In the 8th position of BBC Culture’s list of the Best Films of the 21st Century lies Yi Yi (2000), Edward Yang’s final epic drama. It is an inclusion unlikely to surprise many film enthusiasts, and in this article, World Cinema Society President Francesco di Stani explores the significance and qualities of the film.
Much like Edward Yang’s other classic film A Brighter Summer Day, at three hours of duration Yi Yi isn’t exactly concise. Nevertheless, the exceptional cohesion and flow prevent the film from turning into a difficult watch. It’s a slow burner, but one which really leaves a mark.
The plot revolves around a Taiwanese family and, on the surface, the film doesn’t go too far beyond narrating each member’s day-to-day struggles. In reality, however, it digs a lot deeper, exploring many aspects of human nature with touching sensitivity. The title (literally translated as ‘one after another’) can be interpreted as a reference to the succession of the generations portrayed in the family, or simply to the way that in Yi Yi the whole mood and atmosphere remains the same from start to finish: things happen, but life goes on seamlessly.
The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, and throughout the three hours in between the watcher is pushed deeper and deeper into the lives of many of the family members. Of particular significance is NJ, a middle-aged father, and his two children: a teenage daughter involved in her first sentimental experiences, and a younger son with some rather bizarre personality traits which cause him troubles at school.
Yi Yi is a film that simply portrays life and allows the watcher to reach their own conclusions. It is the exact opposite of what one could consider an emotionally manipulative film; a lot of the appreciation of the movie comes from the level of empathy the watcher reaches with the main characters, and the extent to which he or she identifies with the situations which arise and with the universal themes explored. The film offers a wonderful and fascinating vision of Taiwanese life, or rather, the life of the upper middle classes in Taipei, highlighting just how Westernised the city has become. That said, the film is by no means political: whilst the ideologies of some of the characters are explored, Yi Yi doesn’t comment on the overall social structures in Taiwan, focusing only on the personal affairs of the characters.
Yi Yi fits in perfectly with the tradition of great East Asian cinema, with Yang most likely being influenced by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and fellow Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien. One does wonder, though, whether a film as humane as Yang’s has ever been crafted: it is a perfect mix of patience, visual beauty, and appropriate soundscapes. In terms of cultural impact, Yi Yi, being a foreign production, hasn’t received a great deal of attention from western audiences. It has, however, been awarded prizes at several important festivals (including the ‘Best Director’ award at Cannes), meaning that the movie has at least gained a certain level of recognition within the wider film industry.
Sixteen years since the film was released, it is already possible to gauge its sphere of influence, with many filmmakers drawing inspiration from Yang’s work. A name that particularly springs to my mind is that of Richard Linklater: both his Before trilogy and his twelve-year coming-of-age story Boyhood tackle similar themes with an equally meditative and sensitive approach.
From my point of view, it seems difficult to imagine a more complete and perfected film; in the three hours of Yi Yi, I don’t recall many wasted words, let alone scenes. Every moment is functional to the scope (or rather lack thereof) of the film; it’s as close as cinema gets to real life. I feel Yi Yi is the sort of beautiful and emotionally shattering piece of work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time, mainly due to how it manages to maintain absolute realism without ever ceasing to be compelling. There are many one-liners that still echo in my mind: for example, when in the opening wedding scene a woman breaks down in front of the grooms’ mother, crying, ‘I’m so sorry! Marrying your son today, it should have been me’.
This is just one of the many moments in the film where characters break down to their emotional core, and not once does it feel bloated or forced, in part thanks to the strong performances all round – which is incredible considering the many amateur cast members such as all the children involved. Undoubtedly, the key to all the good acting can only be Yang himself, and the monumental Yi Yi is a strong contender for his best film, and, consequently, also one of the best of the new century.