Yi Yi

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

YI YI / A ONE AND A TWO

5/10

Taiwan 2000
dir/scr Edward Yang
cin Yang Wei-Han
stars Nien-Jen We, Jonathan Chang, Kelly Lee, Hsi-Sheng Chen
173 minutes

Yi Yi aims to chronicle in, let’s say, unhurried fashion, the everyday ups and downs of a family living in modern-day Taipei. Writer-director Yang avoids melodrama, instead examining the humdrum developments that affect any urban family group: difficulties at work and school; changing relationships with each other and with outsiders; the fluctuations of married life, and so on. He does so by concentrating on a single family, headed by IT businessman NJ (Wu) and Min-Min (Elaine Jun), and extending out to cover a confusingly vast number of relatives, friends, colleagues and passers-by. The various plots and sub-plots are too numerous to synopsise, but as they develop NJ and Min-Min’s observant 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Chang) gradually takes centre stage.

Yang’s technique is more of a literary than a cinematic approach, but occasionally a movie – Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me, most recently – comes along and makes it look easy. Edward Yang proves otherwise. Yi Yi has been ecstatically received by critics all over the world, winning ‘Best Director’ at Cannes, ‘Best Foreign Film’ (ahead of compatriot Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) at the New York Film Critics’ Circle awards, and becoming the first foreign-language movie to be named Best Picture by the prestigious US National Society of Film Critics. This suggests that many viewers will love it, perhaps finding rich subtleties in its careful complexity. For this reviewer, however, it was a three-hour exercise in tedium, a protracted fight against both drooping eyelids and the heretical impulse to walk out. Spying on neighbours is something most people have briefly indulged in every now and again – it can be a fascinating, thrilling, naughty bit of harmless fun. But who’d want to actually live in their houses?

Yang’s script has (probably unintentional) echoes of Magnolia, focussing on an usually bright young boy, while tracing the demise of a bed-ridden oldster and making a big deal out of urban weather in general and clouds in particular. But while Paul Anderson’s buzzed (exhaustingly) along on cinematic adrenalin for its long running-time, everybody involved with Yi Yi – both behind and in front of the camera – seems to be on Valium. Or is modern city life in Taipei really conducted at such a funereal pace? In any case, it’s an indefensibly cheap shot to trick the audience into thinking a sympathetic kid has committed suicide (Finding Forrester pulled the same kind of stunt), and was it really necessary to indulge in ‘comedy’ character names like ‘Piggy’ and ‘Fatty,’ or to choose such oblique titles?

Yi Yi isn’t devoid of engaging characters and moments – the phenomenally self-contained Chang is responsible for most of them, though it’s sadly predictable that Yang will end his movie on a close-up of the child’s hopeful face. The high spots are just so grindingly few and far between, and Yang ruins their effect by making the whole thing as slow as hell. He could perhaps point to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s statement that the length of a long movie is “an aesthetic consideration,” but Tarkovsky always made a point of starting and ending his films with something astounding, and dropping in a few coups along the way to maintain his audiences’ trust and attention – among recent arthouse marathons only Bruno Dumont’s escargot-paced L’Humanite came close to such ‘creative’ use of extreme length.

Dumont and Tarkovsky also share a terrific eye for composition – Yang’s muted flourishes mainly consist of filming his characters’ reflections in windows and mirrors, or by glimpsing them through half-closed doors. There’s no denying Yi Yi is the work of a confident, mature, thoughtful, skilled film-maker. But this reviewer feels duty-bound to point out that, if you’re fidgeting in your seat after half an hour, you’d be well advised to find another way of spending the next 143 minutes. You may end up enchanted – but the odds are you’ll be bored stiff.

10th March 2001