Within a few moments of its opening frame, "Yi Yi," an inexplicably engrossing Taiwanese circle-of-life saga about everyday life in middle-class Taipei, writer-director Edward Yang succeeds in making the viewer feel like a silent member of the quite ordinary family at the core of the film.
The first scenes take place at a wedding. Whose wedding, we don't know yet, but almost immediately the images of a family in celebration make you feel right at home. You chuckle at the little boy ring bearer when the little flower girls gang up on him in play. You smile appreciatively when his father leaves the reception to take the boy to McDonalds to cheer him up.
You also tense up and feel like stepping in when a distraught woman bursts into the party crying to the family matriarch, "It should have been me marrying your grandson!"
That outburst is almost certainly the most exciting moment of this otherwise leisurely, unadorned film, but it is by no means the most enthralling. As Yang weaves together half a dozen stories about the members of the Jian family, he folds the audience into their lives so completely that whatever happens to them feels like its happening to your own brother, sister, father or mother.
NJ (Wu Nienjen), the melancholy father of this four-member family, is miserable in his job at a failing software firm that he helped found. His partners are desperate and flighty, putting in jeopardy his negotiations with a surprisingly Zen gaming prodigy who could put them back on top.
Min-Min (Elaine Jin), NJ's wife, is a woman who has begun to see her life as empty. When her mother is left catatonic by a stroke, Min-Min sits by her bedside trying to think of things to say. "I have nothing to tell my mother," she cries to NJ in a powerfully heartbreaking moment of despair. "What I did in the morning, what I did in the afternoon -- it takes two minutes. I have nothing. I live a blank."
Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), NJ and Min-Min's 13-year-old daughter, is preoccupied with the youthful melodrama of romantic experimentation and the emotional confusion over advances from her best friend's boyfriend. Ting-Ting is also riddled with guilt because she blames herself for her grandmother's stroke and she quickly awakens a protective vibe in the viewer that makes the movie all the more consuming.
Eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), the ring-bearer at the wedding, is the youngest -- a pensive, shy boy full of surprisingly philosophical insights ("Can I only know half the truth?" he asks his father. "I can only see what's in front of me. I cannot see what's behind.") He has begun to test the waters of assertiveness, inspired by a pretty girl he has a crush on.
All of this is very much ordinary life, yet "Yi Yi" sucks you in vicariously somehow, and the film is extraordinary for that very reason.
Director Yang -- who won Best Director at Cannes for this film -- opens a window to his characters' souls through the honest, veritable performances of his cast of mostly non-professional actors. His visual style -- camera shots that don't necessarily track the actors and entire scenes shot peering in through high-rise apartment windows that reflect the bustling city outside -- makes the audience feel like both a fifth family member and an eavesdropping neighbor. The contrasting points of view enhance the allure of being party to these people's lives.
But the key to Yang's success at holding an audience rapt for almost three hours with this work-a-day narrative is his ability to subtly but instantly engage your emotions with each new character introduced. Extended family (like the luckless rube groom and very pregnant bride from the opening scene), Ting-Ting's troubled best friend, and the long-lost former love with whom NJ is reunited on a business trip to Tokyo each have their own minor subplots that are just as vivid and affecting as the central stories about the Jian clan.
And through it all Yang weaves several common themes of loneliness, abandonment, regret and reflection, honor and virtue, heartbreak and the unpredictable nature of life. The storylines parallel each other, too, with pivotal elements involving the inconstancy of the human heart.
A sincere, melodious meditation on real life without art house pretension or Hollywood contrivance, "Yi Yi" is a work of subtle, simple genius with only two small flaws: 1) The touchy-feely soundtrack is a bit sappy at times; 2) It does become a bit of a clock-watcher in the last hour. But Yang makes up for that problem with a harmonic, full-circle finale so perfectly poignant and authentically uplifting that when the credits role every minute of the film feels unquestionably worthwhile.
Run time: 173 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 16th December 2000
Production compaines: Omega Project, AtomFilms, Nemuru Otoko Seisaku Iinkai
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
IMDB: 8.1 / 10
Director: Edward Yang
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu as N.J., Elaine Jin as Min-Min, Issei Ogata as Ota, Kelly Lee as Ting-Ting, Jonathan Chang as Yang-Yang, Hsi-Sheng Chen as Ah-Di, Su-Yun Ko as Sherry, Shu-shen Hsiao as Hsiao Yen, Adriene Lin as Li-Li, Pang Chang Yu as Fatty, Ru-Yun Tang as NJ's Mother, Hsin-Yi Tseng as Yun-Yun, Lawrence Ko as The Soldier (as Yulun Ke), Kai-Li Peng as Cellist in cello concert scene, Tsung Sheng Tang as Blue Shirt, Edward Yang as Pianist in cello concert scene