Yi Yi: a rich and perfect swan song

This review may contain spoilers.

The only other Yang features I have watched are Taipei Story and A Brighter Summer Day. And the structure of Yi Yi comes out on top among the three, but because of the strong foundation made during those two. It matures here, becomes effortlessly inconspicuous, creating an epic yet intimate parable of life. Maybe it works better here because of the reduced scope & tender, universal subject matter than dark & socio-politically specific TS or sprawling & indefinite ABSD. It also seems clear that Yang’s audience was international, which is why he never released the film in Taiwan.

Yang sure has a specific narrative style. He is not interested in a singular protagonist, he wants to depict journeys of multiple characters, connected with each other yet quite independent. Then there’s a second layer of characters, those who are catalysts for main characters’ journeys. All these characters are inherently good. Being in a privileged strata of the society, their struggles are not larger than life, but personal & immediate. Yet they’re not even in a position where they could take a decision over the changes happening in their lives. Just floating with the wind wherever it takes them. Yang even often puts them in large spaces, showing how minuscule they are but his empathy & focus over each character’s uniqueness is unwavering. They’re not out to take over the world, not crushed by it either, they are simply existing in it.

There’s a very keen understanding of what kind of problems we face at a certain point in our life. Yang is a unique tragedist. He revels in heartbreaks. Emotional blows come up so unexpectedly and yet feel obvious. Then all the seemingly beautiful events leading up to that feel heartbreaking. As NJ endures perhaps his last heartbreak, Ting-ting suffers her first, either of them not even initiating the short relationships in the first place, as interpersonal love remains closer to the core of the film. However, Yang doesn’t choose to gloat the pain. Both the happiness & sadness are filmed with a sense of grounded reality, as if being helpless against the happening but more importantly, in a formal sense, not telling the viewer what to feel. In almost every film, we’re usually swept away by active characters, while here they are quite close to being pessimistic or inactive. Perhaps, Yang’s biggest achievement lies in making us feel that delicate, inexplicable emotion during the events that are not necessarily life-changing in a big way, but remain instrumental in building our nature.

I have always felt that Ozu has had an influence over the visual texture of Taiwanese New Wave. Specifically for shot that are inside a house. It may feel prominently because of the resemblance in architecture of houses, as Taiwan used to be a Japanese colony, but even Yang’s urban homes evoke the framing & depth that Ozu consistently used. As Tony Rayns suggests, the leading figures in the movement – Hou Hsiao-Hsien & Yang – have many differences within their similar looking realization. Hou’s axis, and thereby our position as the viewer, rarely moves, while Yang’s approach is relaxed, multi-faceted & modern. It’s like a less intense deadpan. The existence & importance of spaces is carefully sewn in to the drama, thankfully less ostentatious than Taipei Story. This is also a quite different, soothing & inviting vision of Taipei. Though the spaces are large, they’re not consuming the characters, they’re in fact accommodating in the kindest way.

Interestingly, time isn’t a big factor within the story or as a formal element. The film starts & ends with events that are reunions with extended family & relatives. NJ, Ting-ting and Yang-yang sit in silence, having accepted what they went through, perhaps a bit wiser (though it’s unclear) and carrying on just as they were before. This careful looping of time may just be the masterful subversion of the usual trope of (screen)writing that the central character must go through a transformation through the course of the story and come out a changed person.

Finally, I don’t think I have covered much ground, for Yi Yi’s richness continually thrives in our subconscious. And yet, with all its lingering, the film felt very satisfying. I am unable to think of another film that has such a striking balance of so many opposites.

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