The cultural identity of Taiwan was formed at the junction of the Chinese, Japanese and American civilizations. The intersections of the three vectors are noticeable in the private experience of Edward Yang. Edward Yang is one of the Taiwanese giants. Yang’s characters undergo continuous transformation. Starting in 1981 with indecision of Our Time about the troubles of the childhood, adulthood, marriage, debt, and further, four stories in Yi Yi that are scatter and unrelated about inter-generational confusion and strained family relations, Yang went through changes, showing them that has resulted in a number of changing movies’ styles. Sklar considered Yi Yi “the most evocative and fully realized exploration of his themes” (6). In some way, this picture summarizes Yang’s contribution to Taiwan cinematography. Starting with a ceremony of marriage and continuing with a funeral, the film shows how work and love can serve as the primary holders of the meaning in humans’ lives.
Yi Yi traces three generations of a family of modern Taipei from weddings to funerals. Intertwined characters as well as points of view create one of the richest family portraits in contemporary cinematography. The film tells about NJ (Wu Nienjen), who is over forty and experiences many troubles. In addition to problems at work that he can lose, his family turns into a bunch of problems: his mother-in-law is in a coma, his wife is going through a spiritual crisis, daughter falls in love, and the son is too wise for his eight years. Sudden encounter with an old lover Sherry, whom NJ gave up a long time ago, gives him a chance to start a new life. Becoming romantic, NJ secretly goes with Sherry to Japan to try to correct the mistakes of his life. Therefore, Yi Yi tells about the problems in NJ’s family and his attempt to rebirth in the respectable age.
The theme of midlife crisis in the movies is not new, but seems to be always relevant. It seems that this film is the regular work on this topic. However, it is not only about the crisis, but about the way, in which a person finds the strength to overcome it, and begins to live a new life, which he once dreamed of, but due to different circumstances of his personal life it was impossible to implement it in the reality. Sklar emphasizes that Yang focuses on the family life, in the way, in which different generations negotiate social transformations, new ideas and values of popular culture and commercial life (6). The movie explores the complicacy of universal issues of loneliness and guilt, which can be faced by every person.
In fact, a man over the age of 40-50 finds the meaning of life and wants to come back into it and fix all the mistakes. Interesting eternal idea will never become obsolete. Lai considers Yi Yi “epic scale with intimate detail; dark dilemmas of the soul searching for light” (5). There are a number of powerful female portraits in Yi Yi. Yang considered women not weak, especially in regard to Chinese society. Women used to be in the shadow, but, in fact, they do a number of things. Thus, Yang had a great sense of respect to women (Sklar 7).
Throuhout the film, there is a depiction of the broad spectrum of human’s emotions and experiences both in collective and individual forms. Thus, NJ is a sad patriarch, who deals with failures at his company, and experiences a midlife crisis that was provoked by the comeback of Sherry. A chance encounter with the first lover, a married woman, living for a long time in the United States, violates his routine life. He remembers the past, trying to clarify what forced them to break up the relationship. The old passion is not gone without a trace, thus it becomes a phantom pain. However, it is late to change something. A similar outcome of the love story can be considered as a manifestation of softness and opportunism. At the same time, it can be saving deliverance from illusions. The phenomenon of the first love is interpreted dually: as blessing and mental injury. The filmmaker was oriented on Western behavior, but somewhere in the heart he remained a supporter of traditional family laws and traditional male obligations.
NJ’s wife (Min-Min) suffers from depression because of her mother’s stroke. As a result, this sadness leads to an appeal to religious cult. Ting-Ting (the daughter) also experiences crisis that is caused by the inconsistency between the fidelity to her best friend and rather risky attraction to Fatty. She undergoes a birth, an attempt of suicide and killing.
Although the film literally shows the life through the perspectives of NJ, his wife, and children, an 8-years-old boy is the strongest movie character. The young son, Yang-Yang suffers from harassment by bigger girls at school. He tries to perceive and understand the life through adults’ eyes. The boy puts a lot of provoking questions. It is not accidental that NJ’s son shares the name with Edward Yang, as he serves as a kind of alter ego, observer and chronicler of the world’s mysteries. Therefore, Yi Yi seems to be a partially autobiographical work. Edward Yang can be considered as less worried version of Yang-Yang.
In addition to a horizontal structure of NJ’s family, Yang added certain vertical elements. Sherry (NJ’s ex-girlfriend) presents an element of the past. The element of the future is presented through the character of the boy Yang-Yang. Such structure makes the film complete. Yang is a virtuoso in the art of storytelling. The plot is based on the laws of polyphony. Storylines are intertwined, forming a whimsical pattern.
There are three Chinese ceremonies: wedding banquet, celebration of acquaintance with a child, and funerary ritual. The family celebration in the film is shown with a fair amount of irony. However, the idea of family as a sovereign dynasty is not put into question by the author. Something more important than real estate or bank capital goes from a father to an heir, from a grandmother to a granddaughter. It is a way of perceiving the world, character and psychotype. There is a broadcasting of basic personality traits: from ancestors to descendants.
The title of the film literally translates as ‘one-one’ or ‘individually’. There are no interesting art moves. Everything is quite realistic and minimalistic. It should be noted that “Yi Yi won the Best Director Award at Cannes” (Assayas 51). Assayas states that this film miraculously resolved the contradictions of Yang’s cinema: it was for the first time that the Chinese movie was completely free of exoticism and ground connection with the Western audience (54). The mood, as well as the rhythm of narration of the movie, is gentle and easy. Despite the complexity of the issues and challenges that the film raises, there is no sense of melodrama. Yang’s work is not only observation and recognition of his heroes, who try to do the right things despite their flaws.
Camera placement deserves special attention in analyzing Yi Yi. The audience is likely to be forced to focus on a single thing due to the way of shooting. Yang also ensured that in many scenes, the viewers could see just half of what was going on. Throughout the picture, the director shoots peoples’ heads.
The filmmaker uses the limitation of graphic perspective in order to pass the chaos, not weakening. He shoots people in group at the medium range. It allows movement and sound spilling in from outside. Moreover, Yang likes shooting through closed doors and glass, trying to convey the clarity and obfuscation of experience. The exceptional shoot in the film is of woman’s crying in a hotel room. The camera is placed outside the window, which makes the woman to be barely visible through reflected skyscrapers and traffic.
The special attention is deserved by the end of the film, when the little boy with a straight face stands at the coffin of his grandmother and reads aloud a letter that he wrote after her death. Yang-Yang says that when he grows up, he will tell and show people things that they do not known. Such goal was pursued by Edward Yang in Yi Yi. The film succeeds to present a multi-layered view on the modern life, which is both profound and simple. It consists of small moments, which initially seem to be unimportant, but later reveals the nature of each character, as well as their relationships.
Sklar argues that Yi Yi “has received the most enthusiastic response in Europe and North America” of any of Yang’s films (7). Yi Yi sets eternally unanswered question of justice, world order, and human nature. Every member of Taipei’s family sets difficult questions about the meaning of life as the family lives in the conditions of everyday struggle. The life is simple, but its profoundness builds up the beauty of the human’s existence. Yi Yi tries to explore this complexity, presenting a wide variety of everyday emotions. The film depicts the simplicity of ordinary deeds and circumstances, and, at the same time, successfully doubles their meanings and significance through the characters and images that reveal the sides that one will hardly realize. As a result, critics had to taste the movie, including it in the list of the most outstanding works of the first decade of the 21st century. Today, Yang retains the status of the actual director, whose work did not lose connection with the fluid reality, whose creative experience continues to influence the preferences of the authors of the new century.