Asian Cinema Month – Yi Yi

Yi Yi (2000, dir. Edward Yang)
Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen

The one thing all families have in common is that they are complex beyond belief and filled with emotional nuance. This millennial picture focused around a typical middle class family in Taipei is able to explore the fragmented lives of the individuals without resorting to clichéd dysfunction. The drama is kept moderate yet the film is never too slow to disengage the audience. If you are of the mind to enjoy explosive Michael Bay-esque movies than this may not be the best bet for you at the moment. If instead you want to patiently follow the rise and fall of a quiet family then you are in for something very fascinating.

The film opens on the wedding of NJ’s brother-in-law. NJ is the patriarch of the central family in the film and he is a very patient and loving father. His son, Yang wants McDonald’s rather than the food being served at the reception and NJ submits to the child. On their way back to the party, NJ runs into his college sweetheart at the same hotel for a business meeting. Something appears to be rekindled between the two. NJ’s mother-in-law ends up in a coma shortly after the wedding and his wife becomes emotionally broken. The burden of tending the household falls on their teenage daughter, Ting. Ting has become friends with the new neighbor’s daughter and is caught in a high school love triangle with the girl’s boyfriend. Yang is constantly picked on by an older girl at his school and become very reclusive and obsessed with taking photos of mundane things.

The hits the three hour mark and is as epic as it is subtle and contemplative. There’s no sweeping score or dramatic crescendos. It’s simply life being played out and framed as if the mundane is just as epic as mythical heroes’ journies. The structure of the film is that of an entire human existence. We open on a wedding, end on a funeral, and in between there is love, heartbreak, tragedy, murder, people sharing good times over a warm meal, people feeling alienated, attempted suicide. But the picture never feels over the top or campy. The tone is kept tempered so this feels like dipping your hand in vat of pure distilled humanity.

I was made to think of Hollywood attempts at family dramas and how I can never fully engage with those characters because the script is forced to follow a 90 minute template. Yes, three hours is a long time for a film of this nature, but it is absolutely essential. And even three hours isn’t long enough to know these characters. No one is overly dramatic despite the situations they are put in. NJ is tempted with getting back together with his lost love and the outcome is left ambiguous. NJ does business with a Japanese video game developer during the film, Ota, who is one of the most intriguing characters in the film. He feels very real, a businessman who didn’t get to where he was because he was ruthless, but because he recognized the need of every person to be inspired by something.

This has to be one of the most positive, yet real films about people I have ever seen. It will leave you asking a lot of questions about our families, about the distance we have from them, and how large the scope of our lives truly is.

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