Dir. Edward Yang. Starring Wu Nien-jen, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang
There are few topics which are as generally repulsive as “person searches for meaning.” Look, here’s a Google search I did on the idea, and while not every option is bad, it ain’t a promising list:
Yi Yi is full of characters who jump at every chance they can to find meaning and order in their lives. No one has to blow up the government – or skyscrapers – or a burned out, middle-aged straight guy – to look for it. If morality is weighed by these characters, it’s not done with a pair of completely full ferries and remote control explosives. Siblings Yang-Yang (Chang) and Ting-Ting (Lee) go out looking for meaning with various levels of zeal. Ting-Ting, who has a romantic sensibility, tries to find love in a boy with a dark temperament. Yang-Yang uses his camera to take pictures of the back of people’s heads so they’ll be able to understand themselves better. Their mother, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), does the same after a smell meltdown. Their father, NJ (Wu), has multiple opportunities to consider his perspectives thrown in his lap and then taken away over the course of a few days. Min-Min’s brother, A-Di (Hsi-sheng Chen) throws himself at whatever seems like a stable enough structure to bear the weight of his expectations; he has an eye on pie-in-the-sky investments and horoscopes, sure that he can forecast chance. The movie is not shy about letting you know that each person is trying to carve out some semblance of understanding for themselves, which is just fine. Amusingly enough, the movie is a contemporary of Fight Club and American Beauty, which both debuted the year before. Like American Beauty, Yi Yi has a middle-class family on its mind, although Yi Yi extends the scope of that family a little further than American Beauty. Where the American films fall short is in how deeply impressed they are with themselves, as if they’d stepped in dog crap and then loudly proclaimed their perspicacity in noticing said droppings once they’d walked into the house. Yi Yi watches instead.
One of the first things you notice about watching Edward Yang is his sense of place. Close-ups are so rare, and even medium shots tend to be measured affairs. Conversations frequently take place from long distance, allowing us to see the environment where his characters speak as essential to what it is they have to say. Ting-Ting’s neighbor and peer, Lili (Adrian Lin) is seeing a boy named Fatty (Yupang Chang). Slowly, as Lili and Fatty fight and the two of them become more distant, Ting-Ting and Fatty start to grow more interested in each other. The place they return to is underneath an overpass, sometimes in sun, sometimes in rain, sometimes by day and sometimes by night. It’s a grimy little spot, with weeds growing up around the concrete pillars; it’s not unsafe, but it does look seedy. In one scene, where Ting-Ting and Fatty (who isn’t fat at all – I guess I’m missing a joke somewhere) kiss for the first time, a traffic light glows through its cycle, turning green at a fitting moment, and then coming back around again. A guy on a motorcycle drives by; cars turn left. In the film itself, characters frequently watch – spy on – one another. Yang-Yang takes pictures of the back of people’s heads unbeknownst to them and generally has his eye on others without them knowing it. Ting-Ting is well-versed in the arguments Lili, Lili’s mom, and Lili’s carousel of men-friends have with each other. Min-Min begins crying over the emptiness of her life while she’s at work one night, and a religious coworker comes over to see what the matter is. (It’s been brought on by her mother’s stroke; the doctor has advised the family to continue speaking to her, and Min-Min is a little crushed that she doesn’t have anything interesting or novel to say to her mom.) Here’s how Yang frames that sadness.
It’s a characteristic shot in the film. Frequently characters are shot from the “wrong” sides of windows. On a subway, NJ sleeps while Sherry (Suyun Ke) looks out, a little miffed. They eat together and talk freely with one another. I’m fond of the shot below because it combines this desire to see everything with the muted and irregular picture of people we get looking at them through a window. (It’s a common enough shot – just in movies I’ve watched in the past month, both Paris, Texas and My Beautiful Laundrette put one person’s face on another via a glass.) It’s not merely a dining room that NJ and Sherry eat in, but it has stairs and an escalator leading up to it, there’s no other customers in it, and the two staff seem like they’re waiting for their last two diners to leave. Even the sitting area below is empty.
The movie is a loosely bound sort, but if it has a focal point it’s NJ. NJ is a leader of a failing business, seemingly always at odds with the three other men at the top of the pole. They seem to recognize that NJ is a different breed from them; one of them, an old school chum, tells NJ that they’re looking for an honest face to represent them in a meeting with a potential savior for the company, Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata). NJ runs into Sherry in the hotel where A-Di’s wedding reception is; the two play phone tag for a while before he finally winds up in Japan to have a business meeting with Ota, where NJ and Sherry arrange to meet. They have a long history, dating back to elementary school; they seemed destined to wind up together before NJ mysteriously disappeared. The two of them have strong chemistry even after a lapse of decades. They walk in a park together, where NJ, as fraught as we’ve ever heard him, explains to Sherry why he bailed. You were controlling my life, he said. I went to school to be an engineer because you wanted me to be, I’m an engineer now, and I never wanted to be an engineer. (No prizes for guessing where the camera is when he gives this speech.)
NJ tells his wife much later in the movie that he had an opportunity to rebuild his past while she was doing her religious runaround on top of a mountain. Sherry, in one of the movie’s sparse but predictable freakouts, tells NJ that he never loved her; if he did, he’d leave his wife and she’d leave her husband and they would hit the reset button on their lives. You’re tired, NJ says, perhaps recognizing that this is a conversation better had after a night of sleep, or perhaps delaying the inevitable. Why do I always do this, Sherry says after she’s cooled off a little. I fall into patterns with you even when I don’t want to. NJ has been shown what the past looks like and seems able to extrapolate the future. He’s not given the chance to do so in any practical way; much as he did once upon a time to her, Sherry leaves without leaving any message, and NJ comes home without having really given the past a chance to grow again. During the same trip, Mr. Ota tells NJ that there are no magicians. He meant it in a business context (knowing that alone among his partners, NJ does not look at Ota as a panacea for the company’s ills), but it carries over to the rest of the film just as neatly.
Min-Min comes home from the mountain feeling like her mother; everyone talked at her and she had nothing to say. Ting-Ting feels some level of forgiveness from her grandmother; everyone, tacitly or otherwise, blames Ting-Ting for bringing on a stroke in her mother’s mother. Yang-Yang only speaks to his grandmother once she’s died. NJ takes an indefinite leave of absence from his company. As his wife sits on the bed on the night of her return, he doesn’t have much of a report for her. “Nothing much changed here,” he says. He’s wrong, but there’s no way for him to know that. No one’s had a eureka moment, but just about everyone has become a little more enlightened, a little more sensitive to what fulfills them and what leaves them empty. In a movie that begins with a marriage and ends with a funeral, where Fatty’s first girlfriend played cello and he then took his second to see a cellist, where NJ abandoned and was then abandoned, where Yang-Yang felt like he didn’t know enough to speak to his grandmother and then still didn’t know much even after he educated himself, cycles rule. “Yi yi” is one of those vaguely untranslatable phrases. Per Yang, it means something like “one by one,” or “one after another.” The identical symbols mean “two” when written vertically. Draw a circle with a compass once and it’s present and unmistakable. Trace over it and the etching will certainly last a little longer.