This is the first of a series of entries reviewing candidates for a list of best films of the decade.
Even though this is just the first entry of a year-long project that will consider dozens of other films for my end of decade top ten, I'll be damned if Yi Yi doesn't make the final cut. Watching it this time (my third viewing, first since I saw it twice in the theater back in 2000), it is still the proverbial Movie I Wish I Could Make, as it embodies so much of what I love about movies. It's simple yet expansive, using the story of one family, the Jians, as the nucleus around which a world swarms, menacingly at times, in all its vast complexity. Not only is it a film about a world, but it's a film about having a worldview; literally, how to look at the world. For that, it's a truly cinematic work, one of the few films of the past several years which, after watching it, you may find yourself looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
The cinematic tag is something worth fighting for with this film, as no less a film critic than J. Hoberman once gave it the backhanded compliment of amounting to "great television," a film that he claimed gained something from being watched on a small screen. Now I'm not one of those that considers television inferior to cinema, certainly not after experiencing the best of television dramas from this decade. But there are qualities to Yi Yi that deserve, if not demand, a large screen to be truly savored. What's very un-television about Yang's eye is its insistence on viewing action from a middle to wide distance:
Certainly these wide shot compositions are calling out to be admired in their own right, but they're more than just impeccable objects of admiration. They reflect a way of seeing that's practically Hitchcockian in its voyeuristic insistence on detachment, while remaining highly attentive to what's going on within the frame.
Yang achieves a distancing effect with shooting through windows, literally reflecting a world that's much bigger than a single direct gaze would otherwise suggest, while also drawing attention to our own everyday acts of voyeurism. With all respect to In the City of Sylvia, this film is a virtual lexicon in modes of people watching:
These filters and refractors do not so much eschew emotional involvement with the characters as complicate it by bringing a degree of awareness to our own act of witnessing their travails. In other words, it gives us the space to reach out and embrace these characters of our own accord.
While much of these principles of looking at the world are implicit within the style of the film, the movie does locate these issues within the characters as well, especially with Ting Ting, the young daughter of the family who arguably experiences the most personal growth in the film due to her tumultuous experiences with family illness, friendship and romance. In one terrific sequence we get to share her worldview for a moment as she collects garbage from her apartment balcony.
She and we overhear her new neighbor on the phone --
then a cut to the neighbor's daughter and her estranged boyfriend walking down the street far below --
and then a cut back to Ting Ting, whose matching shot implies her gaze at the couple, intrigued by their mysterious liaisons, a romance she has yet to experience for herself.
This mastery of the middle-to-long distance is maintained through nearly all of the film's three hour length. There are barely a dozen close-ups, many of which involve (indirectly as well as directly) the Jian's frail grandmother, who never speaks a word. Her close-up, the film's first, provides the film with an elusive, fragile and soulful presence that haunts the rest of the film.
After grandmother suffers a debilitating stroke, rendering her unresponsive, the other family members are called upon to spend time talking to her in hopes of reviving her. These one-on-ones amount to revealing confessionals in which the characters basically offer a mirror glimpse into their hopes and fears. It's also visually the closest glimpses we get at each of them:
The art of seeing people becomes something explicit with the son Yang Yang's fixation on capturing things that others can't see, leading him to take photos of the backs of people's heads:
One's appreciation of the film's visual ability to communicate meaning deepens when one realizes how much of the dialogue in the film amounts to the characters expressing despair or self-deception, barely able to connect with the words coming from others' mouths. Which makes my favorite sequence all the more magical, one of the great depictions of the formation of friendship in all of cinema. NJ (Wu Nien-Jien) meets with a prospective Japanese partner Ota (Issei Ogata) on a business dinner. They only share rudimentary English conversation skills, yet somehow they hit the same wavelength, thanks in part to Ota's curious lack of inhibition mixed with a Zen-like wisdom (in a sense he's Taiwan's Japanese answer to the Magical Negro). They bond over a shared love of classical music, leading to a night at a karaoke bar whose anything goes mood, generated by Ota's impulsive song selections, from Japanese pop to Beethoven, is the possible inspiration for NJ to call his long-lost sweetheart. It's a sequence whose logic is subterranean yet intuitively on target, letting the mood of one moment wash into the next.
I haven't even begun talking about the other brilliant nuggets of design to be found in this film's script and editing, its dovetailing and doubling of character arcs and incidents along themes of art vs. commerce, individuality vs. conformity, and love lost, found and re-found. There's an almost scientific precision and modularity to its construction: it begins with a wedding, ends with a funeral, and a birth is celebrated exactly at the midway point. In some ways it's one of the easiest films (for me at least) to admire and explicate its brilliance, like an ingeniously designed piece of programming code (I'm consciously invoking Yang's IT background): hone in on any ten minutes and marvel at how pieces are laid in one scene to set up the next, or the one after that. And yet this film's remarkable parts does not fully account for its overall effect, one of wonder, wisdom and the formation of personal values through hard experience and attentive engagement (visually, mentally, socially) with the world.
Obscure bonus trivia: I'm curious if anyone can name the scene in Yi Yi that has an audio reference to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (a film that Yang watched during production and loved). Impress me and I'll see what I can do to reward your erudition...