Borderless Cinema: Edward Yang’s YiYi

Inaugurating “Borderless Cinema,” our new series profiling lesser-known gems of world cinema, this essay reviews “YiYi”, written and directed by Edward Yang. Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, and Issei Ogata. Running time 173 minutes. Available on DVD via Criterion Collection.

Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is the final work of one of the most important Taiwanese directors of the last 30 years. Set over the course of one year in the life an upper-middle class family in Taipei, the nearly three hour film is an intergenerational tapestry that touches on love, death, and life’s meaning amidst its seemingly unavoidable disappointments.

The film possesses the slow-building texture of a great novel. The year begins when the aged grandmother of the family is fallen by a stroke, setting off a series of interlocking crises for family members. The family’s humble patriarch NJ is confronted with an old love from his university days. NJ’s 16 year old daughter Ting Ting slowly begins her own foray into love in the postmodern metropolis, while the precocious 8 year old Yang Yang tries to figure out the cruel ferocity of the world from his own innocent perspective. A host of subplots involve NJ’s business dealings in Tokyo, his brother-in-law’s shotgun wedding to a younger women, and the domestic tensions of the family’s neighbors.

Edward Yang: Poet of Urban Taipei
Edward Yang: Poet of Urban Taipei

Director Yang marshals this sprawling narrative material with ease, never letting any of it descend into melodrama. His observational style, where moments of intense crisis play out with a quiet dignity, is the key to the film’s power. Yang’s camera often frames characters in wide, unmoving medium shots, with the highlighted space between them suggesting the sense of disappointment or fragility that remains largely unspoken. Yang, as a poet of the city, uses this patient camera work to lovingly capture Taipei’s glass-hued loneliness.

At key points in the film NJ’s university sweetheart speaks to him not in standard Mandarin Chinese, but in Taiwanese, the language of the native islanders who had settled there long before one-party military rule began in 1949. This linguistic interlacing touches on the long-standing ethnic tensions that have defined relations between Mainlanders, who arrived as a colonial ruling force in 1949, and earlier generations of Taiwanese settlers, who had standard Mandarin forced upon them as an official language.

Thus a keen observer of Yang’s film will pick up on the way its narrative material intersects with issues of nativist identity, democratization, and class division that have defined Taiwanese political life for the last 20 years. Such issues were hallmarks of the Taiwanese New Wave, a film movement which used the increasing creative freedom of the 1980s and 90s on the island to boldly depict the society’s complex 20th century colonial experience. Yang was joined in this movement by filmmakers such as Hou Hsia-hsien and, later, Tsai Ming-liang, producing some of world cinema’s most notable works.

A Masterclass in Framing
The Tremulous Awkwardness of First Love

And yet Yang’s film can be watched on a much more universalistic level, for it is also about domestic sacrifice, spiritual doubt, and the disappointments, both large and small, we all have to accept as we grow older. It is thus at once rooted staunchly in the complex politics of its own society and yet able to address questions of universal significance. In this way, Yang’s film manages to be both very much about Taiwan and very much about the human condition itself.