YI YI: A ONE AND A TWO... A
Taiwan Japan (173 mi) 2000 d: Edward Yang
Why is the world so different from what we thought it was? —Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee)
Yang opened the 90’s with A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian) (1991) and ends the decade with this film, another humanistic, novelistic masterpiece, nearly three hours long, a slowly evolving story presented sequence by sequence, event by event, in a slow moving, quiet elegance, unraveling layer after layer of the outer and inner worlds of the Jian family in modern Taipei, seen largely through the eyes of the two children. Yang wrote the notes for what would eventually become YI YI 15 years ago when a friend’s father went into a coma, stating: “I knew I was too young at the time, so I put it aside.” There are no spectacular, explosive scenes here, like the massacre in the night of A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, instead Yang has created a much more poignant, reflective work, a funny, quietly powerful portrait of an ordinary middle class family struggling with their own personal self-doubts and alienation, their long, pent up frustrations, their exploration to find love and meaning in their lives, elegantly presented, deceptively simple, again, as is Yang’s signature, without a hint of artifice, and with an underlying, deeply felt humanism. There is particularly effective use of off-screen sound, as nearly all the angry expletives, or the explosive, unhappy emotional scenes occur off-screen, even a murder sequence, which we never see, while the camera shows us the stillness of life, the rhythms and routines, where everything shown seems to resemble a universality of “normal.” Disappointed by indifferent reviews that continued throughout his life’s work, Yang refused to release the film in Taiwan where, amazingly, the film has never been screened theatrically.
Winner of the Best Director award at Cannes, the story encapsulates the various phases of life itself with excrutiating honesty, masterfully interweaving characters in the manner of Jean Renoir’s carefully observant THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939), finding rhythms of experience that speak to recognizable themes in describing the comic and tragic sides of the human predicament, from birth to first awareness, school, bullying, friendships, first love, break-ups, marriage, employment, infidelity, mid-life crisis, illness, and death, while also exploring relationships of children with their parents, marital partners, and with aging parents. What’s perhaps most surprising is the amount of humor to be found alongside such a full range of emotional tones experienced throughout this complex, yet seamlessly evolving drama. Yang uses non-professional actors for the two most poignant acting performances, the Jian children, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang Jonathan Chang). Yang himself is seen briefly in the film simulating playing piano at a concert performance featuring his wife, Kaili Peng, playing the cello. She is credited for the film’s music, including the classical piano sequences. A-Di (Chen Hsi-Sheng) and his pregnant wife-to-be (Hsiao Shu-shen) have delayed their wedding several times so that it can take place on the most auspicious day of the year, but as luck would have it, after a somewhat raucous wedding ceremony, things take a turn for the worse. Granny (Tang Ru-Yun) suffers a stroke and remains in a coma throughout the film, where various family members come to talk to her at all hours of the day and night, all except 8-year old Yang-Yang, who has yet to find his own voice, so eloquently expressed at the end of the film, discovering wisdom beyond his years, as he comes to represent the spirit and hope of the director himself.
NJ, played by Wu Nien-jen, 1980’s and 90’s screenwriter for Hou Hsiao-hsien, also co-writer of Yang’s THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH (1983), is A-Di’s brother in law and heads the Jian family, living in a modern, city apartment featuring giant windows overlooking the ever flowing lines of traffic, which are seen constantly moving outside, but are also reflected back against the glass windows. Struggling to find his own voice in a rigid society, NJ seems to be the only mature member of his business associates at a software company, always called the most honest looking in a floundering company heading for bankruptcy, where immediate cash from a new investor is required. NJ leans towards the extremely likeable and intelligent, though often eccentric, Ota (Issey Ogata – a Japanese comedian), a computer games designer, as they develop a friendship, which is conveyed when NJ takes Ota, who expresses an interest in music, to a karaoke bar, and Ota is a big hit, bringing in happy, paying customers while playing superficial hits like “Sukiyaki,” Sukiyaki (Ue o Muite Arukou) - Kyu Sakamoto (English Translation ... YouTube (3:09), but when he starts playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Beethoven-Moonlight Sonata (Mvt. 1) - YouTube (6:08), this leads to utter silence from the patrons and the overall mood of the film changes instantly from exteriors to more deeply probing interiors. Despite his enthusiastic recommendation, the other more unimaginative business partners opt for a more flamboyant female CEO, chosen while NJ is still meeting Ota in Japan, causing embarrassment and humiliation, a merger that proves disastrous, eventually alienating NJ from the firm.
