Edward Yang’s Yi Yi achieves what many films have attempted but have succeeded: it presents a multi-layered look at modern life which is at once simple and profound. It plunges the viewer into the action, opening at the wedding of A-Di (Xisheng Chen) and Xiao-Yan (Shushen Xiao), followed by the obligatory posed family photos and preparations for the wedding reception. Everyone is doing their best to keep up a good face, but humanity is imperfect: the bride is visibly pregnant, the kids squabble and the wedding portrait is displayed upside down.
Later, A-Di’s brother-in-law N.J. (Nianzhen Wu) takes his young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who is sulky because he’s been picked on by the girls, to lunch at McDonalds (the first of several Western franchises to feature in the film). On the way back to the reception they run into an old girlfriend who chews N.J. out for abandoning her.
Yi Yi is made up of a succession of small moments which gradually reveal more and more about each of the characters and their relationships with each other. Before the film is over we will have observed birth, death, love, and temptation, all within the context of an extended middle-class family in Taipei. N.J.‘s wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) feels burned out and goes away to a spiritual retreat; N.J.‘s teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) has a crush on a guy who is two-timing her with another girl; A-Di has borrowed money from N.J. and can’t repay it; Yang-Yang gets into trouble at school; N.J. enters into negotiations with a Japanese businessman (Issey Ogata) who shares his love of music. In another director’s hands these overlapping stories could have turned into a soap opera or a satire of the decadent middle class, but Yang’s approach is more one of calm observation and acceptance of his characters who for all their flaws are fundamentally trying to do the right thing.
Early in the film Min-Min’s mother suffers a stroke and after a period in the hospital is returned, still in a coma, to the family home to convalesce. Her doctor advises the family to spend time each day talking to her because it may aid her recovery. At first they feel awkward addressing someone who can’t take part in the conversation, but gradually they come to treat their daily sessions as a sort of confessional which provides director Yang with an opportunity to have the characters reveal feelings they would otherwise keep tightly bottled up.
Yi Yi has been rightly lauded for the superb cinematography by Wei-han Yang and the Blu-Ray transfer does his work justice: every image is perfectly composed, the colors are bright and sharp, and even scenes shot under a busy city bridge look enticing. Yang frequently observes his characters from a distance, through glass, or framed by architectural features, simultaneously underlining their essential aloneness and their embeddedness in a tightly-woven web of familial and social obligations. Despite the film’s measured pace and almost three-hour length, it’s never boring: on the contrary you feel as if you’ve been privileged to visit the lives of people who aren’t quite like you but with whom you share much in common. After watching Yi Yi, you’re able to see your own life more clearly.
Criterion releases are justly noted not only for the high quality of their transfer but also for the generous selection of extras, and Yi Yi is no exception. It provides a sort of “film school in a box” (or at least a lecture series) for those interested in the craft of this acclaimed film (among other things Yang won Best Director at Cannes in 2000 for this film and many critics selected it as one of the best of the year). Note, however, that most of the extras have been carried over from the 2006 Criterion DVD release.
The commentary track, a dialogue between Yang and Asian film expert Tony Rayns, is engaging and informative as they jump from discussion of the particular moments in the film to more global remarks about filmmaking, and life, in general. A 15-minute interview with Rayns (who also assisted on the English-language subtitles) provides a brief history of Taiwanese cinema illustrated with film stills. He emphasizes the work of the Taiwan New Wave directors (including Yang) and how their films differ from previous Taiwanese films in both technique (e.g., recording with sync sound, having actors speak languages other than Mandarin, shooting extended takes) as well as subject matter (surprisingly for a New Wave movement, the New Taiwan directors were initially most concerned with taking a critical look at Taiwan’s history before turning their attention, as in Yi Yi, to contemporary Taiwanese life). An illustrated 20-page booklet includes an essay by Kent Jones, director’s notes by Edward Yang, and technical information about the transfer. Finally there’s the film’s US theatrical trailer, whose dismayingly poor image quality only makes the Blu-ray version look that much better.