What is life
But fate’s plaything,
Where some men die while others cling
To watch new youths discover truths
They could have learned from listening?
What is life
But joy in wait,
A chance to show the few who hate
That love profound can still surround
If one will only demonstrate?
What is life
But one big slog
Reminding you you’re just a cog
In systems built to cover guilt
And stoke the nearest demagogue?
What is life
In every breath and each heartbeat,
As memories refuse to freeze,
A former friend in full retreat?
What is life
But grief, concerns,
And happiness all taking turns?
Each person braves their own such waves
Until at last each human learns
What is life.
MPAA rating: Not Rated (the number of F-words in the subtitles and fleeting nudity might warrant an R, but it’s really more of a PG-13)
Finally, a critically acclaimed “masterpiece” of world cinema that doesn’t require the quotation marks! In my limited forays into international filmmaking, I’ve found that just because critics laud a movie, that doesn’t mean it will actually be any good (for example, The Assassin *shudder*). In addition to celebrating the Chinese New Year with a Chinese movie, I added Yi Yi to my list of Blindspots this year because I was curious to see whether it deserved its renown as “one of the major films of the 21st century” and “the third most acclaimed film of the 21st century among critics,” according to Wikipedia. Thankfully, it does, and even if it’s not destined to be among my personal favorites, I am 100% behind its status as one of the all-time greats.
Translated as A One and a Two…, but more literally as One One or One by One, Yi Yi is hard to describe in a way that doesn’t make it sound incredibly dull, since it’s about the everyday life of the Jian family of Taipei and runs for 2 hours and 53 minutes. Yet, I was surprised at how engaging a three-hour movie about everyday life could be, thanks largely to a deep and insightful script from writer/director Edward Yang and several diverse characters that are relatable on multiple levels.
The Jians include the father NJ (famed director Wu Nien-jen), who must deal with both a high-risk business deal and an unexpected run-in with a former lover; the mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin), who suffers a midlife crisis; their teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), who enters a love triangle with her best friend; their young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who gets bullied at school; and the perpetually unlucky brother-in-law A-Di, who gets caught between two strong-willed women. It’s a film of both broad plot strokes (NJ’s self-doubt and potential affair, A-Di’s money troubles) and more minor vignettes (Yang-Yang’s photography, the birth of A-Di’s son) that nonetheless feel vital in getting to know the large cast.
The grandmother of the family is only briefly active at the beginning, spending most of the film in a coma and serving as an ingenious sounding board for her family, who are told to talk to her in hope of her recovery. Those who sit by her bedside bare their inner doubts more fully than anywhere else, such as Ting-Ting’s guilt over whether she’s to blame for her grandmother’s condition, and NJ even compares it to prayer, not knowing for sure how much the listener is hearing.
Despite its apparent simplicity, Edward Yang’s direction is also worth praising, not only in its composition but in its economy. Scenes are kept wide with very few close-ups. Long extended takes are the rule, with no scene or edit being wasted, yet the camera is fairly static. It doesn’t follow the characters around but allows events to play out off-screen, often letting us see part of what’s happening through reflections in windows and mirrors, which provides both visual interest and a strong sense of place.
Even masterpieces can have room for improvement, though, and Yi Yi is no different. While its mundaneness is part of its charm, the pacing does lag several times, and there are many scenes that could have been trimmed to shave off perhaps a half hour from the runtime. It takes an investment of time and patience to sit through, yet I can say it’s a rewarding experience, even if its full power is only half understood when the credits roll. There are highs and lows, joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, both a marriage and a funeral, history repeating itself and wisdom coming from the mouth of babes. The film is mostly warm and gentle, never judging the characters and their flaws, yet the wisdom of right decisions shines against the foolish passion of mistakes. I don’t know that I’ll make the time to watch it again, but it will still live in my mind as a genuinely great film.
Best line: (Fatty, Ting-Ting’s boyfriend) “Life is a mixture of sad and happy things. Movies are so lifelike; that’s why we love them.”
(Ting Ting) “Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life!”
(Fatty) “My uncle says ‘we live three times as long since man invented movies.’”
(Ting Ting) “How can that be?”
(Fatty) “It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life. For example, murder—we never killed anyone, but we all know what it’s like to kill. That’s what we get from the movies…. It’s only one example; there are other things. Like he also said, ‘There’s no cloud, no tree that isn’t beautiful, so we should be too.’”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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