A Sumptuous Look At the Modern Family

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Edward Yang is a filmmaker of extraordinary intelligence who may have the strongest claim, among active directors, to a place on the Mount Rushmore of humanist cinema. He combines the equable humor of Renoir, the discriminating patience of Ozu, and the pictorial ingenuity of Antonioni. And like them, Mr. Yang is a virtuoso whose hand is always visible.

Mr. Yang’s magnificent “Yi Yi” vibrantly orchestrates the harmonies, discords, and cadenzas of family life, employing contrapuntal parallels and tempo variations that range, in effect, from half time to double time. So it may be worth pondering the writer-director’s tone-deaf attempt to find an English title.The colloquial Chinese title means “one-one” or “individually,” signifying, according to Mr. Yang (whose notes are included in the booklet of Criterion’s new DVD release), “the film’s portrayal of life through each individual member.”

The English title, “A One and a Two …,” derives from “what’s always muttered by jazz musicians before a jam session”; it indicates, Mr. Yang says, that what follows will not be “tense or heavy or stressful. Life should be like a jazzy tune.” Jazz musicians, however, rarely count off tunes with conjunctions — that’s strictly Lawrence Welk — and the film is brazen with moments of tension. So what goes on here? Both titles are evasions; the artist attempting to fade into the shadow of his art. If audiences leave with “the impression of having encountered a ‘filmmaker,'” he writes, “then I’d have to consider the film a failure.”


In that sense only is “Yi Yi” a failure. The film is nothing if not sumptuous.Abetted by a skillful crew, including cameraman Weihan Yang and sound technician Duzhi Du, Mr. Yang frames his story with stunning pans of Taipei and Tokyo and an infallibly inventive design incorporating reflective surfaces (windows, mirrors) and an acute regard for the meaning and constraints of architecture.

No less impressive is the sound design. Turn up the volume to take it all in: a multidimensional soundscape, capturing ambient subtleties that distinguish apartments from hotel rooms; urban white noise and the unquiet quiet; isolated footfalls and hallway echoes; the anonymous buzzing and clicking of a plugged-in world. Against these natural and unnatural sounds is a scenario involving three languages (Chinese, Japanese, and English) and a diegetic musical score that makes witting use of Beethoven, Gershwin, and the Shirelles.

If I’ve focused on technique at the expense of substance, it’s because in “Yi Yi,” they are as inseparable as in a great Art Tatum piano solo. That’s one reason it succeeds in blending the anxieties of soap opera with the temporal demands of an epic. A three-hour deconstruction of a family whose members spin into discrete orbits, “Yi Yi” is alternately funny, moving, nervewracking, and surprising. It demonstrates that even in the best of circumstances, communication is limited, but respect for privacy is not the least-healing balm we can bring to family dynamics.


Centered on the big events in an average upper-middle-class life, “Yi Yi” begins with a wedding in the Jian family — a union delayed by the well-meaning if oafishly superstitious groom (Xisheng Chen), who was waiting for his horoscope to mandate a lucky day; his forbearing bride is in her third trimester. How lucky or not the day proves to be is central to the film’s meaning. Other events of the day find NJ Jian (the groom’s brother and principal character, played with a charismatic solemnity by filmmaker Nianzhen Wu) running into a woman he abandoned 30 years ago, and Grandma Jian (Ruyun Tang) suffering a stroke and lapsing into a coma.A doctor advises the family to take turns talking to grandma, in the hope of reviving her.

With this narrative masterstroke, grandma becomes a stand-in for God, as each member of the family speaks aloud to the void (NJ compares it with praying) and hears unnerving echoes. Forced to confront the emptiness of her life, Jian’s wife (Elaine Jin) runs off to a guru’s mountain retreat. NJ, whose computer business is in financial trouble, finds his own guru in Ota (Issey Ogata), a rather sententious Japanese programming wizard whose tentative command of English underscores the profundity of his seeming wisdom. Meeting with Ota in Tokyo, Jian also rendezvous with his old flame, Sherry (Suyun Ke),married to wealth in America and given equally to romantic proposals and hysterical outbursts.

The two Jian children provide greater emotional ballast, discovering for the first time the romantic complications NJ is merely trying to relive. Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is a teenage girl, enticed by an unhinged Romeo called Fatty (Yupang Chang); she is the only family member who takes sustenance from her comatose grandma, whose condition she blames on herself and whose guilt she expunges in a brightly lit fantasy scene worthy of a Kenzi Mizoguchi ghost story.


Yet the film finally belongs to her 8-year-old brother, Yang-Yang, one of the most appealing children in movie history, played by Jonathan Chang with a wary authority that somehow surmounts mere cuteness (though there’s plenty of that). Yang-Yang is the director’s stand-in, an “avant-garde” artist, as his Dickensian teacher mocks him, who tries to photograph mosquitoes and more effectively shoots the backs of people’s heads.Yang-Yang is too self-possessed to converse with grandma, yet he delivers a eulogy at her funeral that unites the others in wonder.

Smitten by his teacher’s daughter, a swimmer, Yang-Yang attempts to overcome his fear of water by submerging his head in a sink. Mr.Yang is not above manipulating the audience. He knows that when the film dares to suggest that Yang-Yang may have drowned, viewers will react as readers once did to the death of Little Nell. When Yang-Yang later slips through the front door (“Why are you wet? Is it raining?”), the sun has risen once again.

“Yi Yi” is strangely prudish about sex — the assignations are unconsummated. In lovemaking begins responsibility: The adulteries indulged in by the family in a neighboring apartment trigger a grisly murder. Yet this prudishness helps make possible the film’s well-earned epiphany. When NJ’s wife returns, he assures her that nothing has changed in her absence. But something has changed.He tells her, “Even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn’t need it.” This is affirmation, not surrender.

“Yi Yi” isn’t flawless. Keili Ping’s piano music infects the score with a New Age banality. The mother is too conveniently sent off to the mountains, a way to keep one less ball in the air — why no scene at the retreat? For that matter, why no final reckoning with Ota, whom NJ’s company betrays? The shoehorned murder adds nothing except a touch of genre that the film otherwise bravely eschews.

Yet Mr.Yang hits very few bad notes. He shows how Westernized Taipei is, with its fast-food and bagel shops, computer games and movie madness, but he hasn’t gone Hollywood.This is a film that breathes with unforced life, even as it works through conventional plot points. The perfectly framed and unedited master shots respect the actors and their characters.Ting-Ting and Fatty attend a concert of Beethoven’s cello sonata and we watch them listen for a minute, a voyeuristic moment even more intimate than their two-minute tryst in a hotel.

Criterion’s transfer is a DVD event. Five years ago, Fox Lorber released a version that looked as though it were camcorded in a theater: colors washed out, images softened, artifacts everywhere. This edition is pristine, luminous, and eye-popping in its detail. It is augmented by a commentary by Mr. Yang and critic Tony Rayns, spoken observations on Taiwanese film by Mr. Rayns, and a shrewd essay by Kent Jones. Don’t miss this one.

The New York Sun

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