Yi Yi: A One and a Two…
English Title: Yi Yi: A One and a Two…
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Atom Films
Director: Edward Yang
Screenplay: Edward Yang
Art Director: Kaili Peng
Editor: Chen Bo-Wen
Runtime: 173 minutes
Numerous storylines revolve around the middle-class Jian family and others who interact with them. Set mostly in Taipei, the narrative begins with the wedding of A-Di to his pregnant bride, but we soon learn that this feckless young man plays second fiddle in the family to his older brother, NJ, an executive at a software company that has not been thriving lately. NJ’s wife, Min-Min, becomes increasingly depressed when her mother has a stroke and goes into a coma, and when Min-Min takes up with a new religious group, NJ considers making a new start with Sherry, an old girlfriend who now lives in America but runs into him during a visit back home. Children are also important characters. Ting-Ting, the teenage daughter of NJ and Min-Min, starts a tentative romance with a troubled boy who is involved with her best friend, and her little brother, Yang-Yang, is interested beyond his years in the unpredictable puzzles posed by ordinary life. By the time of the funeral that ends the film, the story’s tensions and emotions have been partially resolved.
The little boy named Yang-Yang is a secondary character in Yi Yi: A One and a Two…, but he plays an important role, as one might guess from his name, which marks him as writer-director Edward Yang’s surrogate in the story. Young though he is, Yang-Yang is precociously smart and endlessly curious about a remarkable range of subjects, including the imperfect ways in which the grown-ups around him see – and fail to see – the complicated world in which they live. He wants to know how people can tell what is true and what is not, especially since nobody can see things from every angle and point of view; when his father says he can expand his vision by using a camera, Yang-Yang starts photographing the places we cannot ordinarily look at, such as the backs of our own heads. This is a perfect metaphor for Yang’s distinctive kind of cinema – a cinema that is expansive yet intimate, comprehensive yet particularized, focused on individuals yet steadily aware of their surroundings, including cultural influences that they themselves do not see.
The title Yi Yi is the Mandarin word for ‘one’ repeated twice – unity plus multiplicity in two tiny, breathlike syllables. While the film gives it no definitive meaning, it hints at the blend of loneliness and togetherness that envelops most of the characters. This mixture operates most poignantly in the case of NJ, a middle-aged software executive, lover of Beethoven, and nominal head of the Jian family, who thinks about breaking with his humdrum life – the uninvolving job, the distant spouse, the growing children already turning into strangers – and starting afresh with an old flame who has unexpectedly renewed acquaintances with him. Other characters are similarly caught in liminal zones between connection and disengagement: NJ’s wife, who copes with sorrow by going on a long religious retreat; their daughter, who hesitates between supporting and betraying her best friend; a skinny teenager called Fatty, who feels both lust and fear toward a new girlfriend; NJ’s former lover, who swings between anger at their past and hope for a future with him; and even little Yang-Yang, who pursues his own idiosyncratic interests while self-absorbed family members bustle around him without a clue.
Given his intelligence and creativity, there is good reason to expect that Yang-Yang will ultimately have a fulfilling and stimulating life; but it is clearly too late for his relatives, whose spiritual sluggishness is rooted in an inchoate fear of change, of novelty, of experience itself. This inertia is diagnosed by a Tokyo businessman during a conversation with NJ in one of the film’s most moving scenes. Life is a ceaseless stream of new experiences and activities, he says, speaking in halting, heavily accented English, the only language he and NJ both understand. We never live the same day twice, he continues, yet we are not afraid to get out of bed in the morning. Why are we so afraid of decisive action – so torn between the poles of fear and hope, of movement and stasis? He has no answer, but at least he recognizes the problem, which is more than we can say of the others, except Yang-Yang, whose intuitive explorations provide the story’s philosophical centre of gravity.
Yang has been called the most methodical, even the most scientific of the directors who forged a Taiwanese New Wave in the second half of the 1980s. He studied computer science (as NJ presumably did) before turning to the arts, and while there is no trace of scientific disinterestedness in his movies, his systematic thought processes give him uncommon dexterity and suppleness as he orchestrates and integrates large sets of characters with correspondingly large arrays of social, psychological and philosophical concerns. Yi Yi brought him awards for Best Director at Cannes, Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, and many other honours; but it was the last film he completed before succumbing to cancer in 2007 at age 59. Yang’s death signalled the end of the New Taiwanese Cinema he pioneered with such gifted colleagues as Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, masters of the subtlety, nuance, and restraint that are sorely lacking in much of the film-making that has followed.
Author of this review: David Sterritt