2000, NR, 173 min. Directed by Edward Yang. Starring Ke Suyun, Jonathan Chang, Kelly Lee, Issey Ogata, Elaine Jin, Wu Nienjen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 6, 2001
An eight-year-old boy in Yi Yi, a Taiwanese movie about three generations of a contemporary family in Taipei, is concerned about the reality of what he can't see. So his father buys him a camera and he begins taking shots of mosquitoes and the napes of people's necks and handing the photographs to the subjects so they can see what they otherwise might not. It's the central metaphor of Yi Yi, a novelistic (it's nearly three hours long) portrait of the members of one family and their extended relations. The Jians are a comfortable middle-class family, presumably like many others, whose members can be categorized neither as happy nor unhappy. They are haunted by choices not made, things they cannot see or name, and doubt about their purpose on earth. Yet these feelings take the form of vaguely nagging sensations rather than outright disgruntlement. Translated into English the words “yi yi” mean “one one” or “individually,” although the English title of the movie is A One and a Two and a …, which more closely approximates the symphonic sense of the movie, in which a bandleader ticks off the count for all the individual instruments to begin playing in unison. The central focus of the story is NJ Jian (Wu), who, in a chance meeting in an elevator during his brother-in-law's wedding reception, runs into his first love, whom he might have married 30 years ago, but didn't. (In a parallel manner, the wedding party is interrupted by a drunken fit thrown by the groom's ex-love, who wails that she should have been the bride instead of the obviously pregnant one at the altar.) Later that evening, NJ's mother-in-law falls down in the driveway and lapses into a coma, for which NJ's daughter Ting-Ting (Lee) feels responsible. The movie also parallels the daughter's teenage love troubles with the father's conflict over what to do about his old flame, who is now married and living in Chicago. NJ also suffers from vague discontent with his work: He is a partner in a computer hardware firm that may go bankrupt, although he finds the time he spends with his urbane Japanese counterpart quite appealing. NJ's wife Min-Min (Jin) has something of an emotional breakdown after her comatose mother comes to stay with them. The doctor instructs the family members to talk to the comatose woman on the chance that she might hear and respond, but the endeavor causes Min-Min to flip out because it makes her realize how little she has to say and so she heads off to a religious retreat. There's also little Yang-Yang (Chang), the boy with the camera, who gets into trouble at school and loves McDonald's; the curious new neighbors; the brother-in-law's financial and emotional ruin; and several other subplots and intrigues. Possibly, Yi Yi is stuffed with too much detail and an overabundance of narrative strands. But fans of this kind of novel-like storytelling will find the movie a real treat. Yi Yi has been a big hit among critics, winning the Best Director award for Yang at the Cannes Film Festival, the Best Picture award from the National Society of Film Critics, and Best Foreign Film kudos from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. However, for some viewers the film's unique accomplishments may also be its downfall. Capturing the nuances of quotidian life may not be everyone's cup of tea. Not all will agree that people should spend more time gazing at the napes of their own necks. But in the context of this picture, one look is worth at least a thousand words.