Yi Yi Movie Review
Nearly everything about Yi Yi is odd and wonderful. The movie revolves around a middle-class family in Taipei struggling with everyday life. The main character is an uptight businessman named NJ whose company faces bankruptcy. His wife is a delicate woman who breaks down when her mother suffers a stroke. The family's youngest member, a precocious 10-year-old boy, is preoccupied with photographing the backs of people's heads. And the boy's sister is a student musician who falls for the wrong guy.
What makes Yi Yi special are its small details and absurd plot twists. At his brother-in-law's wedding, NJ (played with understated brilliance by Wu Nienjen) runs into a former girlfriend, who yells at him for deserting their relationship 20 years earlier. NJ wants to reconcile with his beautiful ex, but she is married, and he is a family man. Guilt-ridden and stressed by work, NJ finds refuge in the music of Bob Dylan and other artists, listening to their songs on headphones while figuring out what to do next. After spending one night in a karaoke bar, he gets the courage to call his old flame (aided by alcohol and the advice of a wise Japanese game designer) and is soon flying to Tokyo to get his "second chance" at love.
Yi Yi, which opens with a wedding and ends with a death, isn't for everyone. For moviegoers who need Hollywood stars, car chases, shootings, and dramatic sexual posturing to stir their cinematic pulse, the movie will seem like a long, boring waste of time. Can you name another film that lingers forever on a cloudy sky and the sound of wind? And what other recent film outside the oeuvre of Jim Carrey has used urination as a transition device? Yi Yi is poetic and crude, literary and streetwise, serious and funny. It is an international hit in the best sense of the term, winning Yang the best director prize at Cannes and the top honor from the National Society of Film Critics in New York. (Yi Yi beat out Traffic for this recent U.S. award.) Music is a fundamental part of Yi Yi. For the English translation of the movie's title, Yang chose A One and a Two as a nod to the saying uttered by jazz musicians. "(It's) to signify that what's following the title is not something tense, or heavy or stressful," Yang told an interviewer. "Life should be like a jazzy tune."
If I had qualms with Yi Yi, it was with the film's first half-hour, when so many characters were introduced at such a dizzying pace, it was hard to keep track of developments and who was with whom. Schmaltzy opening music also detracted from the film, but in the big picture, these are just quibbles.
Yang, whose best-known previous work is A Brighter Summer Day, is 53 years old. With the critical success of Yi Yi, he has received more offers to make films in the United States. Perhaps he'll follow in the footsteps of Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Taiwan's most successful director, who has already made the transition from China to the West. Yang himself is no stranger to America. Born in Shanghai and raised in Taipei, he studied in Los Angeles at USC film school, dropping out after one semester to work as a computer and systems designer in Seattle. Yi Yi is full of references to U.S. culture. The film's mix of East and West and its urban setting are two more reasons Yi Yi may seem relatively familiar to new audiences in North America.
Wherever you live, the film is worth seeking out.
The new Criterion edition DVD includes commentary from Yang and a video interview with him.
Aka A One and a Two.
And a nap.