Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Yi Yi

Taiwan's Edward Yang was one of the most respected filmmakers of world cinema, and most often cited as his masterpiece is his 2000 drama Yi Yi (sometimes translated as A One and a Two). A nearly 3 hour human epic focusing on the Jian family living in Taipei. It starts with a wedding, and a visibly pregnant bride, and ends with a funeral, in between containing everything life could contain: joy, pain, anger, regret, love, and the constant search for the whole truth of it all. It's a truly great movie.

We mostly follow NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), the father of the family, as he struggles with money, disagreements with his partners in the failing business he runs, and a chance meeting with his first love, 30 years after he'd run away from her, making him contemplate his choices and direction in life. We also see Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), NJ's teenaged daughter, struggle through the mess of being a teenager. Making friends, hanging out, discovering boys (and boys discovering her), her relationship with her elders, and more. We see a bit of the mom in the family, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), but mostly the other person we follow is Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), the 8-year-old son as he navigates being a kid, a curious, sensitive kid. Writer/director Yang manages all of this and more with an author's sense of detail and character building. Like John Sayles's Lone Star or Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, this is one of the few movies I'd describe as novelic. It is so richly made, and with such care. I've rarely felt closer or more curious about the fates and futures of movie characters than this family.

Yang was a member of the Taiwanese New Wave, alongside one of my favorite filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He even cast Hou in his third movie, Taipei Story, in 1985. Nien-Jen Wu, the father NJ, is a celebrated writer/director himself (his 1994 movie A Borrowed Life was named by Martin Scorsese as the 3rd best movie of the 90's), and worked as an actor and writer for both Hou and Yang throughout his career. And he's tremendous in the lead role here, playing a thoroughly good man who contemplates his life while trying to be a good dad, and a good and ethical business man. The kids, neither of whom had ever acted before or much since, are both tremendous. Especially little Jonathan Chang as the son searching for truth in the world. It's a beautiful trio of performances in a beautiful movie.

Sadly, Yi Yi was Yang's last movie, as he contracted colon cancer around the time of its release and fought it for years before finally succumbing in 2007. Though his movies tended to be long, his other most famous movie A Brighter Summer Day is 4 hours long, this movie is so filled with depth and attention and soul that I will definitely be checking out more from yet another towering figure in world cinema that I have found in this wonderful quest I'm on.

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