Wed 4 Jul 2007
I came home from Cornerstone this weekend to learn that Taiwanese director Edward Yang had died from colon cancer. Yang was hardly a prolific filmmaker. Indeed, he hadn’t made a movie since Yi Yi in 2000, though word had circulated that he was about to undertake an animated film with Jackie Chan. I find myself chuckling at that combination, as Yang’s aesthetic couldn’t be further from either animation or Chan’s goofy martial arts. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see what might have come of that pairing.
The sometimes accurate imdb credits Yang with eight feature films, of which I’ve only seen three. I saw The Terrorist early on in my film watching “career,” and I don’t remember much about it. I’m sure that says more about me than the film. I had the privilege of catching the monumental four-hour cut of A Brighter Summer Day, which I liked a lot but would need at least one or two more viewings to grasp it with any kind of depth. Acquarello’s dense, insightful review will give you a better sense of why that film is revered among a certain group of cinephiles.
The film, though, for which Yang will be remembered was his last–Yi Yi. My friend Garth asked me a few weeks ago how often I watch dvds, and I said hardly ever but that I sometimes enjoy choosing a favorite and then watching select scenes. Yi Yi is one of those favorite films for me. I can watch the opening 20 minutes over and over and over again, and then I find myself watching the whole thing through if I have the time.
In honor of Edward Yang, I present the review I wrote for Yi Yi six years ago. For those who have seen Yi Yi or other Yang films, please feel free to leave your own comments on what you remember best about his work.
The latest film from director Edward Yang, Yi Yi, opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In lesser hands, that convention might be a sign of formulaic weakness, but Yang so skillfully choreographs his various storylines that it instead feels like the most natural arc possible. Indeed, “natural” is a word that often comes to mind when describing Yi Yi. There’s nothing flashy about its tale of a middle-class Taipei family. No special effects, no histrionic acting, no clever narrative tricks. Even Yang’s camera just settles in the most natural spot and records the action. Yet, Yi Yi is one of the most absorbing movies of the last year, a three-hour movie that I wished would’ve been an hour or two longer.
It tells the story of NJ, a Taipei businessman entering middle age. His two children–high-school-age daughter Ting-Ting and eight-year-old son Yang-Yang–are both doing well in school, and his wife Min-Min appears devoted and content. But his company is faltering, and something seems amiss. “What was I getting?” he casually remarks early in the film, and it feels like a mantra for his existential predicament. Then he bumps into Sherry, his first love whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years but who still clearly has feelings for him. What should he do?
His daughter is also struggling with affairs of the heart. Next-door neighbor Lili has just broken up with her boyfriend, who seems to take an interest in Ting-Ting. Is it right to start dating your friend’s old boyfriend? Is it even wise? That’s not Ting-Ting’s only concern. Her grandmother suffered a stroke on the day of the wedding, a stroke for which Ting-Ting blames herself. She stays up at night, pleading with her comatose grandmother to wake up and “forgive” her.
Other characters in this cinematic potpourri include the newlyweds and their soon-to-be-born child, an old girlfriend of the groom who refuses to go away, NJ’s business partners whose ethics are dictated by their financial situation, and a computer-game designer who’s searching for the next big thing.
If this were an American film, it would be described as Altman-esque, but it feels nothing like an Altman film. Movies like Nashville and Short Cuts overwhelm you with the director’s ability to juggle a dozen storylines, all while the film moves to some predestined conclusion. As much as I love Nashville, Yi Yi is even more impressive in its narrative approach. There’s an openness to Yi Yi–a willingness to follow each story wherever it might go, a belief that every character is important for who he is and not for what he represents.
Take A-Di, for instance–a man obsessed with both astrology and money and who’s trying to juggle his new marriage and a relationship with an old girlfriend. But instead of making him out to be a rogue or boor, he’s just A-Di, a man whose priorities might be a little off but a man nonetheless. His scenes may sometimes be comic, but he’s not the film’s comic relief. He’s worthy of our interest and even our respect.
Take Min-Min. Watching her mother lie in a coma confronts her with the emptiness of her own existence. Her response is to impulsively leave her family and run off to a spiritual retreat. So many other films would mock Min-Min’s choice or position her as the villain, but Yang treats her with care. We may not agree with what she’s done, but we understand why she’s done it.
This idea of understanding is one of Yi Yi‘s most significant themes. Midway through the film, Yang-Yang, who’s clearly a stand-in for the director, becomes obsessed with taking photographs. At first, he just randomly shoots around his apartment building. He tells his neighbor he’s trying to photograph a mosquito, but the pictures are just random shots of empty space. Later, though, Yang Yang hits on the idea of photographing the backs of people’s heads. Explaining his choice, he remarks, “you can’t see it yourself, so I help you.”
No one can accuse Edward Yang of shooting random shots of empty space. His compositions are exquisite, situating each character in his own milieu and showing us what we need to see. There’s a natural beauty to his direction. Rarely does it show off (though one shot of a young girl against a video screen of clouds and lightning will stick with me for years to come), but its simplicity matches his narrative to perfection.
The ensemble’s acting is equally strong. From Wu Nienjen (as NJ) to Kelly Lee (as Ting-Ting) to relatively minor characters like Ke Suyun (as Sherry), the performances convey a depth of feeling and emotion rarely seen on the big screen, yet without calling attention to themselves. Simplicity is the order of the day.
Near the end of the film, Yang-Yang makes a speech to his grandmother. He announces his goal in life is to “tell people things they don’t know, show them things they haven’t seen.” Yang’s film not only does that but also accomplishes the harder task of reminding us of what we once knew but forgot, of taking something familiar and making it seem new.
Edward Yang was 59 years old.
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