Dysfunctional family dramas are all the rage, and the kookier, the louder and more highly strung the characters, the better. Surely, there is nothing more cathartic than words being flung about like ceramic plates and parents and siblings in various stages of meltdown to remind us that the most basic and immediate social unit is where it begins to go downhill. Sometimes, the asylum is located in the living room.
But what of the more typical functional family, the one that many more of us identify with, belong to, and go on to replicate in our adulthood? Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is about one such quotidian set of people, whose problems are localised to Taipei as well as wholly universal.
Made in 2000, Yi Yi was Yang’s final movie, and came after several acclaimed examinations of contemporary Taiwanese society, including That Day, on the Beach (1983), The Terrorizers (1986) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991). To watch the master’s most accomplished movie is like sitting down on a park bench and seeing life go by with all its complexities, challenges, disappointments, and minor triumphs. Yi Yi follows a year in the lives of three generations of a middle-class family, comprising a grandmother who gets a stroke early on in the story, her daughter and son-in-law, and their daughter and son. Yang focuses on three characters: the father NJ (writer and occasional actor Nien-Jen Wu), the adolescent daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and the little Yang-Yang (Jonathon Chang), whose mission to master photography because he wants to show people what they cannot see also mirrors the movie’s intention.
The 173-minute narrative is bookended by a wedding and a funeral. Members of the extended family are introduced in the opening sequence, in which NJ’s permanently debt-ridden brother-in-law is getting married to his pregnant girlfriend even though he hasn’t overcome his feelings for his childhood sweetheart. Ties that are forged early on in life – at school and in college – mark the older generation in permanent ways. NJ is a partner at a company run by people he went to school with. A potential tie-up with a Japanese gaming company sends NJ on an adventure to Japan and a possible renewal of ties with his one true love, also from school.
Ting-Ting gets embroiled in a relationship with a moody poetic type who is also involved with her neighbour. The reserved and sensitive teenager gets first-hand lessons in heartbreak, and she has only her comatose grandmother to turn to. Her mother has disappeared into a spiritual retreat after a breakdown, and the rest of the family is left to its own devices.
Exploring his own emotional frontiers is Yang-Yang, who uses his father’s gift of a camera first to photograph the mosquitoes in the passage outside his apartment and later to show people what they are unable to see – the backs of their heads. Ridiculed in school by a nasty teacher and his cohort of favourite female students, Yang-Yang is initially miserable, but later realises that what he is feeling for the teacher’s snotty pet is the emotion that we call love.
The mid-long shot, one of the favoured positions of cinematographer Wei-hang Yang’s sensitive camera, allows each of the characters to be observed in their respective spaces. One of the frequent comments about Yi Yi is the manner in which it allows its characters to experience solitude as they consider their options, whether it’s NJ sitting in a karaoke bar watching his potential Japanese partner warbling away or Ting-Ting silently going through the throes of womanhood or Yang-Yang’s knee-high encounters with the ways of the adult world.
Wei-hang Yang also creates startling juxtapositions between the city beyond the apartments and office spaces. In a particularly striking shot that precedes the mother Min-Min’s decision to take off for several weeks, she stands in her office cabin weeping silently as the city’s bright lights are reflected in her window.
There are no easy and convenient solutions for any of the characters. A luxuriously filmed interlude for NJ in Japan, where he combines a business trip with a possible hook-up with his former girlfriend Sherry, acutely reveals the minefield that his heart has become. Ting-Ting’s brutal lesson in young love goes through all the ups and downs that are typical of this stage in life, where the most attractive man necessarily belongs to your best friend.
The quiet shot-taking style, spot-on naturalistic acting and unhurried and ultimately profoundly moving survey of humanity combine to create one of the best-ever examinations of the modern family. The Financial Times critic Nigel Andrews famously said about Yi Yi that to call it “a three-hour Taiwanese family drama is like calling Citizen Kane a film about a newspaper”.
As one-line descriptions of movies go, that is on the nail.