perhaps because the feelings of the characters are so strong and relatable, and perhaps because director Edward Yang takes his time to flush out those characters and situations, seeing it they are quietly developed and linked – running time is nearly three hours.
But it may be that his film is cleverly built around its peculiar title. It could be argued that all those stories are about one struggling to know what one is and wants, one trying to reach out to another one, one learning to be two, and then more. The wedding banquet lays down a motif: unexpectedly a dark-dressed and angry woman enters a hotel’s hall as others get the location ready for the big event; she rushes to meet the grandma and gives her hysterical apologies about her inability to marry A-Di; she is the one he loved before meeting Xiao-Yan and fathering a baby. The incident is echoed later in the evening: coming back from a McDonald’s outlet with his son, NJ runs into a woman he used to know; their talk is awkward and she leaves him to meet other persons in the hotel; but then she walks back briskly and asks him tough questions about a rendezvous he did not come to while she was yearning for him; it is the surprise appearance of NJ’s business partner, another guest of his brother-in-law’s wedding that puts an end to the unseemly quarrel and sheds some light on the incident: the lady is Sherry Chang-Breitner, the woman NJ used to love before marrying Min-Min, and now married to a successful American businessman.
Past love affairs come back to haunt the men; more broadly, the characters must face the question whether they have made the right choice in their personal life, and not only as far as love is concerned. How love can be kindled? Could it be rekindled? Could it last? What choices are possible to get happy, as death is lurking around, as much as despair and financial struggle?
The questions ignore differences and any gap between generations: the most emotional moments spring from the complex cross-cutting montage connecting the talks and the walking around the Japanese city where NJ and Sherry spend a day and the tentative moves of Ting-Ting and Fatty to become lovers. The business travel to Japan prodded NJ to try to bond again with a former lover even as his wife is away while his daughter is seduced by the young man who was the lover of Lili, the daughter of the businesswoman living next door to NJ’s family, but got dismissed, it seemed. The growing harmony between what the adults remember about their teenage years and what is going on at the same time down the West China Sea, the way NJ’s words seem actually to comment what is his daughter and her date are doing which is readily followed up by images of the young couple behaving like their elders even before the memories come to the surface, a troubling second-guessing of sort, are a stunning and riveting kind of repetition that examines the raw power of love and the strength of its rituals. It is even more moving as in both cases, the meetings lead nowhere but cause more pain: Sherry does not give a new chance to NJ while Fatty goes back to Lili; Sherry vanishes forever from NJ’s horizon life his wife looms again while Fatty commits a gory crime (killing an English teacher who slept with Lili after having slept with Lili’s mother).
That struggle to find common ground with another, to reach out to the other sex sweeps the narrative from the very first images, when Yang-Yang is ceaselessly teased by a bunch of girls before getting engrossed by the tough attitudes of a schoolmate, till the bloody coda of Ting-Ting’s affair, including the mishaps and antics of A-Di or the tragic romances of Lili’s mother. But even as they try to cope with others, individuals must face their own failures, failings, flaws. They must acknowledge that to be one is a challenge to hard to handle, their identity floundering under difficulties and uncertainties. One cannot find a proper place in the composition then: other poignant moments comes when the image dissolve the being, through a camera perfectly placed to capture the night and windows’ reflections, shadows and superimposition of the outside world – suspended and depressing moments engulfing Min-Min as she breaks down and then reckons to run away, or Sherry as she wonders in that Japanese city where her father originated what to do with an expectant NJ. The man they love, NJ, even when he is caught in the full swing of business life, is alone, aloof, away, cutting off the noise of the world by playing endlessly his Walkman – but he does not vanish; on the contrary he often stays front and center of the compositions as he is left grappling with the nettle.
It is not only sentiments that trouble NJ. Meeting Mr. Ota, a soft-spoken, slightly eccentric and rather meditative Japanese computer scientist whose creativity is supposed to breathe new life in NJ’s company, begins a long, unusual conversation driving NJ to reconsider his whole life. It goes beyond reassessing his memories and sentiments about Sherry: when his business partners choose not to sign any contract with Ota’s company, instead striking a deal with a dubious copycat Taiwanese business, NJ is so shocked that he stops showing up at his office. Sherry’s rejection of his offer to start all over again obviously bolsters the growing malaise the narrative has first suggested and then fully developed, that is that NJ has wasted his life. Yet he chooses, in the wake of his mother-in-law’s death, to stick with his family and his company: this leads to a remarkably low-key, tranquil talk with his wife, a calm yet emotional scene where he recognizes that it would be better to carry on with life, as reinventing it is elusive and illusory. One and one: there are two people in the shot and they must deal with the reality, both chosen and imposed; one has only one life and should handle it the best way to be still with others. The long examination of feelings and doubts, relationships and crises ends up on a deeply melancholy note, a resigned but courageous embrace of life as it is, in the shadow of death. An admirable sense of observation and restrained but sincere performances make the narrative and the analysis deeply compelling. Here is a film that delves deep in human conscience.
But this masterwork study of individual identities trying to get built and to open up has even more to say and to show than melancholy. It is expressed by that lead character who opens up the story and ends it, that other central character next to NJ, that lovely boy named Yang-Yang. The film arguably shares his view of the world even as the kid learns to cope with family rituals (the wedding) and tragedies (the difficulties to look after a dying grandparent), awakens to the mysteries of the fair sex, and above all tries to find a point of view and a tool to grasp better that odd, hectic world around him. The talk he has with his father about getting half the picture, or not, his embrace of photography, to help folks find what they look like from the back, his simple, poignant speech at his grandma’s funeral, including his promise to get the best pictures of life: these elements grow organically and increasingly make sense. Yang-Yang definitely looks like a surrogate of the director and inside the narrative points to the importance of examining people through all angles, to tell the most comprehensive and precise facts, and to view the world as freshly and simply as possible. Youth’s candid attitudes and focused behaviors stand for a celebration of cinema, emphasizing how useful and precious it is to reflect on the human experience – and that does make “Yi yi” even more great and wonderful to watch (but also even more sadder as the film was to be the last to be shot by Yang, who died a few year later, after releasing a short).