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With: Wu Nienjen, Issei Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Chen Xisheng, Ke Suyun
Written by: Edward Yang
Directed by: Edward Yang
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 173
Date: 14/05/2000

Yi Yi (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Jazzy Tunes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great film directors generally rank in one of two categories. We have the extreme structuralists, the control freaks like Stanley Kubrick, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Max Ophuls. On the other hand we have the artists who make it look easy, the effortless flow of storytelling, like Howard Hawks, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Renoir. Most directors don't ever get good enough to rank in either of these categories. Edward Yang belongs in both.

Yi Yi is the 53 year-old Yang's seventh feature film and, as far as I can tell, only the first to be distributed theatrically in the United States. The title literally translates to "one one," though Yang (who lived and studied in the U.S. for several years) intended it to be like a count-off to a snappy jazz song, "a one and a two..." And indeed, the movie plays like a song.

Yi Yi follows, over the course of three hours, a few months in the lives of a Taipei family, beginning at a wedding and ending at a funeral. As in The Godfather (1972), the wedding opening allows us to meet all the characters in the movie without seeming too obvious. The father, NJ (played by Wu Nienjen, screenwriter of Hou Hsiao-hsien's brilliant The Puppetmaster), is a partner in a computer company whose current profits are not as substantial as last year's. His daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) begins to discover boys while her younger brother Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) begins to discover the secrets of the world. Their grandmother (NJ's mother-in-law) falls into a coma and moves into a bed in their home. Each family member takes turns talking to her, but everyone, especially NJ's wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), discovers that they really have nothing to say. As a result, the distraught mother goes away to meditate at a mountain temple.

I suppose I could fill a whole page describing the intricate events of the plot, all of which seem like ordinary everyday events. But each of them falls slightly out of the ordinary. One character almost dies on the floor of his bathroom, and another character turns out to be a murderer. Min-Min's mountaintop guru comes for a visit and seems frighteningly like a cult leader. At the wedding, NJ runs into an old flame, Sherry (who lives in America as Yang did), played by Ke Suyun, and meets up with her in Japan while on a business trip. They reminisce and nurse their old feelings for each other, coming dangerously close to an extra-marital affair.

But the most interesting character is little Yang-Yang, who seems to be a fictional version of director Yang. Yang-Yang becomes aware that, as human beings, we can only be conscious of half the truth at any given time because we can't see what's behind us. So, with his new camera, he photographs the backs of people's heads so that they can know what they look like from behind. Another great character is Ota (Issei Ogata), the Japanese videogame maker whom NJ meets to do business with. Ota (who speaks in English with NJ) seems to have found the key to life, as he beautifully plays piano in a bar and shows NJ card tricks. NJ is profoundly struck by Ota, but his partners go ahead and sign a cheap knockoff video game company in his absence.

Yang spins all these story threads with perfect clarity and timing. We're never confused or bored, and the film lasts exactly as long as it should. But Yang's divine control and precision of his material is almost imperceptible. It unfolds so lucidly that we might not notice Yang's peering at characters through windows at their most stressful and intimate moments. The camera also sits in hallways and in open doors, catching moments between characters almost accidentally. Characters walk in and out of frame and shots are allowed to linger for several minutes. This slightly forbidden, peeping-tom approach actually heightens our interest in these characters, who are without a doubt already interesting on their own.

Which brings us back to the title and the idea of the jazz riff. A master jazz musician's job is to make the music sound like it's being made up on the spot. But each song has an underlying structure as rigid as classical or pop music. That this structure is imperceptible makes the music work. Yi Yi works in the same way. This film is, without a doubt, a masterpiece that has restored my faith in movies.

DVD Details: Fox Lorber's 2001 DVD edition, with an English-language Edward Yang commentary track, is considered by DVD experts to be one of the biggest blunders in the format's history. In 2006, The Criterion Collection re-issued it with a much improved transfer and new extras and a new commentary track, though I did not personally review this new edition. Now that Yang has passed on, collectors may want both versions. Criterion's superb 2011 Blu-Ray edition comes with most of the same extras.

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