Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: Yi Yi

★★★★★

Following a year in the life of a middle-class Taiwanese family, the late Edward Yang’s Yi Yi – his final feature – is a profoundly intimate expression of finding beauty in the everyday and meaning in the mundane. Without showy visuals or contrived narrative incident, Yi Yi delicately reminds us of cinema’s everyday vitality.

On the surface, nothing much happens in Yi Yi. Family man N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu) has his ups and downs at work – he is dissatisfied with the daily grind but finds new energy in the prospect of a venture with Japanese software company Ota. Meanwhile, his misunderstood young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is bullied at school and picked on by his teacher, teenage daughter Ting Ting (Kelly Lee) has eyes for her best friend’s boyfriend, and wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) lives in quiet desperation at her own monotonous life.

It is the very ordinariness of the Jian family that is so utterly compelling. Numerous shots frame them behind glass windows – at night this has the effect of making them near invisible against the reflected glare of the city – their cramped apartment and its occupants melting into the substrate of the city landscape. Yet it is also deeply compelling: peering at them voyeuristically, we are afforded only the barest glimpses of their lives. The disarmingly perceptive Yang-Yang sums it up perfectly – “you can’t see what I see, and I can’t see what you see. So how can I know what you see?”

In separating the viewer from his subjects, cinematographer Wei-Han Yang’s emphasises not only our distance from them, but crucially, their intimacy with each other. It is a beautiful irony that distance creates a sense of closeness, that the ordinariness that makes the family almost invisible is what makes them such a vital subject.

Static shots emphasise single planes of movement, drawing out the straight lines of office desks and apartment walls, while open doors are used to cut characters out of frame. Combined with Po-Wen Chen’s methodical editing, the effect is to slow the film’s pace to the rhythm of the every day, where authentic routine and repetition are privileged over contrived incident.

In less assured hands, Yi Yi’s pace might be tedious,  but here it is as emotionally moving as it is aesthetically precise. ‘Literary’ is an overused descriptor of intelligent, character driven films, but here the comparison to a novel is warranted. Rather than the typical inciting incident of a film’s typical narrative structure, Yang’s screenplay builds its story organically, painting a portrait of flawed, tender humans, framed at either end with a wedding and a funeral.

Yi Yi isn’t entirely without incident, of course. N.J.’s business trip to Japan brings him back into contact with an old flame and provides most of the emotional beats of the film’s middle section. But this is a story driven fundamentally by the poetry of its characters’ lives. The process may be slow, but over its course Yang’s film works its magic to craft a quiet masterpiece.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell