If you’re a fan of art house, existential family dramas, like me, then Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000) will be one of the best films you will see. If was certainly one of the best I’ve seen, a mix of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Aruite Mo (Still Walking), Dare Mo Shirenai in parts, with even some Lost in Translation thrown into the mix. The greatest testament I can pay to it is that it’s the only film I can remember of around 3 hours in length that I didn’t think was too long.
Yi Yi is the story of a middle class Taipei family, seen through the perspectives of the father NJ, his daughter and his son. It centres- as most existential family dramas do- on grand themes of life and death, and love and loss, exacted for the minutiae of everyday life. It opens with a wedding and concludes with a funeral. In between, the father, NJ, dissatisfied with his job, runs into his childhood love out of the blue. On a business trip to Tokyo to conclude a deal with a zen-like videogame company owner (Japanese actor and comedian Issei Ogata), he meets her again, and they relive their childhood amid the bright lights of the Chuo-sen, Odaiba and the rest. At the same time, his daughter is caught in a love triangle with her best friend and her boyfriend, and filled with guilt over her small, accidental part in her grandmother’s hospitalisation. Perhaps the most endearing of the three story threads is that of the young son Yang-Yang– he’s a thoughtful and artistic 10 year old , who misbehaves at school and takes photos of the backs of people’s heads, in order to show them something they cannot see themselves. Other characters move in and out of focus throughout- jealous ex-lovers, NJ’s reckless brother, NJ’s wife, and the neighbours who the family live next to.
As with most art-house, existential family dramas, trying to explain the plot can make the film seen mundane (if ever this was true, it was with Koreeda’s Aruite Mo, where very little happened indeed). Here, a lot happens, spanning two countries, three main characters, with death and birth, suicide and murder. Yet the heart rending moments of emotion are parts you cannot explain adequately. The acting is brilliant- the portrayal of the young son by eight year old Jonathan Chang so perfect that you wonder how a boy so young can act so well. Emotional, wise, endearing, and profound, this film is a kaleidoscope, reflecting so many aspects of life that everyone recognises, capturing moments perfectly, whilst also managing to end satisfactorily, and in a manner that makes the piece seem complete. I can’t recommend it highly enough.