A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 3, 2017

Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

In his Criterion Collection essay on Yi Yi, Kent Jones does something that I endorse completely: He compares writer-director Edward Yang's film to the work of George Eliot. As I was watching Yi Yi, I kept thinking that it gave me the same satisfaction that a good novel does: that of participating in the lives of people I would never know otherwise. George Eliot's aesthetic was based on the premise that art serves to enlarge human sympathy. It's an idea echoed in the film by a character who quotes his grandfather saying that since the introduction of motion pictures, we now live three times longer than we did before -- we experience that many more things  The remark in context is ironic, given that the character, a teenager (Pang Chang Yu) who will later commit a murder, mentions killing as one of the experiences now vicariously afforded to us by movies. But the general import of the observation stands: Yi Yi gives us the sweep of life, beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, and taking in along the way birth, found and lost love, and other experiences of the Jian family and acquaintances in Taiwan. The central character, N.J. (Nien-Jien Wu), is a businessman caught up in the machinations of his company while trying to deal with family problems: His mother-in-law suffers a stroke and lies comatose; his brother-in-law's wedding to a pregnant bride is interrupted by a furious ex-girlfriend; his wife has an emotional breakdown and leaves for a Buddhist retreat in the mountains; his daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), is in the throes of adolescent self-consciousness and blames herself because her grandmother suffered a stroke while taking out the garbage Ting-Ting had been told to take care of; his small son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), refuses to join the family in taking turns talking to his comatose grandmother, and he keeps getting in trouble at school. And these matters are complicated by the reappearance of N.J.'s old girlfriend, Sherry (Sun-Yun Ko), now married to a Chicago businessman, who joins N.J. in Tokyo on a business trip that puts him at odds with his company. The separate experiences of N.J., Ting-Ting, and Yang-Yang overlap and sometimes ironically counterpoint one another, and the film is laced together by recurring images and themes. Although it's three hours long, Yi Yi never seems slack. A lesser director would have cut some of the sequences not essential to the narrative, such as the performances of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and the Cello Sonata No. 1, or the long pan across the lighted office windows in nighttime Taipei, but these give an essential emotional lift to a film that has rightly been called a masterwork.