Yi Yi, an article by Fraser Elliott

Yi Yi screens at HOME on Sun 23 Oct as part of an Edward Yang season within an ongoing series of Taiwan film events.

Early on in Yi Yi, Yang-Yang, the young son of the film’s central family, is accused by his teacher of bringing a condom to school. He contests the accusation: “You just heard something, you didn’t see it”, standing firm when his teacher pushes: “You think I need to see it to know?”. 

This is one of Yi Yi’s many loving and gently presented moments. It is an exchange that neatly summaries the philosophical dilemma that Yang-Yang wrestles with across the film about his perception of the world and what remains hidden from view. I mention this because, for a long time, it seemed Yi Yi was one such hidden object: a film we had probably all heard about, but one that for many of us remained unseen. 

When it was released in 2000, Yi Yi met a rapturous reception and earned director Edward Yang acclaim at many a festival, including the award for Best Director at that year’s Cannes. Ever since, Yi Yi has remained a frequent sight atop the lists of film critics’ all over the world: maintaining positions in Sight and Sound’s “Greatest Films of all Time” polls; top 3 at IndieWire and Village Voice; top ten for The New York Times; “the greatest ever” film for Salon; top 30 in The Guardian; the list goes on.  

It was brought to the UK initially by the distribution operation of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It played at their venue in the capital for 6 weeks before embarking a brief tour of the country (including screenings at Cornerhouse). Since then, it’s been surprisingly difficult to see here on the big or small screen. In an interview in 2012, Yi Yi’s original UK distributor – Edward Fletcher of Soda Pictures – shared the frustrating and tragic reason for this absence: when Edward Yang tragically died from cancer in 2007, aged 59, the UK theatrical rights to Yi Yi effectively went with him. Lost in a complex web of ownership confusion, venues were unable to screen the film until very recently, when the rights resurfaced with the New York-based arthouse distributor Janus Films.  

In some ways this is a fittingly moving and intricate history for Yi Yi: a film which understands the immense complexities and emotions nestled within the ordinariness of our day-to-day lives. I’d like to think that only someone with Edward Yang’s eye for poignancy in the mundane could, even accidentally, turn a rights issue into something so loaded and fraught for his many admirers.  

Yang was a leading figure of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, alongside directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, who started working in the 1980s to detach themselves from the region’s genre cinema by making socially conscious and formally distinct dramas. These films were much more popular at international film festivals than in their native Taiwan, where they were often bitterly rejected by critics and audiences. (Fans of these new wave films may be interested to hear that the man who penned most of them – screenwriter Wu Nien-jen – stars in Yi Yi as NJ, the father in the central family). Yi Yi was Yang’s 7th feature-length contribution to the movement and critical consensus is that this film is the culmination of his innovative, twenty-year career. 

Yi Yi lends itself to such a reading in its sheer scope. Across its three-hour runtime we see three generations of a family navigate weddings, graveyards, childbirths, schooldays, holidays, business meetings, and everything in between. Yang’s camera is kept distant, as George Wu observes, it “does not force drama or importance on us”. Takes are long and edits gently paced, with multiple points of action in any given frame. This style of filmmaking ensures Yi Yi will be different for each of us – we will find our own sites of focus. By sitting with these characters for so long we become intimately familiar so that every glance, gesture, and brief line of dialogue is loaded with meaning by its closing moments. 

That is not to suggest Yi Yi has nothing specific to say. Should we choose to attend to it, Yi Yi provides a wide-reaching dissection of life and society in Taipei at the turn of the millennium.  We are shown repeated collisions between family life and the currents of international business, new technology, and schooling; while the city’s potential for both alienation and community are explored in each family member’s storyline. The role of capitalism lingers over these explorations, articulated nicely by Yang-Yang’s happiness when his father sneaks him out for a McDonald’s in the middle of the opening wedding. It’s amazing to think that this was the film debut of Jonathan Chang, who gives a remarkable performance as the 8-year-old Yang-Yang and who, despite the rapturous response from viewers and critics alike, has barely acted since. 

It’s said that Edward Yang first hit upon the idea for Yi Yi when he was 14 but he let it develop over 40 years until – aged 53 – he felt he had enough life experience to make it. It’s immensely sad that, as his final film, Yi Yi also became the culmination of this experience. Released 7 years before his death, this finality lends what was already one of the world’s kindest and most sincere approaches to cinema a unique poignancy: this is a comprehensive exploration of modern life that reflects a lifelong meditation on love, loss, and finding one’s place in the world. 

At one point in the film, a young boy tells us that “movies give us twice what we get from daily life” but even this seems too slight for Yi Yi.  The chance to see it all on the big screen feels as though after 20 years of living like Yang-Yang – aware of something, but not truly knowing it – we are finally able to see what we have been missing. 

By Fraser Elliott

Fraser is Lecturer in Film, Exhibition Curation at the University of Edinburgh and also a member of the Chinese Film Forum UK. Before moving to Edinburgh, he was a member of the film team at HOME.