Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Yi Yi

Year of Release  2000
Country  Taiwan
Length  173 min.
Director  Edward Yang
Screenwriter  Edward Yang
Cinematographer  Yang Wei-han
Editor  Chen Bo-Wen
Cast  Wu Nien-jen, Jonathan Cheng, Chen Hsi-Cheng, Ko Su-Yun, Elaine Jin, Pang Chang Yu, Issei Ogata

Beauty  Yi Yi starts off so casually and so modestly that Edward Yang’s masterful direction isn’t immediately apparent.  Great care has been taken to ensure that Yi Yi’s events are grounded in contemporary reality, but Yang and cinematographer Yang Wei-han manage to subtly build up to a number of striking, unforgettable images.  One particularly beautiful expression of the film’s “everything is connected” theme involves a woman (Elaine Jin) standing in front of a window reflecting a busy highway, a red traffic light blinking in such a position that it looks like it could stand in for her beating heart.  Another memorable image finds the object of child photographer Yang Yang’s (Jonathan Cheng) affection framed against a projected film of a thunderstorm. 

Strangeness  Yi Yi is explicitly concerned with viewing realistic events from angles that aren’t normally available to human beings.  A major part of the story has to do with Yang Yang’s desire to show people the things that they can’t see.  This appears to be Edward Yang’s modus operandi as well.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The director follows Yang Yang’s lead by showing virtually all of the film’s events either from odd angles, from great distances, or refracted through mirrors or windows.  In doing so, Yang manages to show different sides of his characters’ personalities while also giving hints of the enormous, busy world going on outside of the frame of the story.  It’s impossible to forget that the film’s story isn’t simply about whoever happens to be onscreen in any given scene, but an extended family representing the modern social anxieties of an entire nation.  The script and the camera are perfectly in sync throughout Yi Yi.

Tradition  With its casual connecting of the dots between the members of its sprawling cast of characters, Yi Yi belongs to a tradition of large ensemble pieces first perfected by Jean Renoir in The Rules of the Game (1939).  Yang’s film sets itself apart from recent clumsy examples of the genre (such as 2006’s Babel) by smartly structuring its cast of characters around one central family, thereby giving the characters organic reasons to interact, and by varying the characters’ plotlines enough to give the film a dynamic, multilayered tone that justifies its surface ambitions.  Dense stories about large groups of people have largely migrated away from cinema and toward television in recent years, meaning that Yi Yi may possibly be the last great film of its kind. 

Repeatability  Any film with this much going on at once is going to benefit from multiple viewings, whether the viewer is discovering new connections between the characters or paying close attention to the subtly impressive shot compositions.

Viewer Engagement  Yi Yi is a quiet film that doesn’t go out of its way to impress its audience, but its calm demeanor has the effect of slowly drawing the viewer to the screen.  The full scope and ambition of the film gradually becomes apparent as the story unfolds, which makes it seem like the film is constantly improving, building from an unremarkable early scene at a wedding to a powerfully fragile conclusion at a funeral.  The three hour length is absolutely necessary to do justice to the many different storylines, all of which are given just as much (or as little) time as needed to reach their logical points of stasis.

Morality  Yi Yi doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the questions it raises about the place of honesty and integrity in business, the role of the individual in a family group, or the instability of romantic relationships.  It also doesn’t condemn any of its characters for making wrong or questionable decisions in several instances.  The script is built around various members of the central family visiting their comatose, dying matriarch’s bedside and venting the feelings that they have a hard time expressing to the people they’re closest to, so it’s easy to identify with any of the characters even as they are being shown from unflattering angles outside of their own limited perspectives.  In doing so, it reminds the viewer to seriously consider the things that they can’t see.

Yi Yi passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A film with an even larger ensemble cast, Robert Altman’s Nashville.

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