Yi Yi

A guest post for The Late Show — suitably late — by Martin Allison, who wrote about PARTNER for Project Fear a few weeks back. YI YI, the last film of Edward Yang. Enjoy!

It’s a hard sell; a 3-hour film in a foreign language, starring nobody you know, by a director you’ve never heard of.

The final film from Edward Yang, Yi Yi is one of those movies in which everything falls into place.

There are no flourishes here, no indulgences – every part of the film, the acting, cinematography, sound design, score, art direction are all in perfect unison.

We follow three members of a middle-class Taiwanese family, NJ the middle-aged father, Ting-Ting the teenage daughter, and Yang Yang the young son. Our perspectives follow these three primarily while the mother of the family heads to a Buddhist retreat to deal with a mid-life crisis and escape her comatose Mother-in-law who lives in the house with them.

All of this may sound melodramatic, but it’s the opposite – everything is understated, underplayed, which only emphasises how raw and real the moments on screen are.

As the critic Nigel Andrew commented “to describe Yi Yi as a three-hour Taiwanese family drama is like calling Citizen Kane a film about a newspaper.”

Our young protagonist is picked on at school by his female classmates, including one of which who’s Dad is a teacher, and also picks on him. Yang-Yang develops an interest in photography which buoys him through these trails and tribulations.

Our Heroine (of sorts) is friends with a girl who plays cello in a neighbouring flat, as the film progresses their friendship is stretched to a point of breaking as a love triangle forms with her friend’s boyfriend ‘Fatty’ (who is of course, very slim).

And NJ, the patriarch (barely) strikes up a friendship with a humble and thoughtful Japanese Video Game CEO (not dissimilar to the late Satoru Iwata from Nintendo), who the failing company he works for are trying to get on a project in order to save themselves. This chance friendship brings out reflection in NJ and he ends up calling an old spark he bumped into at the wedding the film opens with.

The film is full of subtle but meaningful touches.

NJ’s cynical company organise a meeting with another Video Game Mogul straight after his meeting with Ota (the man he befriends), named Ato, who is a lazy copycat of Ota’s brilliance. Going to meet Ata, NJ and his co-workers are walked through to the pool on the back of a tacky mansion, filled with apathetic girls in bikini’s and an overweight Ato up a stair case being tended too like Hedonism-bot in Futurama, or a mob boss from Miami Vice.

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It is obvious to us and to NJ this man is all show. The appearance of someone of substance and importance without having anything to back it up with – compared to the friendly good natured Ota, who sports a bowl cut and straightforward wardrobe and meets NJ in quiet restaurants and happily accompanies him to a quaint Karaoke bar, where he then preforms a rendition of Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki to great enjoyment of the crowd, even the bartender tells NJ to bring his friend back again.

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Another subtle moment is found in Yang-Yang’s teacher confiscating his photographs and mocking them as ‘avant-garde art’ – but we as an audience we understand that Yang-Yang is just taking photos that interest him, they are truthful, his eyes unclouded by overbearing thoughts and motivations – someone Picasso would have put on a pedestal.

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Yang-Yang’s teacher’s daughter also bullies him, but someone comments on her liking him due to this Yang-Yang begins looking at her differently, curiously. Highlighted expertly in a scene where he comes in late to audio/visual class where they are watching an old education film about the birth of the universe. The teacher’s daughter comes in, she struggles to get a seat, Yang-Yang watches her curiously as the film backlights her and narrates the start of life due to thunder, two forces meeting and being attracted to one another – a perfectly indirect way of implying Yang-Yang, although he doesn’t know it, has grown a little older and formed a crush.

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Although it sounds like the film is very disconnected, all of these little scenes flow perfectly into each other – and at times mirror each other, such as Ting-Ting being taken on a date by Fatty while we cross cut with NJ and Sherry (his old flame) catching up while he’s on a business trip.

All these moments come together to form a whole greater than their parts.

In a surprisingly moving Criterion Collection Closet video the late cinematographer Harris Savides (who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer before the video was filmed) navigates the collection and picks out the film.

“A movie about so much and so little at the same time… about nothing and everything…. and when I finished watching the movie the first thing I did was call home and tell everybody I love that I love them.”

2 Responses to “Yi Yi”

  1. I cried like a baby at the final scene of this movie the first time I saw it. I love this movie.

  2. I must see it.

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