Can a depiction of “mundane” day-to-day life be considered a work of art? The Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang put this very question to the test with his film Yi Yi (translation: A One and A Two…) and the answer is a resounding, YES! Upon its release in 2000, Yi Yi was greeted with incredible international critical acclaim. Mr. Yang, who not only directed the film but also wrote its screenplay, was honored with the Best Director Award at Cannes Film Festival.
Yi Yi provides us insight into the life of a multi-generational family living in 1990’s Taipei. It covers the span of a single year and is framed by a wedding at the beginning and a funeral at its conclusion. It has no single protagonist. Each character is treated with an equal amount of importance and screen time. The film also has no villain. This does not mean that there is no conflict in the film. Each family member is forced to face the hard questions and dilemmas of daily life. For example, the father of the family, N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu), is owed money by his brother, his mother goes into a coma midway through the film and his business partners disagree over the future of their company. His daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is going through the throes of first love and the guilt of feeling partially reasonable for her grandmother’s coma. N.J.’s eight year old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is still trying to figure out the world around him. His wife, Min-Min, is going through a mid-life crisis. These are just a few of the many cast members, all of whom deliver excellent performances. The film has a linear structure – at least when it comes to its timeframe – but jumps from character to character so that you never know which member of the family you will be following next.
Edward Yang masterfully balances the mundane and profound in his truly massive script. The dialogue is full of typical day-to-day conversations but also has moments of epiphany. These moments are like nuggets of gold that sometimes surface over the course of the film, as they can do in life. For example, in one scene N.J. is having dinner with a potential new business partner. The conversation quickly turns from business to life. The businessman opines: “Why are we afraid of the first time? Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?” Or when Ting Ting says to his grandmother who has momentarily come out of a coma: “Why is the world so different from what we thought it was? Now that you’re awake and see it again… has it changed at all? Now I’ve closed my eyes… the world I see… is so beautiful.” Edward Yang is known for making lengthy films that have many speaking roles. In 1991 he released A Brighter Summer Day with a run time of 237 minutes and over 100 amateur actors in different roles.
Yi Yi also has absolutely beautiful cinematography that turns the city of Taipei into a living and breathing tableau of daily existence in a modern city. The film has a documentary style, as if the characters are playing themselves, living in their own homes and walking familiar streets. It is only when you look at the caliber of Wei-han Yang’s cinematography that you realize that what seems like urban chaos is actually carefully scripted. Wei-han Yang gives the grind of day-to-day life a rugged splendor. Edward Yang, with Wei-han Yang’s help, manages to make simple activities like taking out the trash or going to a McDonalds with your son feel beautiful and significant.
Edward Yang is a member of the “Taiwanese New Wave” or “New Taiwan Cinema” that arose in the 1980’s and includes directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang and most famously, Ang Lee. These directors were determined to depict the societal, cultural, and economic changes that were rapidly occurring in their country as well as interpret the unique situation of being exiles living on an island they must share with the American military. In many ways Mr. Yang takes up where renowned Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu left off. Like Ozu, he addresses social issues through the lens of the family structure, focusing on realism rather than spectacle, ordinary rather than extraordinary. During his short career, Edward Yang directed nine movies. It is apparent from their subject matter and themes that he was trying to capture impressions and experiences that are uniquely Taiwanese but also universally human. In this way he was one of the strongest voices in contemporary Asian cinema and a true auteur. This makes his death at age 59 all the more tragic and a huge loss to Taiwan and the world.
Yi Yi was released in 2000 and was Edward Yang’s final film. The film is a culmination of his short but prolific film career. It has been referred to as his magnum opus. It touches upon many of the themes he explored in his other works but is presented with greater focus and insight. Similar to the Italian Neorealists, Edward Yang champions regular people, giving them a voice and a stage without putting them under a microscope. He and his fellow “New Wave” directors heralded in a new century of Asian filmmaking which championed social realism and substance over style. Yi Yi and Mr. Yang’s other great film, A Brighter Summer Day, rank at the very top of humanist films. They transcend the designations that we rely upon so heavily such as nationality, race, religion, class, ethnicity, culture and impart a universal truth. Humanist films remind us that we all share basic needs (love, friendship, purpose), wants (stability, comfort, satisfaction) and worries (health, money, aging). Life’s mileposts are also the same across the globe: birth, death, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, first love, etc. To my mind these are the best type of film for healing what is currently ailing the world. They emphasize our similarities and make neighbors and families of us all.