Calling Yi Yi a masterpiece and the late Edward Yang one of the greatest Taiwanese directors is fair, but deserves some context — after all, outside of Ang Lee, most Taiwanese film directors are best known to film festival patrons. But Yang’s films stand apart from his peers for his global sensibilities. Perhaps this should come as no surprise — he studied electrical engineering in the U.S. and has claimed that Werner Herzog and Michelangelo Antonioni are two of his biggest influences. Alongside Hou Hsiao-Hsien (City of Sadness) and second generation new-waver Tsai Ming-Liang (What Time is it There?), Yang’s works have been revered in international film festivals (Yi Yi won the best director prize at Cannes). However Yi Yi is still the only one of his pictures available stateside. My review of Criterion’s Blu-ray of Yi Yi follows after the jump.
Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Yi Yi charts a year in the life of the Jian family. The central force is father NJ (Niazhen Wu, also a member of the Taiwanese new wave), whose company is going through some tough times and has contacted a Japanese interest to drum up their business. His brother A-Di (Xisheng Chen) is the one who marries, and his wife is well into her pregnancy. A-Di was waiting to marry under a lucky sign, and he’s focused on luck because he’s had a bad run of it, while he’s also stalked by a crazy ex girlfriend. Luck isn’t coming though — on his wedding day their mother (Ruyun Tang) is hit by a car and left in a coma.
The family is told to talk to her as often as they can, but it proves too traumatic for most of them, especially for NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee). She feels responsible for her grandmother’s coma — she was hit while taking out some garbage Ting-Ting left behind. Ting-Ting also is experiencing her first love through a next door neighbor’s sometime-boyfriend. And her love story parallels her father’s journey to Japan, where he travels for business but is given the opportunity to reconnect with a lost love, Sherry (Suyun Ke), whom he left under mysterious circumstances. And then there’s NJ’s eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who is picked on mercilessly by girls and feels that people can see only half the world because they can only look forward — to help everyone around him, he takes pictures of the backs of their heads.
Yi Yi was translated as A One and a Two for its U.S. theatrical release, but the title also translates as “one-one,” which in Chinese means “individuality.” Both variations on the title provide insights into the story, but — as the English translation suggests — there’s something jazzy about it as well, something that makes it an intimate epic of humanity (it’s mostly epic in length, nearly three hours but quickly paced). Yang’s work seems more in line with Jean Renoir’s breezy, almost casual perfection when compared his contemporaries (like Hao Hsiao-Hsien), who exhibit more of a Japanese/Yasujiro Ozu-based formalist influence. His wonderful sense of composition is prominent, and the cinematography is lush.
But a picture like this would be nothing without a great ensemble, and the cast is wonderful. The real show of Yang’s gift is the performance he gets out of Jonathan Chang as the eight-year-old Yang-Yang. Working with child actors can be tricky business, but here Chang manages to be endearing without becoming sickly sweet or clichéd. The secret to making a movie like this is avoiding stagnation, becoming too mired in the doldrums of day-to-day experiences — in Yi Yi, the familial unit is used to explore how romantic relationships affect people by having the characters wrestle with similar emotions but at different times in their lives (as NJ reconnects with his first love, Ting-Ting goes out on a date with hers). Great films succeed in expressing something profound about the human condition, and Yi Yi is one of these — a singular, indelible experience.
The Criterion Collection presents the definitive home video release of Yi Yi on Blu-ray. Criterion restored and remastered the title for Standard Def, and the new 1080p transfer is even better. It’s presented in widescreen (1.85:1) with Mandarin Dolby 2.0 Surround and optional English subtitles (though some sequences feature English). Extras include a commentary by director Yang and film historian Tony Rayns, which proves to be insightful and engaging and a slightly sad last document of the director. For those curious about the history of Taiwanese cinema and Yang’s career, the disc also comes with an interview with Rayns called “Everyday Realities: Tony Rayns on New Taiwan Cinema and Edward Yang” (15 min.). Also included is the film’s U.S. theatrical trailer.