[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Edward Yang’s work on this nearly-three-hour family drama from Taiwan won him the Best Director award from the Cannes 2000 jury. Quiet, patient, undemonstrative, Yi Yi is no tour de force à la Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, nor an emotional tone poem like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, but its large, astutely chosen cast is beautifully observed, and Yang’s visual intelligence — whether focused on a verdant park or the Fassbinder-like frame spaces where life is lived in a modern, suddenly Westernized city — is formidable.
Yi Yi requires, and surely rewards, a reel or two’s worth of patience as the dramatis personae are introduced and allowed to define themselves. Central to the narrative is NJ (Wu Nianzhen), a partner in a successful computer company and a devoted husband, father, son, and in-law. In short yet entirely unforced order his wife’s brother gets married, his live-in mother suffers a stroke, and his wife, suddenly feeling her life emptying of meaning, slips away to a religious retreat. NJ tries to hold the home together while also deciding how best to handle the next crucial phase of his company’s evolution. Meanwhile, the point of view enlarges and we become aware of more and more characters — offspring, neighbors, friends of friends — whose lives are glancing off one another in unpredictable, almost undetectable ways. And somewhere in there, NJ runs into the woman (Ke Suyun) who, thirty years earlier, was his first love.
It’s impossible to overstate how delicately Yang manages all this. Simply to enumerate the social realignments and personal crises that arise during the film would suggest it’s a hotbed of melodramatic activity. Watching Yi Yi, one feels just the opposite; we seem to be experiencing the cosmic flow of life, but from a discreetly privileged vantage that allows us to see the whole of things. Throw in a teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) whose scruples about her peer-group relationships keep her hormonal distraction in check, plus a weird little son (Jonathan Chang) whose designated-cute-kid status masks genuine wisdom, and you realize this movie is some kind of miracle.
2020: Yi Yi was voted Best Picture—not Best Foreign Film—of 2000 by the National Society of Film Critics. Edward Yang never made another film afterward, dying age 59 in 2007.