“Movies are so lifelike – that’s why we love them”
The last time I wrote about Edward Yang‘s Yi Yi was in December of last year. The end of the last decade was only seven months ago, but it feels like several lifetimes have passed since that calm winter before the storm. That month, I named Yi Yi my favorite film of the 21st century in one of our end-of-decade articles, a bold and perhaps premature claim considering I had only first watched it a month and half beforehand. As I was writing that piece, I felt dissatisfied with what I was typing. I knew instinctively that it was my favorite film of the 21st century, but I couldn’t find the right words to convey why. What was so special to me about this patient, three-hour Taiwanese family drama that made my heart swell so emphatically and made me choke up during its final moments both times I watched it?
It’s still impossible for me to connect the film’s specific combination of narrative, pacing, mise-en-scene, acting, and music in any coherent way to my overwhelmingly emotional response to it. All of these elements are absolutely essential to its impact, of course, but like any great piece of art it is exceedingly difficult to single out even a handful of the creative choices that make it resonate so personally for me as a composite piece. One can watch their favorite film hundreds of times, know every single line, shot, and story beat, and still not comprehend how all of those details come together to form such a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. I feel this way about quite a few movies, but perhaps none so strongly as Yi Yi.
The film’s story is both straightforward and complex in the way that movies about real life often are. At the turn of the millennium, we follow several members of a Taiwanese family through one year in their lives, beginning with the amusingly problematic wedding of the family’s likable klutz, and concluding with a touching funeral for their elderly matriarch. Like Yang’s other masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi makes exquisite use of its lengthy runtime, delicately interweaving the individual parts of its dense story into a lucid canvas of life in all its many stages. The result is an always-shifting painting encompassing the entire human condition, from childlike curiosity to teenage romance to adult regret, in addition to all the colorful shades of happiness and sadness that lie between.
Yang understood the artistic merit of showing this vast spectrum of emotional complexity in all its uncompressed dignity, and he knew how to render it in a way that’s at once pensive and sentimental. While there may be nothing revolutionary about Yi Yi as a family drama, the delicate manner in which the film interweaves its characters’ stories is where it finds its most powerful meaning, pursuing a structure that prioritizes emotional continuity over the temporal. One of the film’s most particularly memorable sequences, for instance, cuts between two romantic encounters that would otherwise appear very different. The doe-eyed Ting Ting (Kelly Lee) goes on her first date with the boy her best friend was seeing, while a tender reunion ensues in a different country between her father NJ (Wu Nien-jen) and the long lost high school sweetheart he once stood up many years ago. Taken separately, these two romantic microcosms are charming, but it’s only with their juxtaposition – by allowing the audience to see their similarities unfold concurrently – that they arrive at a feeling of greater importance to the broader human condition. The resulting impression of all this narrative elegance is soft, to be sure, but it’s a lasting one – a gentle reminder that all of us belong to a living, breathing mural of distinct but nevertheless connected bundles of hopes and dreams and insecurities.
That quiet invitation of empathy is ultimately a large part of what’s so thoroughly moving to me about the film. It’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day chaos of life, so much so that we often forget the necessity of placing ourselves in the shoes of those around us from time to time. In the middle of this terrible year, I’ve personally found myself fluctuating through a daily cycle of anger, anxiety, and despair as I read the news and then fail to think about anything positive for the remainder of my day. I like to think of myself as a humanist, but there is just so much selfishness, injustice, and outright evil in our world right now that I will admit that lately I’ve been struggling to maintain a healthy baseline of love for mankind.
It’s been said that dreams are a way of allowing our subconscious to unpack the events of our day, to better understand and empathize with those we interact with on a regular basis. I think movies serve a similar purpose. When everything in my day goes wrong, when it feels like I have nothing but frustration or sadness in my heart, watching a great movie can be just the thing to remind me of the good in others and myself. Roger Ebert famously called the movies “a machine that generates empathy”. I agree with his assessment, but more than empathy I think they also generate hope. I believe Yi Yi to be one of the best films ever made, not just because it’s one of the most beautifully shot, paced, and acted pieces of cinema I’ve had the fortune of experiencing, but because it’s the film that inspires in me the purest feeling of joy – the simple joy of being granted the gift of living on this earth for even the briefest of moments.