When I first read that Edward Yang, the Taiwanese director of Yi Yi (A One and a Two) and A Brighter Summer Day, had passed away this weekend at the age of 59, I was selfishly upset — as a moviegoer, I was angry that an artist of Yang’s talent and stature should die at such a young age, taking with him the many movies he had yet to make. Most of Yang’s films are difficult to see in this country, and my one hope today is that his death will result in their wider availability. It’s small solace that, though we won’t get new films, there are still so many Yang films for most of us to discover beyond Yi Yi, the one Yang film available on DVD here (on a fantastic new Criterion disc).
Yi Yi became something of an international sensation earlier in the decade, winning Yang the best director prize at Cannes in 2000 and a best picture award from the National Society of Film Critics the following year, cementing Yang’s status as one of the greatest and most important figures in world cinema. No one would have guessed that Yi Yi would end up being Yang’s final film (he was working on an animated feature at the time of his death), but in hindsight, it’s a fitting close to his career. A film of breathtaking intimacy and sweep, Yi Yi is a small family drama — it opens with a wedding; it features a birth at its midpoint; it ends with a funeral — that, in its quietly beautiful, unassuming way, seems to capture the essence of human life as it’s lived: the wonder of childhood, the thrill of first love, the desperate loneliness of the city, the frustration of missed opportunity, the sting of lost love, the grace of old age. Almost every shot of the movie is like a work of art — the astonishing loveliness of Yang’s long-shot, long-take compositions can’t be put into words. I can’t write about Yi Yi without recourse to overused superlatives — it is, indeed, sublime, a masterpiece in every sense of the word, one of three or four great masterworks of this decade. It’s a film that moves me to tears. Warm and funny, enveloping and sad, Yi Yi is a film I’ll always treasure, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.