Yi-Yi: A One and a Two
Most family epics are downers, tragedies, stories of something organic that slowly unravels. But Yi Yi—Edward Yang’s painstakingly observant film about a couple of weeks in the life of a Taiwanese family—is a vast tapestry of discouragement, questioning, realization, and hope. Has there ever been a family epic that offered a richer tapestry of trouble and joy, hurt and healing?
It begins with a wedding, proceeds quickly to a birth, and eventually to a funeral. But the film’s greatest strength is Yang’s way of capturing moments that, while seeming incidental and spontaneous, speak powerfully to the film’s main themes.
When the elderly matriarch of the family collapses into a coma, her family members visit her to carry out the doctor’s instructions: Talk to her. She becomes like a confessor, her presence drawing out her family’s troubles, questions, and hopes. The film’s “head” is located in her son, N.J., who struggles to address his family’s heartaches. His wife suffers from spiritual disillusionment; his daughter is experiencing first love and first heartbreak; and he himself is wrestling with vocational frustration and a temptation toward an extramarital affair.
But the movie’s “heart” is found in the watchfulness, timidity, and wonder of N.J.’s young son Yang-Yang. Yang-Yang finds inspiration by photographing “the backs of people’s heads.” He seems destined to become an artist, showing people truths about themselves that they would never otherwise discover. Meanwhile, Ota (Issey Ogata), one of N.J.’s business associates, becomes a figure almost impossible to find at the movies: a wise, ethical, inspiring businessman. He manifests the director’s compassionate hearts and childlike sense of curiosity.