This company friction, along with the stress from Granny’s stroke, his wife’s mother, leads to a personal split between NJ and his wife, Ming-Ming (Elaine Jin, a Yang regular since A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY), who appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, moving to a Zen mountain retreat. The business opportunity to meet Ota, however, takes NJ to Japan where he has what amounts to a second chance opportunity to see a young love Sherry (Ko Su-Yun, aka Kelly Ko) that he abandoned 30 years earlier, someone he just happened to bump into at the wedding. The Japanese sequence is visually one of the most beautiful, contrasting the fluid modernity of an upscale hotel to the stillness of ancient Buddhist relics, which matches the changing moods of the two individuals, who are caught in shifting patterns of darkness and light, beautifully expressed by cinematographer Yang Wei-han. Fond of shooting scenes through windows and glass doors, Yang also carefully keeps his distance from his characters, but evokes a genuine tenderness. This reunion parallels in perfect unison with Ting-Ting’s first date with Fatty (Yu Pang Chang), both occurring simultaneously as the older couple attempts to relive their youth, with conversation from the older couple heard while the young couple is shown onscreen, in a beautifully choreographed expression of dual similarities and overlapping identities. As it turns out, NJ makes the same decision he did 30 years earlier, explaining he wouldn’t need a second chance in life, providing a calm, intelligent voice of reason and maturity in this film, with Ming-Ming also discovering that life is not nearly as complicated as it seems.
While both parents are out of town, Ting-Ting, the 16-year old daughter who has been the go-between delivering messages between the next door neighbor Lili (Adrian Lin) and her boyfriend Fatty, gets the opportunity to go out with Fatty herself, eventually leading to a hotel room, Fatty dressed in black, speechless, with Ting-Ting dressed in white, speechless, until Fatty runs away, revealing “This feels wrong...” Fatty subsequently rebukes her on the street, calling her a dreamer, telling her to leave him alone, just before his troubles escalate off-screen to murder. Ting-Ting is heartbroken and spends hours crying silently in her room, tending to a small plant, a school project, where other student’s plants are already in bloom, but not Ting-Ting’s, so, for consolation, she talks to Granny, still in a coma, at all hours of the night, afraid to sleep herself, asking for forgiveness, believing she is responsible for the fall that led to Granny’s stroke, as she was taking out the garbage that Ting-Ting forgot. Ting-Ting is the heart of this film, and is at the center of one of the most beautifully constructed scenes where she is sleepless and heartbroken, home alone with Granny, only to discover her plant has finally bloomed, while in the next room, she hears a voice. In her mind, Granny is awake making a white origami butterfly and hands it to Ting-Ting, who lays her head on Granny’s lap while Granny strokes her hair. Ting-Ting tells her, “Why is the world so different from what we thought it was?” relaxed with the thought that she can finally sleep now that Granny has forgiven her, but Granny dies while Ting-Ting finally sleeps.
Little Yang-Yang is the soul and comic relief of this film, the stand-in and alter ego of the director, borrowing his father’s camera to take pictures of the backs of people’s heads, then showing them the picture saying it was something they obviously could not see, verbalizing the director's approach to filmmaking: “We only understand half of everything because we can only see what’s in front of us,” and Yang’s camera aptly shows us “the other side” of every situation, an acute artistic observation which parallels the slowly revealed revelations in the small sequences of the film, as one rarely sees the entire picture all at once, instead only bits and pieces are shown a little bit at a time. Yang-Yang is constantly picked on and ridiculed by older girls, one, the leader, is a girl swimmer, and Yang-Yang can be seen sitting in the back at the pool watching her swim. Later, he locks himself in the bathroom holding his breath while submerging his face underwater in the sink. Finally, he actually jumps in the swimming pool with his clothes on, apparently still practicing holding his breath. But Yang-Yang seems most content in a scene right out of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), the planetarium sequence. Here, he is sitting against the wall, arms folded, in a darkened educational film room showing clouds and weather when his nemesis, the girl swimmer, opens the door and walks into the light, silhouetted against the screen as lightning explodes behind her, a brilliant scene depicting romance in the dark for a young 8-year old boy, scene from Yi Yi / A One and a Two (2000) - Edward Yang YouTube (1:29). Yang-Yang is perfectly delighted, but also has the final word in this film. He has avoided speaking to his comatose Granny throughout the film, leaving that to other family members, but at the funeral service, it is Yang-Yang who wants to talk to Granny, reading her a letter he wrote, in what is a tearful, yet eloquent, final testimony to sweetness, hope, and light, an elegiac affirmation that will stand as the director’s final testament, as he died from colon cancer before making another film.