Monday, February 4, 2013
#339: Yi Yi
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.