Monday, February 4, 2013

#339: Yi Yi

(Edward Yang, 1999)

Yi Yi was the second-to-last "feature" film in the first 650 Criterions I have to watch. Unlike the final movie, Salo, I was not putting off Yi Yi because I had little interest in seeing it. Instead, I was waiting for an opportunity to fully digest this three-hour epic on my LED TV in blu-ray without any distractions - a stretch that does not come along every day when you have a one-year-old - because I had a sneaking suspicion I would love it and I didn't want a casual viewing to get in the way of my appreciation.

Well, I found that opportunity last night and I was totally right: Yi Yi is an unquestionable masterpiece. I love making grand statements, but I try to make them only when I really mean them, so I don't take it lightly when I say that I think (think) Yi Yi might be the best movie of the last 25 years. At the very least, it's up in the stratosphere with In the Mood for Love, Fargo, Blue, and the string of 2007 masterpieces that can go toe to toe with the all-time greats.

This statement is kind of an awkward fit for a movie that is as unassuming in its storytelling as Yi Yi, even if the film is three hours. But the basic premise of following a middle-class Taiwanese family over the course of a few months hardly gets at what the film is really about, and it belies the extraordinary ambition of Yang's visual approach. What's most impressive about both the simple but profound storytelling and Yang's camerawork is how effortlessly - and often seamlessly - the two complement each other. Yi Yi is a movie about families, modern living, and love in ways that are both specific to Taiwan and universal, but it's also about these individual characters and their quiet emotional journeys just as much as it is about cinema and its ability (or lack thereof) to emulate reality. Yang's elevation of this unremarkable family calls into question our own experiences both in and out of a movie theater and asks us to evaluate the value of both. Like many of the greatest movies ever made, Yi Yi speaks to the human condition without forgetting the experience of viewing a film, and Yang manages to incorporate all of this into his film's aesthetic and narrative equally.

I could spend quite a bit of time talking about things I loved about this movie, but one point I really want to make is how thoughtfully varied yet unified Yang's compositions are. As noted by the beautifully mysterious and accurate Criterion cover, Yang uses the flat, straight-on shot with both people and objects (and even incorporates it into the story of the young boy and his camera) but contrasts this with side angles of urban spaces - both interior and exterior. His rooms are small but connected to a series of others, forming a maze-like perception of Taiwan's buildings that are cluttered with walls and doors keeping people apart even as they live in tight quarters. Conversely, his exteriors are often balanced with human reflections on the pristine glass of the towers that make up city living. We are constantly reminded of the intimate moments and emotions contained within what other directors have dismissed as cold and inhuman. Yang does not do this to draw contrast between the characters' lives and their surroundings, he does it to achieve unity and highlight the indivisibility of our modern lives. His camerawork is emphasized by the score, which subtly invokes classical music to balance between the modern and the timeless. The film is not flashy, but this impeccable craftsmanship is a reminder that the typical style of American directors in particular - who so often pick one specific style for a film and insist on seeing it through to the end - can often render a movie lifeless. Its effect is often the opposite of what was intended: the film's thematic thrust gets in the way of the storytelling that is key to its success at generating any real meaning. The movie is rendered an experiment in style instead of an exploration of reality.

Of course the balance of Yang's technical prowess is his storytelling, and the film is just as successful in this regard. Yes, this is a three-hour film and, yes, a lot of people are going to be put off by the rhythm and pacing of the storytelling. Although Yi Yi begins at a wedding and ends at a funeral, the moments are somewhat arbitrary cutting off points. And while the film encompasses at least two stories in full (the core couple's marital waverings and the daughter's first experiment with love) and is framed by another (the grandmother's coma), there are threads that never receive full attention and a handful of unresolved relationships. Of course, that is exactly what life is - but doesn't that sound cheesy when it's written down! Yi Yi defies description in this regard. It's a rare movie that can't be described in prose without losing most of its message. Certainly there are truly moving scenes and storylines here that would work in any medium or context - for me, the most intense were certainly the scenes between the father and his video-game-designer prospective business partner and the scenes with his lost love, especially their last encounter which is so unbearably heartbreaking that it's hard to think about. And the final twist in the daughter's story is probably the only moment in the film when the story feels manufactured, even if it's believable enough and compatible with the rest of the movie. But really there aren't any stories here that are less appealing (unlike other similarly sprawling films) and the way Yang overlays their developments - most clearly with the father's reflections on early love being spoken over his daughter's first date - strengthens each in kind (and further deepens his visual layering). I would say the movie rewards the effort required to maintain attention throughout its running time to pull in viewers who might be turned off by the pacing, but I have to be honest and say I was totally enraptured from the start. Within five minutes I could see that I was in remarkable hands.

So yeah, I really liked Yi Yi. I could probably go on and lead myself down the path towards an understanding of the film's real message about life and family and the individual, but I won't because I think the effectiveness of the movie lies not in the specifics of what Yang is saying but in how it speaks to you personally. There's something gracefully beautiful about Yi Yi's ineffability that can only be dissolved by translation. I think that's often what makes art in any medium great, but Yi Yi shows just how powerful film specifically can be.


