Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Edward Yang's three-hour opus Yi Yi opens at a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, it runs the gamut of the big questions of life and art, examining them with an eye for detail and a natural empathy. That's the simplest condensation you could wring from its expansive story, and naturally it leaves out everything that's truly wondrous about the film. Yang handles his themes and his mise-en-scène with equal care, letting one feed the other with shots that overlap contrasting moods and images. To say, "you'll laugh, you'll cry" wouldn't begin to sum up the emotions Yi Yi effortlessly conjures.
Yang splits his attention between three members of the Jian family: the father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), his teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). They are attending the wedding of NJ's brother-in-law, A-Di, whose reception is somewhat spoiled by the appearance of an ex-girlfriend who immediately sparks a fight with the new bride.
In these opening moments, Yang establishes many of the film's themes and stylistic approaches: NJ watches the catfight between the wife and the ex- with laconic stoicism, a trait that also defines his 8-year-old son. Yang-Yang poses for one of the wedding photos, and the young girls of the family poke and prod him as he looks around wildly for the perpetrators. At a table, the adults gossip over the wife's pregnancy; "We had bus rides without tickets in our day, too," admonishes one of the more level-headed guests.
The latter situation sets up the film's examination of the conflict between the modern and traditional worlds that can be found in most cultures but particularly applies to Asian cinema as the recent developments of democracy and Communism in various regions of Asia are relatively new in the face of rich histories stretching back thousands of years. This is especially true of Taiwan, which only set itself up as a democracy in the mid-'80s after over 400 years of control by various European and Asian powers (its formal name is still the Republic of China). That's what makes Taiwanese cinema as interesting as Hong Kong cinema: they combine multiple cultures in the search for their own identity. The typical modern clichés -- settings indistinguishable from one another, humanity lost in a technological, emotionless fog -- are present, but Yang gently subverts them by pointing out the freedoms younger generations can experience.
Nowhere is that more evident than in NJ's life. As he leaves the wedding, NJ waits for an elevator, only for the doors to open and reveal Sherry, his old girlfriend. Yang never breaks for a reverse shot of NJ's reaction; instead, he holds his static shot from behind NJ and his son as Sherry greets him warmly. Though we never see his reaction, Wu's imperceptible shift in body language, and the simple mood evoked from the shot convey a flood of emotions that the stoic NJ can barely contain. The return of NJ's feelings for Sherry are compounded by his wife's breakdown after her mother suffers a stroke. Suffering from a midlife crisis, Min-Min believes that her meaningless life is not so removed from the comatose vegetable lying in a bed, so she takes a break from life and goes to a retreat.
The sudden doubt and regret in these characters reflect how these closed-off, insular people have been thrust into a situation that alters their perspectives, that reawakens them to the various ways to process the world around us. Little Yang-Yang, obviously a stand-in for the director even if you leave out the name, looking for his young tormentors in the photo-op comes to embody this theme of our ability to see only one side of an experience. "I can't see what you see, and you can't see what I see," he relates to his father on the way home one evening. "Can we know only one half of the truth?" he presses, "We can only see what's in front, not what's behind." Yang visualizes this concept through his composition: many shots capture the characters behind glass or in the reflections of mirrors. In the glass, the characters are obscured by the reflections of buildings and people around them -- in one of the most beautiful shots of the film, NJ closes the blinds of his bedroom to comfort his sobbing wife, until the interior is blocked by black shades that reflect the city traffic below, in effect confirming Min-Min's sense of meaninglessness in a busy world. In mirrors, we have a literal representation of the idea of only seeing half of what's present, as a mirror cannot reflect what is behind it.
The conflict between tradition and modern culture also, to an extent, informs NJ's professional life. Working for a software company on the edge of bankruptcy, NJ must secure a deal with a genius Japanese game developer named Ota. Ota and NJ form a bond almost immediately, and Ota's artistic prowess -- be it at design or music -- reminds him of his own lack of talent. It is NJ's job to slap a dollar sign on this man's genius and to convince Ota to let his failing company leech off of him. NJ feels guilty even bringing the subject of money up with someone who can actually create, though Ota never feels offended and even assures his new friend that he is a good man.
Yang manages the turbulence in his characters' lives with a poetic sense of overlapping dialogue and visuals. A botany teacher chastises Ting-Ting for putting so much care into her assigned plant that it actually won't grow, and her explanations for the proper way to raise a plant melt into shots of an ultrasound of A-Di and his wife's new baby. Yang-Yang catches a glimpse up a young girl's skirt when she enters an auditorium, and as she walks in front of the A/V screen to take her place, the presentation discusses the attraction of charges to make lightning. The finest juxtaposition contrasts Ting-Ting's first date with NJ's painful reconnection with Sherry in Tokyo; in this shot, the age lines between tradition and the modern era vanish, as Ting-Ting's humility and caution reflect an older mindset, while her father attempts to come to terms with his emotions rather than bury them behind his stone face. Yang also places his camera in static long shots evocative of Ozu's pillow shots, albeit with people in them. His characters often appear in door frames, situated between traditional values and the more modern idea of following one's heart, and they're unsure of whether to move forward.
There's an inherent beauty in Asian cinema, thanks to the vibrancy of its architecture -- even the standard-issue concrete blocks of modern Communist China have a certain urban charm to them, albeit a dark one. Yang, as the product of a Taiwanese upbringing, combines elements of various sources: the emotional distance of people trying to come to terms with those feelings reflects a great deal of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, while his ability to capture the vibrancy of Taiwan's classic Chinese, Japanese and modern Communist structure with a quiet reflection openly calls to mind the great Japanese master Ozu. But there is also a Western influence to the film, though one that is inseparable from its Eastern sentiment: the quest for people to find meaning in their lives knows no cultural boundaries, though we explore paths to meaning through our separate cultures. When NJ broke up with Sherry decades ago, she fled to the United States in grief, so unable to cope with the confines of her culture that she sought to find meaning in another one. Her desire to rekindle their relationship is identical to NJ's, showing that Western influence has crept into Taiwan in her absence.
Red dominates the color palette in Chinese architecture, and it's present in a great many scenes of Yi Yi as well. Of course, red also defines many of Bergman's color films (and even, in a way, a monochrome one, Persona) because of its multiple interpretations: it's the color of anger, sacrifice, blood and martyrdom. But it is also the color of passion and love. Yi Yi contains a suicide attempt, a murder, break-ups and a natural death, but it also gives us a wedding, first love and birth. Near the end of the film, Yang-Yang, who has turned a camera into his first passion, gives his uncle a photo of the back of his head. "You can't see it yourself, so I'm helping you," he chirps. In Chinese, "yi" means one, thus the title can be interpreted as "one one" or "two." That, almost as much as any shot or any of its carefully chosen, beautiful dialogue, defines the film: we view everything literally at first, walled off by our own perspectives. With the help of others, however, we can see the whole picture, what's behind us as well as in front.
Labels: Edward Yang