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Yi Yi: The Best Film You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

During the opening wedding reception, the yawning father (NJ) takes his son (Yang-Yang) for food he wants to eat.

How often do two people who have been watching a film look upon each other breathless and transfixed at the end? I had seen Yi Yi, Edward Yang’s 1999 film, but as is often true with any pleasure, I had to share the experience with someone and so a week after seeing it I played the DVD for a friend. For a second time I was crushed, weeping at many of the same scenes, yet finding different shadings in the various plots and subplots. It’s the story of birth and death in an extended family, but it is much more.

The film is set in Taipei, and its opening piano music set over a wedding reception makes one think it may be a Taiwanese Terms of Endearment. To some extent this is true, but people coming into this film won’t be overwhelmed by the star power of the American film, though a few of Yi Yi’s actors are famous in the East. If all the players are strangers and to some extent the culture (the island of Taiwan has a checkered history, being thrown back and forth between Chinese and Japanese rule), audience identification can be purer. If given, trust won’t be tainted by the accuracy of marketing to the right demographic. So who is Yi Yi aimed at? Yang’s film is directed to the humanists and to the people who have loved life and hated it—people who have tried to do their best and ever endeavor to know themselves better.

            The family is made up of NJ, father and businessman, Min-Min (his wife), their two children Ting-Ting (the teenage daughter), Yang-Yang (the tiny young boy with a cute face and curious outlook) and Min-Min’s mother. At the beginning of the film, Min-Min’s brother, a chubby fop who has money troubles, is getting married to his pregnant bride. During the reception, two women appear. One is the groom’s shrill former lover, who apologizes to his mother that she wasn’t the one to marry her son. The other is NJ’s first love, Sherry. They haven’t seen each other in over twenty-five years. Later that evening, Min-Min’s mother falls and goes into a coma. As NJ sees his family and his commitment to his video game company crumble (his wife goes on a retreat to help her with depression), he communicates with Sherry and they meet in Japan (in a nod to the great Yasujirō Ozu, the Japanese director, complete with a scene on a train and at a station) to see if there is anything left between them. At the same time, Ting-Ting is having the first romance of her life with an unstable young man who has just broken up with her girlfriend, a troubled next door neighbor. Soon Yang-Yang discovers girls and takes pictures of the back of people’s heads with his camera. Why? So they can see what is behind them, he says.

There is much going on in Yi Yi, but that is its richness. In all the world there are people with many different talents and hang-ups and as Yang portrays his characters with a very sympathetic eye; we see the seven ages of humanity as played by everyone from the crippled to the joyous. By giving two old lovers the chance to relieve what they went through from a distance of so many years, Yang demonstrates how any ideas we may have had about the future turning out a certain way are very removed from the truth of life. As a further testimony, when the mother arrives back from her retreat, she says, “I’ve come to realize things aren’t really so complicated. Why did they ever seem so?”

What I believe Yi Yi does is grind down our narrow notions of life. It examines despair, but it also tells us how important everything we do is and what kindness means. Henry James’s statement to a grieving friend is a perfect motto for this nearly three-hour masterpiece:

I don’t know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about…

That we are living and breathing is celebrated in every frame of the film from the children to the cramped seriousness of NJ’s face, from the mania of the next door neighbors to the Japanese associate of NJ, a shaman of sorts who delivers an unforgettable speech at a seemingly humdrum business dinner in English when he reacts to NJ’s company’s skittishness about investing in his product:

Why are we afraid of the first time? Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?

Chekhov might have written such wise words, but they came from Edward Yang, a man who for a time lived and was educated in America. A man who, at fifty-nine, died of colon cancer. Yi Yi, a celebration and a mourning of love and family, was his last film, of which he said, “I’d like viewers to come away from the film with an impression of having been with a simple friend.” I and others have enjoyed that impression doubly and it’s with gratitude that we try to pass it on.

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