With Yi Yi, Edward Yang accomplishes what so few films (U.S.-made, in particular) even strive to do: present an earnest depiction of familial relations. Epic in scale (three hours, with a large ensemble cast), but modest in its plot, Yi Yi is also ponderous. It takes a long time for the characters to realize that, despite fulfilling numerous domestic obligations, their emotional lives have been meager.
The film commences with a largest-scale wedding banquet for A-Di (Chen Xisheng) and his four-months-pregnant wife Xiao-Yan (Xiao Shushen). Senior attendants at the wedding gossip about this “modern” marriage, observing that couples now frequently get married after rushing into parenthood. Family life, like the larger sociocultural sphere, has changed in Taiwan. Little further visible evidence is needed when the groom’s middle-aged brother NJ (Wu Nienjen) sneaks out to take his son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) to McDonald’s during the proceedings. In this simple, basically silent moment between father and son, Yang portrays a mode of present-day family life common on an international level. Yang does not present the scene as a critique of American imperialism so much as observation of a private-yet-global phenomenon. The father and son share an unspoken understanding, and the scene confirms that finicky children who prefer fast food to traditional cuisine do not exist only in the U.S.
NJ and Yang-Yang return to make appearances at the reception. En route to the banquet hall, NJ runs into his former college flame, Sherry (Sun-Yun Ko): it’s an awkward interaction, which can only mean a romance of some sort will follow, even though they are too responsible to make overt advances at this point. More distracting complications follow: after the wedding banquet, NJ’s mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) suffers a stroke and goes into a coma. Her doctor suggests that the family members speak to her as a form of therapy, but they soon realize how little they have to say. In frustration, NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin) decides she needs to escape and seeks spiritual enlightenment at a retreat in the mountains. And NJ and Min-Min’s adolescent daughter learns about the emotional fickleness of teenage boys as she becomes involved in a love triangle with her best friend’s boyfriend and her best friend.
In conveying all these diurnal details involving a range of characters, Yang relies not on visual flashiness or fast-cutting, but sound: the sound of keys rattling and sliding into the lock when father comes home, or the shouts of neighbors having a quarrel. Even in showing something so mundane as air travel, Yang does not show an airplane taking off or cruising through the air; rather, he shows a view of the clouds and the precise hum of the plane, sensory details approximating the sensation of flying without illustrating the act itself. Yang masterfully creates a subtle tone and lifelike pacing in periodic silent scenes that is, without dialogue which reveal rarely portrayed but quickly remembered moments, as when Yang-Yang sits on the toilet with his feet swinging because they do not touch the ground. Sensory recollection is achieved here not only in the situations but also in the prosaic products that take up frame space Coke, Sunmaid Raisins, Head & Shoulders, Dove soap, and even a BMW. If the film were not subtitled, it could easily be set in any generically urban environment. That Yi Yi seems so familiar speaks to the commonness of human experience but also to the loss of cultural differences, or better, a loss of culturally specific traditions. Yang’s own experience is Americanized he spent much of his early adult life in Los Angeles and Seattle and his characters are similarly cosmopolitan, for instance, Sherry, who lives in the United States and travels back to Taipei on business.
But the film is not bemoaning globalization or offering trite observations on commercialized homogeneity. the stakes here are more immediate. Yang not only seems to be drawing connections between distant but increasingly similar cultures but also between members of the same family. Yang creates connections between his characters of separate generations who experience parallel relationships. Sherry and NJ recapture their youth by exploring Tokyo, with its unfamiliar terrain and language, together. Their geographical and verbal fumblings are touchingly juxtaposed with NJ’s daughter’s first romantic explorations. Even during this sequence, the film’s most manipulative and poignant, Yang maintains a subtlety and restraint. When NJ returns home, the film’s perceptive powers seem to fall away as Yang creates dramatic situations a murder, an awakening that do not seem to follow from the minimal plotting of the film’s first two thirds. Even though Yi Yi becomes almost didactic in its (unnecessary) resolution, the telling portrait Yang constructs earlier lingers in the mind the way childhood memories do. In part, Yang achieves this effect by keeping the camera at an observational distance (many scenes throughout the film are shot through windows and doorways). He allows the viewer to peer in on his narrative family, and, in my own experience, the effect was of seeing my own reflected.