Director: Edward Yang
Screenplay: Edward Yang
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Su-Yun Ko
Country: Taiwan, Japan
Running Time: 173
BBFC Certificate: 15
Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I remember back when it was originally released, which was when my love of cinema was blossoming and I had begun to explore some films outside of the Hollywood mainstream. Yi Yi won the Best Director award at Cannes and picked up glowing reviews across the board. I was (and still am) a sucker for good reviews so I was keen to give it a watch. Unfortunately I never got around to it at the time as it wasn’t easy to get hold of. Over the years it became even more difficult to find as the DVD fell out of print and it seemed impossible to watch for the last decade or so without paying an extortionate amount to import it or buy one of those lost original UK copies. Last year The Criterion Collection gave A Brighter Summer Day, another of Edward Yang’s critically acclaimed titles, the royal Blu-Ray treatment though and I thought it was incredible (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2017/08/a-brighter-summer-day-criterion-collection/). So my appetite for watching Yi Yi was reignited after long giving up. Thankfully I didn’t have long to wait, as the esteemed label are now finally turning their hands to Yang’s near-three hour family drama. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to watch and review the film.
Yi Yi (a.k.a. A One and a Two) follows the ups and downs of three generations of the Jian family, who live in Taipei. At the wedding of his brother, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) bumps into an old flame (Su-Yun Ko) which triggers inner turmoil over what happened between them many years ago. Not helping NJ’s troubles are his mother, who has a stroke which puts her in a coma, and his business associates, who want to strike a deal with a low-rate video game company who copy more successful releases. NJ would rather work with the Japanese business owner Mr Ota (Issei Ogata) with whom he shares a close, mutual respect and understanding. Meanwhile, NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is guilt-ridden as she believes her grandma’s stroke was due to her having to take the rubbish downstairs that Ting-Ting had promised to do herself. She’s also discovering boys, aided by her already ‘active’ neighbour Lili (Meng-chin 'Adriene' Lin). Ting Ting’s younger brother Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is having more innocent troubles with the opposite sex, as the local girls constantly tease and play tricks on him. The father of one of these girls, who is also Yang-Yang’s teacher, is giving him a hard time too. Added to this, the young boy has numerous philosophical questions about life that the adults around him don’t seem to be able to answer. None of the three members of the family are able to talk to each other about their problems either, particularly after the mother of the family (Shu-Yuan Hsu) suffers a breakdown and disappears to a religious mountain retreat, so they’re left lonely and isolated.
There are several other characters and narratives weaving through this dense tapestry, but never so many as to get confusing. It’s easier to follow than A Brighter Summer Day which can be challenging with its 100-strong cast and four hour running time. Yi Yi is fairly lengthy too, clocking in at close to 3 hours, but like A Brighter Summer Day the film is such a pleasure to watch I could have lived in the world Yang created all day. Living in a world created by Yang is possibly the wrong phrase to use though, as something the writer/director does best is capturing the essence of true life. From messy arguments and drunken shenanigans at the wedding to more contemplative moments in between, the film provides a poignant but never sentimental or melodramatic slice of life and all its ups and downs.
A lot happens to the members of the family over the course of the film and in the wrong hands this could have turned into a soap opera, but Yang captures everything so naturally and sensitively that it couldn’t feel further from the trashy long-running series that have clogged up TV schedules for decades. What I also love about Yang’s work is that where other directors hoping to capture ‘naturalistic’ drama opt for a rough, ‘gritty’ visual style, he shoots his films beautifully. Framing each shot perfectly without looking staged or artificial and often shooting through glass, there’s an elegance to his work that reminds me of Ozu’s family dramas. He also likes to shoot the film’s more fiery arguments from a distance. This helps the audience feel like we’re observing the moment without intruding and helps avoid melodrama through exploitative close ups of teary faces and yelled dialogue.
Perhaps it didn’t blow me away quite as much as A Brighter Summer Day, but that’s likely because I watched that first and it contained crime and gang elements that perhaps spoke more to my usual taste in film. However, I still adored Yi Yi and Yang’s sheer mastery of the craft of filmmaking demonstrated in his earlier film was certainly not a one-off. It’s nigh on impossible to fault the film, which has clearly been meticulously put together in every aspect, from the script, to the performances, to the music, etc. It’s difficult not to love the film either as the dense plot prevents the running time from dragging and, due to the naturalism of the drama and wide scope, there will certainly be some aspects that speak to you and your own life experiences in some way.
Finally watching Yi Yi and loving it as much as I’d hoped didn’t satisfy me though. It only whet my appetite for more of Yang’s work. Here’s hoping Criterion work through his whole back catalogue, because he hasn’t disappointed me yet.
Yi Yi is out on 5th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is spot on, as is to be expected from the label.
There are several special features included too:
- Audio commentary by writer-director Edward Yang and Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns.
- Video interview with Rayns about Yang and the New Taiwan Cinema movement.
- Theatrical trailer
- Original English subtitle translation by Yang and Rayns.
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film writer Kent Jones and notes from the director
It’s not a huge selection of features, but as the film runs close to 3 hours, it allows time for the commentary to be incredibly in depth. Rayns’ video interview makes for an interesting watch too, although it’s not particularly long. I’d recommend you back this Blu-Ray up with Criterion’s previous release of Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, as that has a superb documentary on the New Taiwanese Cinema movement.