By Casey Campbell
When you’re in a populated area, do you ever look out the window and watch people meander around or stand and chat or slump down in defeat? Do you ever put stories to the people you see? Or do you empathize and liken yourself to them, despite never having seen them in your life? Watching Edward Yang’s masterpiece Yi Yi is a little like that. You can watch the movie and think of your own life, or simply just take it in as a matter of fact and continue on. Yi Yi is a veritable slice of life, one that traverses a particularly difficult time in a simple family’s life and one that makes you feel like a voyeur with how deceptively intimately it’s shot. Yi Yi is available on the Criterion Channel.
I described this film as a “three hour long Taiwanese movie” to my dad and he asked what it was about, as well as it’s genre. What it’s about is fairly simple. What its genre is, on the other hand… It opens with a wedding, with broad strokes informing the central characters. In fact, as the film continues, the veneer of a standard movie slowly slips away. We’re shown scenes of people talking, but often from a distance and with a static shot. Almost as if you were standing on the other side of the street or looking through a window and watching people. I wouldn’t say it’s intrusive, but the way we’re shown this family is so honest and real that it seems like we shouldn’t be there. Most of the film is shot this way, with really interesting results.
To an outsider who hasn’t seen this movie, any vague descriptions of the family within are basically pointless. The story is told efficiently through its actors. Describing the father, NJ (Nein-Jen Wu), as a good man going through a midlife crisis doesn’t do the actual presentation of the character any justice. It is truly something to behold, and that’s true of all the characters, no matter how “good” or even “bad” they can be. While I don’t feel equipped to properly analyze this epic after one watch, I do believe that it’s an incredible feat to present something so sterile and give it life almost entirely through the script and acting.
This may be, at least to me, the nearest scripted depiction of documentary cinema there can be. Everything is so real. Real is, regrettably, a loaded term when talking about movies. Everything can look as real as reality, but when I say Yi Yi is real, I mean it feels real. It feels like I’m watching a family go through their day to day lives, and despite the mundanity, it’s never boring. That’s what’s so interesting about it, in a sense. It’s almost hypocritical to say that a movie about a regular family’s life is fascinating, because no one would say that about themselves. Yet, when presented as a movie with a central theme, it’s incredible.
Yi Yi was Edward Yang’s final film, as he died in 2007 at the depressingly young age of 59. I have yet to see his other works, but they’re all must see now. Yi Yi isn’t a movie for everyone. Many will find it boring for the reasons I personally find it engaging and compelling. The fact that it doesn’t follow a traditional structure or narrative will certainly turn some people off. Further, it’s almost three hour long runtime and subtitles will make it a hard sell for anyone wanting to “shut off their brains” for a minute, but that doesn’t matter. It’s brilliant, and it should be seen. I’m from America, just south of Boston, and I could understand what the family in Yi Yi goes through. I could empathize with the kids and the adults alike. It’s a universal story and it’s wonderfully told.
Yi Yi is available on the Criterion Channel, and was spine #339 in the Criterion Collection. Watch this movie.