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Stream of the Day: Edward Yang’s ‘Yi Yi’ Reflects the Richness of Our Own Lives

Even now, when we are all stuck in our homes, "Yi Yi" reminds us that we still have so much to show each other.

“Yi Yi”

With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.

To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this column is currently dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.

Trying to indicate the scale of a movie so immense and full of life that it can’t possibly be described (only experienced), the British critic Nigel Andrews wrote that calling “‘Yi Yi’ a three-hour Taiwanese family drama is like calling ‘Citizen Kane’ a film about a newspaper.” It’s a clever line, but those who haven’t seen Edward Yang’s final masterpiece could easily mistake it for a cop-out. At a passing glance, it seems like the kind of thing someone in Andrews’ position might say when they’re too awed to do their job well. And yet, to watch “Yi Yi” is to know where the critic was coming from, and to recognize that he wasn’t surrendering to a great work of art so much as he was summarizing its power. “Yi Yi” isn’t hard to put into words because it’s one of the best movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made because it’s hard to put into words.

A tender and lilting domestic epic that premiered at Cannes in 2000, and felt like a kind of cinematic requiem even before Yang died of colon cancer in 2007 (a few months shy of the great Taiwanese auteur’s 60th birthday), “Yi Yi” is a film about so many different things (the inescapability of regret, the architecture of modernity, the way that old loves turn into the most beautiful music) that it feels shortsighted to say that it’s a film about any of them. The older we get, however, the easier it becomes to appreciate Yang’s swan song as a bittersweet acknowledgement of the very shortsightedness that it can inspire.

This life is too big for anyone to see the whole picture themselves, and yet we — who can’t even see the back of our own heads — are forced to navigate the infinite complexities of the world as if we’ve been here before (“Risk is high when you do anything for the first time,” one particularly wise character imparts). So we get lost. We make mistakes. We hold fast to even our flimsiest convictions to avoid being paralyzed by the uncertainty of it all.

But Yang’s film confronts that dilemma by looking directly at it and finding something beautiful in the limits of our vision. Time and again, through death and even murder, this intricate ensemble story returns to the same idea: If people could see everything for themselves, there would be nothing for us to show each other. Reminding us of that might be the single most valuable thing that movies can do, and no movie has ever done it better than “Yi Yi.”

“Yi Yi” chronicles a dry summer in the lives of a Taipei family just before the turn of the 21st century. It starts with a wedding, ends with a funeral, and pauses for a birth around the halfway point, but none of those ceremonial events are framed with the special importance that other films might confer upon them. They appear casually and with the anticlimactic nowness of most significant milestones — as scaffolding for the smaller moments that Yang builds around them.

A gregarious dolt named A-Di ties the knot with a pregnant starlet in the opening scene, but Yang fades out as soon as these characters are introduced. When the picture returns, its focus has shifted to NJ (Wu Nien-jen), the groom’s pensive brother-in-law, who ducks out of the reception in order to bring his ailing mother-in-law back to the Jian family’s apartment. NJ’s teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) tags along in order to take out the trash, only to get distracted by a fateful encounter with a pretty neighbor and her neighbor’s stick-thin boyfriend Fatty (Pang Chan Yu).

When NJ returns to the wedding, he has a chance encounter with his long-lost love Sherry (Ko Su-Yun), who he jilted some 25 years earlier. His inquisitive eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (the unforgettable Jonathan Chang) is teased by some bigger girls, and so NJ takes him to McDonald’s and wonders if he can be the friend-like dad for Yang-Yang that he always wanted his father to be for him. The night ends with NJ’s mother-in-law being rushed to the hospital after suffering the stroke that will leave her in a coma for most of the film.

“Yi Yi”

The wedding itself is sudsy enough to sustain an entire soap opera, but Yang is far more interested in the casual melodrama of human existence that’s cascading around it. Shot with deceptive stillness and glazed with twinkling piano music (played by Yang’s wife Peng Kai-Li) that riffs on familiar compositions by Beethoven and Bach, the first 20 minutes of this nearly three-hour movie attune us to the sheer volume of human crises that surround people in a major city — a ceaseless torrent of life so dense it can be hard to see your own place in it.

It’s even harder to imagine a filmmaker who had less use for Hollywood story gurus than Edward Yang, but “Yi Yi” recalls the “Adaptation” monologue that Charlie Kaufman wrote for a fictionalized version of Robert McKee: “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Yang offers his own inverted take on that scene later in the film, when the newly single Fatty takes Ting-Ting on a date.

Fatty: “Life is a mixture of happy and sad things. Movies are so lifelike — that’s why we love them.
Ting-Ting: “Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life.”
Fatty: “My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies.”
Ting-Ting: “How can that be?”
Fatty: “It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life.”

By Fatty’s logic, movies aren’t additive so much as clarifying — they teach us to recognize the fullness of a life that we often can’t see clearly without a screen on which to project it (or maybe it’s that we are the screen, ourselves). Fatty isn’t an especially wise character, and he condemns himself to an ultra-“cinematic” ending, but he understands the need to see and be seen in a city that Yang often shoots like a panopticon. The Jian family’s apartment juts out over a highway in a way that makes us feel like rubberneckers every time we look in on them. Many crucial moments are filmed against large windows or through benign surveillance cameras, as Yang traces a seemingly irreconcilable distance between people and their avatars.

It’s a lack of perspective that makes it hard for these characters to understand themselves, and gives other people the chance to do it for them. Left to their own devices, the Jians see their lives reflected back at them like a house of mirrors; they take turns sitting at the comatose grandmother’s bedside, but her silence only throws their self-doubt right back at them.

“Yi Yi”

The Jians are revealed to themselves through unexpected encounters, all of which are rendered with such quotidian grace that you hardly clock their profound importance at the time (“Yi Yi” is set almost entirely in the gap between becoming and self-recognition, however wide that gap might be). You could spend an eternity unpacking about the way that NJ is rattled awake by his relationship with a new client named Ota (Ogata Issey), a sage-like Japanese video game programmer who believes that people don’t understand themselves. Or the way that NJ and Ting-Ting both struggle with their respective stirrings of first love — he with Sherry, she with Fatty — as Yang finds that our most private feelings can run parallel to each other in ways that most of us lack the perspective to appreciate (especially in our own families).

As our friend Mr. Andrews already knows, the only excuse for writing a short and overly broad article about “Yi Yi” is that no article about this movie could ever be long enough. That’s why Yang had to make it in the first place. Yang-Yang asks his dad: “I can’t see what you see, and you can’t see what I see, so how can I know what you see?” NJ’s response: “That’s why we need a camera.”

Lucky for us, Yang had one. Yang-Yang eventually has one as well. Too young to accept that most of us only find our way through life by keeping our eyes closed — that we can only map the roads that we travel by looking in the rear-view mirror — the guileless Yang-Yang asks his dad: “I can only see what’s in front and not behind, so can we only know half the truth?” We know that NJ is still trying to answer that for himself, but little Yang-Yang takes the initiative to solve the problem in his own way: By taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads. “You can’t see it yourself,” he matter-of-factly tells one recipient of his photos. “So I help you.”

At a time when we aren’t able to see each other, and escapism has been elevated to something of a public health service, it’s so cathartic to watch a movie that doesn’t try to distract from the emptiness of our lives — a movie that’s determined to reveal their fullness, instead. There is no end of things to see in Yang’s magnum opus, and it endures as one of the most re-watchable films ever made for good reason. Of course, the same richness can be found in his four-hour “A Brighter Summer Day,” or “The Terrorizers,” or “Taipei Story.” What makes “Yi Yi” special is that it restores our sight.

“Yi Yi” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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