Sunday, January 17, 2016

Yi Yi (2000)

Though he made ambitious films before Yi Yi (A Brighter Summer Day, packed with social and political ideas and running for nearly four hours) and released it seven years before his death, Edward Yang's 2000 masterpiece does have the feeling of a swan song, the culmination of everything one might learn from both life itself and a life making movies.

One doesn't ask what is it about, but rather, what is it not about? Yang's relaxed approach to his subjects, his subdued camera, and the largely quiet nature of his actors can make the film seem just a languid and gorgeous slice of life, but only if you let that description serve as an excuse for not looking closer and thinking more deeply. 

With his three main characters, a father, NJ (Nien Jien Wu), his 8-year old son Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), and teenage daughter Ting Ting (Kelly Li), Yang captures nothing short of the different types of confusion we have at different stages in life: youthful curiosity, adolescent frustration, and parental responsibility, and the varying types of sadness that hovers over all three phases. On top of that, the father is given additional weight as a character because besides his family he is forced to confront the conflict of his need for human decency at his work (he's an executive at an electronics company) and his colleagues' greed. Intersected with this is the arrival of a lover from the past, at which he must not just grapple with why that relationship did not work (he explains he had many reasons, but in retrospect finds them to be silly, while she, despite having found both success and a husband, laments their separation and still sees a scenario where they could reunite), but with the past itself and the conflicting need to simultaneously look backward and move forward.

That looking backward and looking forward is partly due to the crucial point in these peoples' lives that Yang chooses to focus on. He opens the film with a wedding between NJ's brother-in-law and a woman pregnant with his child. While this suggests new life and looking ahead, the day of celebration ends with NJ's mother-in-law having a stroke and falling into a coma, where she'll stay until (spoiler) her death concludes the film. 

On top of that, the wedding itself is hardly a joyous affair. Simply due to the film's 3-hour running time, I half expected Yang to pull an epic Deer Hunter-esque wedding banquet scene full of elation and pathos. Instead, though, he keeps it quite brief, and mostly centers in on unhappy undercurrents of what's supposed to be a celebration. A wide shot of the mother-in-law sitting alone outside, a confrontation with the brother-in-law's ex-lover, who barges in and decries the married couple (we realize that the wedding is probably just due to the bride getting pregnant), and a sad moment where NJ takes his son to get fast food because he won't eat the meal at the reception after he's made fun of by some other kids. And any hint of the usual raucous good times at these events is limited to another wide shot of the bride, groom, and a handful of friends drunkenly celebrating together in a mostly empty reception hall, whatever other guests remaining sitting awkwardly at their tables (Yang's withdrawn camera emphasizes the emptiness of the party, with whatever unity there is coming over being wasted). It's one of the most memorable wedding scenes in any movie I can recall, not because this is how weddings are supposed to be, but because it so successfully captures the mood of emotional distance and disappointment that permeates the rest of the film. 

For the characters in the movie, the problem of this wedding seems to create a sense of cynicism or discomfort about the present, while the coma suffered by the mother-law-law establishes a sense of fear about the future, as if their reward for living their dissatisfied lives will simply be to eventually arrive in her position. The characters take turns sitting by her bed, where they're supposed to talk to her for her own sake, but she ends up becoming a means for them to reflect their own problems/weaknesses. NJ's wife tells her about her day-to-day routines, but this only awakens in her a sense of banality over her life. Yang Yang refuses to even say anything, while the brother-in-law merely mentions his improved financial position and NJ uses her to confront his own existential dilemmas about the purpose of moving forward if everything always stays the same.

It sounds like a bleak movie, and in many ways it is, yet I left it feeling exhilarated and deeply moved. I'm still trying to sort out why I feel so warmly about the film, and while an easy answer would be that it captures the often difficult routines of everyday life while managing to offer a convincing portrayal of the big dramatic occurrences of a full lifespan (by this I mean things that generally all people will experience in some way or another between birth and old age), I think it has more to do with Tang's perspective on such things. 

These are issues Yang has obviously thought about a great deal--and possibly experienced in his own life--and rather than looking at them through a jaded lens, he approaches them with a sense of subdued contentment with the trials that life brings. And it seems that part of that is that he recognizes the value of finding beauty amidst the banality, heartbreak, and tragedy that makes up so much of living. This is evinced most clearly in NJ's encounters with a software developer named Ota (comedian Issey Ogata). Initially their meetings are built around a business deal, but when they learn of a mutual interest in music, they visit a night club and share a brief, wonderful moment over drinks. The scene culminates with Ota actually going up on stage and playing songs on the piano, the last of which is Moonlight Sonata. The camera cuts to a medium closeup of NJ listening to the song, his expression one of a man worn down by problems who finds brief relief in a moment of beauty. 

The song continues on into the next scene as NJ returns to his office, but it's much quieter, as if it's simply still playing in his head, the way any great one does after you hear it initially. Yang disperses moments like these throughout the film, and just like the song keeps playing for NJ, these moments gently perfuse the more difficult moments in the movie. We're left not feeling we've seen a harsh depiction of life, but a kind of somber and lovely reconciliation with its harshness. 

Besides these more headier issues, Yang also seems to be investigating movies themselves, what they can do and why they should exist. At one point, Yang Yang asks his father questions about perspective, how we can never see what's behind us or know what another person sees. His father proceeds to give him a camera, at which Yang Yang sets out to photograph the backs of people's heads (after, though, he tries capturing images of misquotes, interpreted by his scoffing teacher as an attempt at avant-garde artwork-a heartbreaking scene that can easily get lost among the film's larger moments). 

Similarly, Ting Ting goes on a movie date with a boy, after which a discussion ensues about the ways in which cinema allows us to experience other ways of life than the single one we're given (his example of a murderer is followed by-spoiler-his killing a man sleeping with his mother, and when Yang follows this up with scenes of video game violence, I understand him to be commenting on the danger of art/entertainment overlapping with real life, but it's all too rushed and contrived, interfering with other, more important drama in the film-it's my only real complaint about the movie). And this access seems to be what Yang himself prizes in this medium. What sounds like an intimate family drama a la Ozu becomes an ensemble epic that nonetheless is privy to all of these characters' most private actions and thoughts in a way on film is able to.

A novel, I suppose, also can bring us inside the worlds of lots of characters, but only in a movie can this be done with consideration of space, wherein we're able to obtain a sense of realism that the novel fails to achieve. This sense of space comes in the mode of presentation via the camera, and here Yang's strategy is to keep it as distant as possible, often hiding behind doorways or looking in through windows. In one sense it makes us voyeurs of the private lives of others, but that is only if we want to feel guilt for the gift of access of lives outside our own that cinema offers.   

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