Netflix has been a God-send for me. Having two DVDs sent to me at a time from an insanely huge list of DVDs that are generally hard to find or not affordable is really a wonderful, wonderful thing. Sometimes during the school semester, however, I find my red envelope sitting next to the TV for up to a month or even more - things get busy with school or work and it's hard to find time for a movie. What exacerbates that situation is that sometimes the film is long or known to be "difficult," requiring a particular mood and chunk of time, both of which are hard to come by. Yi Yi by director Edward Yang, had been sitting in its red envelope for a long time; since I saw that it's three hours long and I didn't know anything about this director's work, I had to put it off for a while. After finally deciding to sit down to watch it (actually, it took two installments), I found myself elated with a wonderful surprise.
The film focuses on the nuclear family of the Jiangs living in modern day Taipei and peers into the lives of each of its members, each dealing with their own crises - NJ, the father, meets with an old lover while trying to deal with a failing business; Min Min, the mother, struggles to find meaning in her life with her mother in a coma and retreats to a Buddhist seminary; the gentle, moon-faced Ting Ting, the teenage daughter, finds out some tough realities about love and life for the first time; and Ying Ying, the grade-school boy, tries to keep himself occupied without getting into too much trouble at school (while also discovering his first crush).
The film opens at a wedding, with lush red velvet colors and strongly contrasted black and white tuxedos. From the onset we see the gathering of family, indiscernible at first except for a chubby groom and pregnant bride in white. After a little while we see a loud, brass woman yelling and screaming, then getting on her knees to seemingly apologize to an old woman saying, "I'm sorry. It should have been me marrying your son today," only to be ushered away by the arms. Immediately, Yang establishes the motif of the clash between past and present, decisions and regrets,love and hostility between family, and individual problems beneath a normal, happy veneer. Not that this hasn't been done before. Such a description could bring to mind Sam Mendes's American Beauty (1999) or Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) among a dozen other films about family life. However, Yang is working in a different vein, a much gentler, nuanced and delicate examination of everyday life more akin to Yasujiro Ozu and any number of his family dramas.
Like Ozu, Yang does not move the camera very much. At most we will see the camera pan, but there are no dolly shots, no hand-held camera, not even tilts. Yang's camera sets us up as the quiet observer, composing most of his shots in long shot or in full shots of characters within interior and exterior spaces. This lack of visual camera style speaks to the nature of the film, which is supposed to be uninterrupted, ordinary life unfolding. He especially likes to shoot scenes from the reflections seen in glass. We either see the reflection of the city against the glass with the characters behind it, or the city behind the glass and the characters' reflections playing out the scene. This technique reinforces the idea of anonymity - these are just some people in a city; it could really be anyone. Even so, their stories are compelling; the ordinary is extraordinary.
What makes Yi Yi so special are the way life's biggest questions are brought up and dealt with in an inconclusive yet affirming way. For example, NJ has a chance to reunite with an old lover, someone whom he seems to connect with better than his own wife. Did he make the wrong decision? It goes without saying that regrets and the hold the past has on us are things that each viewer can relate with. Yet, instead of offering a black or white - this was the right decision/this was the wrong decision - Yang offers us this through NJ towards the end of the film: "I had a chance to relive my youth and thought I could make things turn out differently, but they turned out much the same or not much different. Then I thought that even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn't need it. I really wouldn't."
This bittersweet reflection is added upon by his wife's realization after coming back from a Buddhist temple in search of enlightenment and meaning after an existential breakdown, in which she says, "Things aren't really so complicated." The implication being that they really are, but the way we deal with them should not be. In each of these realizations there is a submitting to absurdity and in that an affirmation to go on living, lined with an inescapable sadness.
The wisest, however, seems to be NJ's son, Ying Ying. As he gets into the car with his dad, NJ, he says, "Daddy, I can't see what you see and you can't see what I see." NJ says he doesn't understand and Ying Ying offers this: "I can only see what's in front and not what's behind, so I can only know half of the truth, right?" NJ laughs and says that it may be true and that's what Ying Ying needs a camera for. From there Ying Ying takes pictures of the backs of his classmates' heads, offering to show them what they can't see. This little emblematic metaphor for truth is both cute and insightful, like Ying Ying. Yang suggests that truth is something we know, yet do not completely know, like the back of our heads.