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'Yi Yi'

'Yi Yi' weaves through the quiet and cacophony of relationships

Friday, February 23, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Life should be like a jazzy tune," says the Taiwanese writer-director Edward Yang. His celebrated movie "Yi Yi," now at the Harris Theater, practices what he preaches.

'Yi Yi'

RATING: Unrated; contains vulgar language (in subtitles) and sexual situations.

STARRING: Wu Nienjen, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang.

DIRECTOR: Edward Yang.




The movie, named last year's best film by the National Society of Film Critics, begins with a wedding. A child is born midway through the movie, and two people die at the end.

Yang's examination of the emotions and events marking each stage of our time upon this mortal coil goes off on riffs that demonstrate both the repetitive aspects of life and the need to explore things outside one's immediate experience.

His characters are like musical notes creating their own individual melodies and, at the same time, blending into the larger compositon, forming recognizable chords that recur throughout.

"Yi Yi" goes on for a full three hours, and occasionally it is clear that Yang lingers over his material too much. But the wistful feeling he achieves in the film and his gift for visual storytelling -- particularly in composing a scene but also in knowing when to keep his distance -- results in a movie you just can't get out of your head.

The wedding scene serves as an overture setting up everything that follows. A-Di (Chen Xisheng) is marrying a very pregnant Xiao Yan (Xiao Shusen). Friends and relatives of all ages are in attendance, from his elderly mother (Tang Ruyun) to his sister Min-Min (Elaine Jin) and her family, including her 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who keeps getting tormented by a group of little girls (it only gets worse, Yang-Yang!).

Suddenly, A-Di's former girlfriend, Yun-Yun (Zeng Xinyi), arrives. She's angry, distraught, seemingly half out of her wits that A-Di has married someone else. It's only the first of several times in the movie that a jilted lover makes one character or another reconsider their actions, ruminate about what might have been and reexamine the course of their lives.

Min-Min, devastated when her mother falls into a coma and finding she has nothing to say to her even in that state, seeks spiritual guidance. Daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) makes a new friend in Lili (Adrian Lin), the girl who has moved in next door, but a conflict develops over Lili's boyfriend, nicknamed Fatty (Yupang Chang). Yang-Yang, when not trying to figure out girls, develops a yen for photography and a sense of wonder about that part of the world he can't see -- what goes on behind his head.

The family patriarch, NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a struggling computer company, is having a midlife crisis triggered by concerns over the ethics of his business associates and by a chance encounter with his first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), whom he hasn't seen in decades.

The tales unfold amid the sleek modern skyscrapers and apartment blocks of middle-class Taipei, replete with consumer comforts familiar to most Americans. Yang shoots many scenes through windows bearing reflections of the city's lights, freeways and buildings -- and, occasionally, dotted with raindrops.

He also favors long shots even for -- maybe especially for -- intensely emotional moments. We're not allowed to get too close. Sometimes, we don't even get to see what all the commotion is about until later.

Both techniques make us feel like we are looking in upon other people's intimacies, but they also make us more dispassionate observers, able to filter the sadness and the yearnings of the characters from their internal maelstroms. The reflections on the window glass also represent the impersonal nature of modern urban life, where quiet desperation seethes beneath the unruffled facade, the shiny surface of genteel living.

The cast, including several first-time actors, exudes a convincing naturalism. The movie balances humor and drama early on, gradually turning fully serious by film's end -- although Yang uses Yang-Yang (one can't help but speculate on whether the boy represents the director's alter ego) as a kind of safety valve, wise beyond his years but cutely humorous with a straight face Buster Keaton could appreciate.

"Yi Yi" translates to "one-one," which Yang says means "individually" in Chinese. But the film is subtitled "a one and a two," which suggests not only a mix of individuals but also a group of musicians about to cut loose. Yang proves to be a worthy bandleader.

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