Directed by: Edward Yang | 173 minutes | drama | Actors: Nien-Jen Wu, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Issei Ogata, Elaine Jin, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Su-Yun Ko, Michael Tao, Shu-shen Hsiao, Adrian Lin, Pang Chang Yu, Ru-Yun Tang, Shu -Yuan Hsu, Hsin-Yi Tseng
With this funny, moving and masterful story of a Taipei family, Edward Yang has finally won his long-awaited award for best director at Cannes. NJ Jian (played by Nien-Jen Wu, not a bad screenwriter and director himself) has a dying computer company. On his brother-in-law’s wedding day, his whole life goes into trouble. First his mother-in-law falls into a coma, then he meets his first great love at the wedding reception, which makes him wonder whether his life could have turned out differently. Not much later his wife joins a religious sect, their son turns out to have problems at school and their teenage daughter takes her first uncertain steps on the path of puppy love, with all the joy and misery that entails.
“Yi Yi” is of great formal rigor, but never alienates the viewer from the characters. The message is that while the problems we face over the years are always different, the way we deal with them hardly changes. Apparently effortlessly, Yang stages a dozen protagonists and weaves together a dozen storylines (like a long interlude in which NJ visits his former girlfriend in Japan and an encounter with a genius software designer who could potentially save his company from ruin).
Taiwanese film “Yi Yi” is one of the best films of the past decade with almost effortless ease. In terms of theme – midlife crisis, growing pains, frustrated ambitions, unfulfilled desires, missed opportunities, wonder and wisdom – it resembles “American Beauty”, but “Yi Yi” is also much more mature, richer, layered and wiser. It is not without reason that the film is on the contemporary top ten list of many an international film critic. The fact that almost no one else knows “Yi Yi” is mainly due to the un-sensational character of the film. No special effects, no star cast. Not even hot sex. Just ordinary real, gentle people struggling with everyday life.
The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. In between, a modern family chronicle unfolds. When the revered grandmother in the family falls into a coma due to a stroke, the bottom of life also falls away for the rest of the family. The mother suddenly becomes aware of the daily grind in her life, the daughter struggles with her ‘forbidden’ love for her classmate’s boyfriend, the father rethinks his life when he bumps into an old childhood sweetheart and because of office politics a business relationship with integrity, and the son asserts himself with an almost stoic open-mindedness and wisdom in the face of all the bullying at school. Nothing earth shattering. And yet everything is right. The storylines, the nuanced dialogues…. the direction. Especially the direction. The director, Edward Yang, is also embodied in a way by the son who also knows how to bring everything back to the correct proportions without violating reality. And that with the necessary compassion, discretion and integrity.
For example, the son takes pictures of the back of the head because “you never see yourself from that side”. It is illustrative of how the director values his characters in their most intimate private moments. Discretion is not hypocritical silence, but just normal respect for other people’s privacy. For the individual and his inalienable dignity. The stylistic tool in which this is most evident is the use of vistas and camera images of people behind a window or shop window, while the talk – often at vulnerable moments – comes through crystal clear. At times the film is reminiscent of the angels in “Der Himmel über Berlin” by Wim Wenders. Like them, director Edward Yang can’t talk back to people or encourage them. He can only be there for them. Providing comfort… in part also with the understanding that compromise, doubt and regret are just as legitimate as reality. A film with a wise look at the life of modern man.