  1. Well seeing your reaction to this movie must mean that you saw A Brighter Summer Day. This movie is exceptional yes but A Brighter Summer Day is on another level.

    What about In The Mood For Love makes you and allot of people rate it soo highly? To me it was not more or as special as things I've seen done already in cinema. Also I think Wong Kar Wai's distinct style diluted over time up to and after this movie. You refer to Derek Jarman's Blue? Hmmm.. I don't think the movie was executed to the potential of the idea. It did not work in the mind as much as it could have and other movies. Also it was not very far from a book being read to you, with localized sounds. You seriously think Fargo is one of the greatest movies in the last 25 years? To me it was very good..special yes..but not very special. What string on masterpeices in 2007 you refer to?

    There are allot of movies in the last 25 years that I would rank above or par with those you listed. Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man From London and The Turin Horse from Bela Tarr. Even the lowest rated The Man From London was an example of the visionary genius and great director Bela Tarr is.'ll be easier to say the oeuvres of Abbas Kiarostami and Apichatpong Weerasethakul ( to my mind he is the greatest director of his generation that we've seen soo far ). Lars Von Trier had some amazing masterpeices, Breaking The Waves, Dogville ( which I think cannot be fully appreciated by an American, American's cannot fully understand non American views of America, just go on rottentomatoes and read their reviews of this movie, Also it may be politically motivated or..controlled? ). Do The Right Thing, My Own Private Idaho, La Belle Noiseuse ( you saw that? In short it was slowly painflul for me, great movie) up to Songs from the Second Floor, Goodbye Dragon Inn, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, ...What do you think of Godard's Film socialism? To me that is certainly one of the greatest movies in the last 25 years it's a great contribution oto the medium, though that last part, he kind of lost me.etc etc. I worry for American cinema. Since New Hollywood there hasn't really been anyone on the level of Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, Cassavetes etc. and that was some time ago. No I don't rate the Coen brothers on their level. I guess one day some people would emerge.

    New : To me there has not been, worryingly much new in recent cinema Of the last 10-15 years if you will. There was an amazing amount of life in Ozu, Hitchcock's identification of audience to character, Fellini post La Dolce Vita, Godard, post Nouvelle Vague phase especially etc etc. How much has there been in the last 25 years like that, barring someone like Weerasethakul? I love recent cinema(s) and would want to defend it and say be the the quality of movies has not dropped over time, but I'm not soo sure, leaning towards no. Though I guess time in on the artists side and over time, things will reveal themselves.

  2. Now what I would like to hear from you on is The Tree of Life. When I saw it I was one of those to rate it very highly. To me it was one of the greatest films I ever saw..ever. And since it's release there have been immediate comparisons to 2001, some say its.. something like a further development philosophically that Stanley Kubrick's film is. Ammm.. To me it's not in 2001's league atall, I don't think that movie is ever going to be touched in what it is, philosophically especially, in this medium. As time has passed I've just been going back to 8 1/2 and Zerkalo. Tree of Life is clearly inspired and influenced by them and I don't think it is as special or great as 8 1/2 especially. The Tree of Life is a great film, one of the greatest ever, but I don't anymore rate it in a small group of films on top cinema. What about you? ( yes I have one of those small group of films that I consider the greatest the medium ever saw, they are : Vertigo, 8 1/2, 2001: A Space Odyssey and others, but those 3 are mainstays since I began seriously watching movies ).

  3. The Blue to which I am referring is Kieslowski's Blue from his Three Colors trilogy. Considering how you generally evaluate cinema, I am not too surprised that you are less interested in recent cinema, as post-modern (I know that term is overused, but there it is) sensibilities have set in. The Coen brothers are a great example of this, as Fargo is an anti-noir that challenges the ideas of America put forth in film's golden age. The movie is a rejection of two things it dearly loves: the myth of crime and the innocence of the midwest. It's a beautiful movie and it features one of the great American performances of the 90s at its center. I'm also rather fond of Lebowski, Barton Fink, and No Country for Old Men. The 07 movies were: Zodiac, Ratatouille, No Country, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and There Will Be Blood. Do you like Pedro Costa? For me, he is one of the few original voices in cinema in recent decades, in terms of finding a truly new language.

    The first half of Tree of Life I was ready to say it was one of the best movies I had ever seen. The second half got bogged down in patriarchal monotony that made it feel cliche and dated. The ending was far too new age for me - 2001, somewhat similarly new age in its own way, is an infinitely better movie.

    I haven't seen socialism yet, but would like to soon.

  4. By the way, I like Dogville a lot, though it is certainly a chore to watch. The movie's reviews are not controlled, I assure you. The American government does not need to control the populace, we do it ourselves just fine, as evidenced by our rejection of Dogville and embrace of the Avengers.