(director/writer: Edward Yang; cinematographer: Yang Weihan; editor: Chen Bowen; cast: Jonathan Chang (Yang-Yang), Yupang Chang (Fatty), Chen Xisheng (A-Di), Elaine Jin (Min-Min), Ke Suyun (Sherry Chang-Breitner), Kelly Lee (Ting-Ting), Adrian Lin (Lili), Issey Ogata (Mr. Ota), Tang Ruyun (Grandma), Michael Tao (Da-Da), Wu Nienjen (NJ Jian), Xiao Shushen (Xiao Yan), Xu Shuyuan (Lili’s Mother), Zeng Xinyi (Yun-Yun); Runtime: 173; Winstar Cinema; 2000-Taiwan/France)

“This one is a masterpiece, despite being as inexplicable as a great work of music sometimes is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It should duly be noted Yi Yi won best 2000 film from both the New York Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics over the other popular Taiwanese film nominated, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Edward Yang (“A Brighter Summer Day,” 1991) wrote and directed Yi Yi. It’s a 173-minute contemporary film, set in Taipei, about the middle-class Jian family and their individual struggles to find happiness. The family includes: the taciturn father NJ (Wu Nienjen), the sullen mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin), the sexually awakening high-school daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), the precocious eight year old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), and the feeling too old grandmother (Tang Ruyun). They are all overwhelmed by what is happening and feel stuck and all alone, and they don’t know how to communicate with each other — each is deeply troubled by their own concerns.

The movie begins with the chaotic wedding preparations for the groom, A-Di (Chen Xisheng). He’s Min-Min’s brother and partner in a failing software computer business with her husband. The blustering hustler’s uncouth bride, Xiao Yan (Xiao Shushen), is obviously pregnant. She marries him at this late date because he superstitiously follows the horoscope and this is listed as an auspicious day for the wedding. The family looks awkward together at the reception: a portrait of the bride and groom is not hung correctly, the family rigidly poses for their wedding picture, and the groom’s jilted and uninvited girlfriend arrives inebriated and becomes hysterical upsetting the reception.

By chance NJ meets in the hotel lobby of the wedding reception his old high-school flame, Sherry (Ke Suyun). He will say later on that she is the only one he has ever loved, but for some unexplained reason he failed to meet her at a critical time of their relationship and they have not seen each other for over 20 years. She now lives in Chicago and is married to a wealthy American businessman, who is doing business in China.

Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) feels guilty that granny has a stroke. At home right after the wedding, she failed to take out the garbage in their luxury hi-rise apartment and therefore granny had to do it and was later found lying unconscious in the driveway next to the dust bins.

Granny is discharged from the hospital; and, while at home, she remains bed-ridden in a comatose state. The doctor suggests that as part of the family therapy they each talk to her so that she knows they care and this could stimulate her to awaken. But she will not awaken from that state, except later on when the saddened teenage daughter has a fantasy scene where granny comforts her. When the family members try to communicate with granny, none of them can. The wife is upset that her life is in a rut and can only tell her trivial things. The teenage girl prefers to play the piano for her. The young kid doesn’t know what to say. NJ can only suggest that the nurse reads to her from the newspapers. While grandmother’s son could only shamefully boast that she shouldn’t have worried so much about his bad habits and the way he always borrowed money from others, he has now invested wisely in stocks and is a rich man.

Within a few days Min-Min has a nervous breakdown and retreats to the mountain spot where her guru will counsel her. The futility of this treatment is seen from the onset, when NJ writes the guru a check for his services. The mother will be gone in her religious retreat, while each member of the family goes through a crisis of their own. When she returns, she reports that nothing has changed.

NJ’s midlife crisis is played out in Tokyo where he woos for his firm the only male adult in the film he really respects, a Japanese inventor of computer games, Ota (Issey Ogata). The two developed an honest and intense relationship while Ota was in Taipei pitching his product. Both NJ’s company and Ota have fallen on hard times, and need to have some cash flowing in; nevertheless, they are more concerned with their personal individual needs. While in Tokyo, NJ will court the only one he ever loved, as Sherry accompanies him there and they try to pick up where they left off as teenagers. But they seem to have run into the same problems they had back then, an inability to reach each other despite the deep feelings of love they profess.

Ting-Ting’s problems will revolve around her relationship with her new next-door neighbor, a teenager called Lili (Adrian Lin). She immediately becomes close friends with the cello playing Lili. But later on a problem of loyalty arises as the agitated boy who Lili was going out with called “Fatty” (Yupang Chang), is now interested in her. She has the same trouble in communicating in her relationship with him, as her father has currently with Sherry in Tokyo.

Yang-Yang is not only the namesake of the director, but speaks for him in this film. He tells his father innocently: “I can’t see what you see and you can’t see what I see. So how can I know what you see?” His father gives him a camera and he feels satisfied to take pictures of the backs of people’s heads. He will tell granny when she’s dead that he wants to grow up to tell people what they don’t know. He is interested in discovering the truth people can’t see about themselves. At one point of the film the director through the character who reacts the most emotional, the very thin “Fatty,” tells his movie date that movies are not a waste of time, but enrich one’s life. They even increase your life three times because the movies tell us about things we could never possibly know. He gives one example of murder, but that didn’t go over too well with Ting-Ting.

This one is a masterpiece, despite being as inexplicable as a great work of music sometimes is. It lays out the grief facing a problematic family and we see it happening, but we never quite understand why. We will have to accept as an answer: That individuals are very complex and if they can’t tell us what is on their mind, we can only guess what they are thinking. And, isn’t that the way you find it with most people? Maybe finding happiness isn’t so simple a matter! Maybe we are destined to follow a certain course and even if given a second chance would still make the same mistakes! The director knows that we are all unique and have our own way of seeing things, and he respects that. Edward Yang is an iconoclastic filmmaker who can’t be put in a box and labeled and makes film that reflect his quirky thinking.

There was a certain undefinable power that this great filmmaker has given this film that makes this story fulfilling. It was also as entertaining a film as Crouching Tiger was, but with more depth and poignancy.

Yi Yi Poster

REVIEWED ON 5/24/2001 GRADE: A+      https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/