Edward Yang’s last film “Yi Yi”, which was recently released in South Korean movie theaters, is a calm, thoughtful meditation on life. Although it surely demands considerable patience from you considering its long running time (173 minutes) and leisurely narrative pacing, it is quite rewarding on the whole thanks to its small episodic human moments from its main characters, and you will come to reflect more on life and how we go through it day by day.
The movie mainly revolves around a middle-aged man named NJ (Wu Nien-jen) and his two family members: his adolescent daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and his young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). During the opening scene, they and other family members including NJ’s wife and mother-in-law are attending the wedding ceremony of his brother-in-law, and we get a comical moment when a woman appears and then becomes quite emotional in front of the groom’s mother. It turns out that NJ’s brother-in-law left his girlfriend to marry a woman who got pregnant because of him, and it looks like his former girlfriend still feels emotionally attached to him (“It should have been me marrying your son today!”).
Not long after that, another incident happens. When NJ and his wife and children come back from the wedding banquet, they find that his mother-in-law went into a comatose state while she was left alone in their apartment. After spending several days in a local hospital, his mother-in-law is sent back to their apartment while still being comatose, and there is nothing they can do except taking care of her as waiting for her recovery.
The movie calmly observes how each family member in the apartment tries to deal with this changed circumstance. While NJ maintains his phlegmatic attitude as usual, his wife cannot help but regretful as helplessly watching her mother on the bed and then glumly looking back on her life, and there is a sad, bitter moment when she confides to her husband how much she has been feeling empty since her mother’s sudden illness. In the end, she comes to decide to have her own private time at a Buddhist temple outside the city, and that means NJ has to take care of the household for a while instead of her.
In the meantime, NJ also has to deal with two other matters. While he was attending the wedding banquet, he happened to encounter a woman who was his girlfriend when they were young, and he begins to wonder what would have happened in his life if he had made a different choice during that time. Both of them have respectively lived a fairly good life since their separation, but they find themselves being willing to spend time together when they happen to get a chance for that later in the story. As they talk more with each other, something seems to be revived between them, but they are also reminded of why they ended their relationship, and we get a small poignant moment when NJ reminds her that things would have turned out to be the same even if he had acted differently.
At NJ’s workplace, the situation is not particularly good for everyone including him, and he is asked to handle a very important deal with a prominent Japanese business man. Although he is not so eager to do that, he and the Japanese businessman in question sense honesty and decency from each other right from when they meet, and there is a lovely moment when the Japanese businessman demonstrates his musical ability in front NJ and others at a nightclub.
Meanwhile, Ting-Ting finds herself in a rather tricky circumstance due to a girl living right next to her apartment. The girl, who is living with her single mother, has been in a relationship with some boy, but she eventually becomes distant from him for some unknown reason, and then the boy becomes quite close to Ting-Ting. At one point, he and Ting-Ting attempt to move onto the next step, but she sees that what they are going to do is not right, so they come to step away from each other.
In case of Yang-Yang, he is not aware much of his grandmother’s illness, but he has his own matter to deal with. At his elementary school, he is sometimes bullied by other kids, but he soon comes to find something he can enthusiastically focus on. When his father gives him a camera to play with, he becomes fascinated with what he can possibly capture with it. At first, he tries to photograph a mosquito, and then he tries to photograph the backside of several people including his father because, as reflected by his conversation scene with his father, he comes to feel the need to show what others cannot see.
So far, I have only described a part of what I observed from the movie, and I can only tell you how effortlessly it presents its subjects under Yang’s masterful direction. Nothing is particularly emphasized, but we are slowly drawn to the lives of its main characters thanks to its vivid sense of life felt from the screen, and I especially appreciate its frequent utilization of reflections on windows for subtle dramatic impacts.
On the whole, “Yi Yi”, which won the Best Director Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, is a sublime piece of work I am willing to watch again for more appreciation. I am not that sure about whether it is as great as Yang’s unforgettable masterpiece “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), but this is still a very good film, and I am certainly glad that I could watch this admirable film on a big screen today.