Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Magnificent Cinematic Experience

Taiwanese cinema has come a long way since its very humble beginnings. From films made under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century, to movies made under the auspices of the Nationalist government since 1949; from barely watchable, low budget kung-fu films in the 1960’s and 1970’s to diabetes-inducing romantic melodrama, Taiwanese cinema came of age during the so-called New Wave period, beginning in 1982, and it has brought to audiences some of the most innovative contributions to the genre of film.

Director Edward Yang (1947 - 2007) has done for the family drama in the late 20th century what master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu had done in the first half of that same century. In fact, Yang acknowledged his debt to Ozu by naming one of his first films Taipei Story, as homage to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, widely considered by film connoisseurs to be one of the greatest films ever made.

I am one of those people who can watch the same movie many times. Like listening to a great piece of music, I never cease to discover previously unnoticed nuances when I re-watch a worthwhile film. One film by Yang, one of his most magical and moving films, that I have returned to time and again, is Yi Yi (2000), loosely translated as A One and a Two – a more literal translation would be One and One.

Running an epic 178 minutes, Yi Yi tells the story of an upper-middle class family in Taipei. Each member of the family: NJ, an executive in a software company, Min-Min, his wife and their two children, teenage Ting-Ting and Yang-Yang, their young son.

The movie begins with the wedding of Min-Min’s ne’er-do-well younger brother and his very pregnant fiancĂ©. When the family returns home after the banquet, they discover that Min-Min’s mother has suffered a stroke and is now in a coma. One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is that this elderly figure, who remains unconscious throughout the film, serves as a silent confessor, someone everyone in the film would go to with their problems, their thoughts, their worries, as well as a channel for them to express their suppressed emotions.

Throughout the film, every member of the family searches for the meaning in their respective lives – NJ’s company is going through a crisis, and his brother-in-law owes him money, then Min-Min, as a result of her mother’s illness, goes through a spiritual crisis and finds a complete lack of meaning in her own life, and Ting Ting experiences the first brush of romance; even little Yang Yang, forever bullied by the older girls at school, becomes suddenly aware of the opposite sex. The movie examines both the interior lives of each character, as well as the interaction of each character with the people around them.

For me, the star of the film is Yang Yang, played with a perfect combination of innocence and wisdom by Jonathan Chang. With the aid of a camera, Yang Yang goes around taking pictures of people’s back, because people never can really see their own backs, says he. Eventually, little Yang Yang is the one that manages to say what all the adults in the film fail to convey.

Yi Yi deals with the crisis of spiritual emptiness and clashes of values in the modern man, and the forces that threaten to break down the family, all against the backdrop – the sights and sounds - of a metropolis. Like Ozu, and unlike many of today’s commercial directors trying to get a film to clock in under 120 minutes, Yang takes time to tell a story, and allows for the characters and the action to fill in each frame – and what beautiful frames they are! We see many of the scenes in the film through an open window, or through the reflection of a window pane in the night, almost as if we are eavesdropping upon an intimate conversation. In one scene, we hear the fight between a next door neighbour and her lover, but we “see” this conversation from the outside of the darkened apartment window. At the end of the movie, the audience witnesses a supernatural occurrence that leaves it wondering – did it really happen, or was it merely a dream?

Because of his short life, Edward Yang’s output is relatively small, but every one of his films deserves to be explored. Like any great film, we see in Yi Yi a little bit of ourselves, the questions we ask of our lives, and a reminder of how easy it is to lose sight of one’s integrity

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