Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Yi Yi

4 Stars

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again. But this time, it happened in Taipei.

Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a movie about challenging the narratives people construct of their own lives. In the process Yi Yi reveals the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives.

Yi Yi tells the story of an upper middle class family in Taipei. NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) is a software engineer at a video game company. He is unsatisfied in his work, ambivalent about his marriage, and uncertain how to relate to his children, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Nevertheless, he’s a very good man. An honest one, and he is doing his best in all aspects of his life. At his brother-in-law’s (Hsi-Sheng Chen) wedding, he has a chance encounter with his one true love, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). His business provides him with a chance to relive that romance. Meanwhile, his daughter Ting-Ting embarks on a first romance of her own, and the sudden illness of his mother-in-law prompts a crisis of faith in NJ’s wife (Elaine Jin). Finally, the gift of a camera permits Yang-Yang to begin to see the world for the first time, and he discovers a truth that he hopes to share with everyone.

Mr. Yang has an eye for life, and he puts his characters through the crucible of the past forcing them to confront the decisions they made, live with their consequences, and ponder whether they would have done anything differently. Slowly, over the course of nearly three hours, Yi Yi becomes more than a character drama. It becomes an epic constructed out of the ordinary. Mr. Yang complements this strange duality with another. He selects baroque music selections to complement his film that is frequently modern and romantic.

Yi Yi is one of the most finely scripted of the films I’ve watched for this project so far. The characters all seem like real people. Each has a realistic amount of virtue and trouble, and a realistic amount of self-awareness too. They are aware of their past actions, why they took them, and what it is about them that makes them return to these particular moments that they find so important in their own life stories. They consider their past. The strongest of them change. The weakest despair. The best grow, and learn to accept themselves. Every role is well acted to boot by a cast that works in at least three languages.

L. P. Hartley once wrote that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I think we are guilty of thinking of our own pasts that way. The people we were aren’t the people we are, but Yi Yi makes a powerful argument that if you get to see your past it might look very, very familiar. The only reason you think your past is so different from your present is that you can’t see it anymore. As NJ explains to Yang-Yang, you can’t see what’s behind you. That’s why we need cameras. Maybe that’s why we need movies like Yi Yi.

My New Mexican readers might find some passing interest in Yi Yi because there is a brief news broadcast about the Wen Ho Lee scandal. Yi Yi finds itself on this list because five critics selected it as one of the ten best films of the 2000s, just as five critics also selected the next film on my list, The New World.

From Out in the Void,


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