YI YI written and directed by Edward Yang, produced by Shinya Kawai and Naoko Tsukeda, with Wu Nienjen, Issey Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Chen Xisheng, Ke Suyun, Michael Tao and Xiao Shushen. 173 minutes. An Equinox Entertainment release. Opens Friday (May 11). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 97. Rating: NNNNN
if yi yi isn't the best film of the
year, we're in for a shocking eight months.
Director Edward Yang has already picked up the best-film prize from the National Society of Film Critics in the U.S., where Yi Yi was released last year. And the best-director prize at Cannes. He deserves all that and more. He deserves an audience.
It won't be easy. Yi Yi comes out of Taiwan and it's nearly three hours long. But I was riveted. About two hours in I was dying to pee, but I didn't want to miss a second of it. If a film has that kind of hold on a bladder, it's doing something right. And if it can make me write about my bladder, just imagine.
Yang enters a middle-class extended family in Taipei, telling their story between an ugly wedding and a beautiful funeral. A-Di marries his pregnant fiancee on the luckiest day of the year, but it won't help. His sister Min-Min watches her mother fall into a coma and quietly suffers a spiritual breakdown. Her husband, NJ, faces a moral dilemma in business and slides into intimacy with the childhood sweetheart he abandoned years ago.
Both husband and wife have strayed from their children. Their teenage daughter learns to love and betray on her own, while their eight-year-old son finds his creative genius beyond his parents' orbit.
These facts matter in the film, but they're not what drive its pleasures. Yi Yi is a great movie because it never falters in its pursuit of a progressively deeper insight into its characters.
In one breathtaking scene, Min-Min admits she has nothing to say to her mother, now silent in a coma. Her husband responds with a practical solution that's so off-base it's almost violent. And then the view shifts to another family in the next apartment, their louder trauma serving as counterpoint.
Yang (A Brighter Summer Day, Mahjong) directs Yi Yi away from obvious plot crescendos, and yet it is completely engrossing. It has Mike Leigh's respect for, and attention to, the telling details of life itself, but without Leigh's slight tang of misanthropy.
Like the best Taiwanese directors -- Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, Ang Lee -- Yang has an astonishing eye for social nuance. He draws his characters from Taiwan's spiritually dispossessed, the families who came from mainland China with the Nationalists, who rejected Communism, displaced the locals and built a consumer paradise for their children only to find that paradise hollow and cruel. Yang's people are uncertain of their place in the nation, in the city, in the family, inside their own skins. So he gives their every act of love a shade of self-preservation, every urge to anger a moment of doubt. It's no wonder there's so much reflecting glass in this film.
Yi Yi is not dazzling, not new and certainly not short. It lacks much of what sparks buzz in filmland. Instead, it has truth, confidence, craft, beauty and, above all, empathy. It's a marvel.