Thursday, October 21, 2010

Off The Shelf: Edward Yang’s Sublime Yi Yi

It’s a sad irony that Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang died of prostate cancer, at the young age of 59, just when his final film, Yi Yi, was garnering him the best reviews of his career, not to mention his first American distribution deal and the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes film festival. The death of Yang is really one of the most devastating losses to hit the film world, as there’s no question that he would have gone on to make many more significant features. Unfortunately, curious movie buffs won’t be able to find any of Yang’s other six films on DVD in North America, which is a real shame as his contemporary urban dramas Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986) are first-rate and his four hour opus A Brighter Summer Day (1991), a meticulous period piece that recreated a scandalous murder from his youth, is magnificent. But at least, Yang’s last feature is available for their enjoyment and illumination.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two is an exquisitely photographed, heartbreakingly sensitive depiction of one Taiwanese family's attempt to find its way within an often cruel but also beautiful world. Father N.J. (Wu Nienjen) has just met an old love for whom he still has feelings, even though he deserted her 30 years earlier. Wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) has her unhappiness brought to the surface when her mother takes ill. Introspective daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) blames herself for grandmother's stroke, even as she falls for the troubled boyfriend of her neighbour. And precocious brother Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) simply tries to make sense of an often confusing and inconsistent adult environment.

Yang shoots much of his film in long takes, the better to situate his characters against the backdrop of teeming, ultra-modern Taipei. The traffic, noise and skyscrapers may obscure but they do not hide the often tragic, pinched lives lived by the city's residents. And though they often seek spiritual guidance, or answers, they don't receive them, not because urban values are inferior to religious ones, but because the two are simply too far apart to meet. Yang also poignantly and effectively juxtaposes the modern world--personified by a pregnant bride at her wedding--and the ancient one: The wedding day is chosen because it's under a lucky sign. Yi Yi is full of contrasting moments like that and startlingly affecting sequences, such as the long talk about values between N.J. and a kindly businessman from Japan, a meeting that has subtle reverberations if you know that the country was brutally occupied from 1895-1945 by the Japanese, who tried to eradicate their subjects’ local culture.

Yi Yi is a deliberately paced, contemplative and moody film that could test those unprepared to give themselves over to its subtle rhythms. But its performances are uniformly fine and there's not a wasted shot in the three hour opus. Ten years after its release, it’s clearer than ever that Yi Yi is as good as movies ever get.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson

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