Yi Yi (A one and a two…)

| Azra Thakur |

Yi Yi plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 19 through Tuesday, March 21. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

Wendy Ide, a film critic for The Guardian, was recently critical of films running over three hours, as she argued that films in the pandemic-times we continue to live in should be limited in their running length:

No film needs to be longer than three hours. And fewer than you might think can justify breaking the 2hrs 40m mark… But this does raise the question: are marathon movies really what the audience wants? Is expecting punters to sit through more than three hours the best way to lure post-pandemic audiences back into cinemas?

I reflected on the many three-hour long films I’ve watched in my life, never turning down a film for being too long. Growing up, I watched many Hindi-language films that exceeded the mark. During the pandemic, I was thrilled to learn the library had a copy of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour on DVD, a film which crosses the five-hour time span. When you fall completely into a film’s world, you don’t look for the exit—you wish the film were longer. You don’t want the film to end.

Edward Yang’s films playing at the Trylon this month span a number of running times, from 119 to 237 minutes. Yang’s films are beautiful, leisurely, and stylistically reflective of their time periods. Characters go to work and school, meet friends and family members, fall in love, experience death. The everyday experiences in which his characters find themselves are set beautifully within the city life of Taiwan.

I’m not going to describe the plot of Yi Yi entirely. In brief, the film looks at the life of a mother, father, grandmother, eight-year-old son, and teenage daughter as they are trying to make sense of who they are in the world. Each of the film’s characters is at a milestone in their life, quietly experiencing and processing their experiences and coming away with a better understanding of themselves.

Father and eight-year-old are formally dressed in suits sitting at a table in McDonald’s in Taiwan, as seen in the film Yi Yi. The son is eating a chicken nugget from a tray of food in front of him; the father is sitting next to the son on his left and is yawning with closed eyes.

Filmmaking was Edward Yang’s second career. Yang studied electrical engineering in the United States before deciding to move back to Taiwan to make films in 1980. With the experience of a different career before filmmaking, Yang captures the reality of everyday lives with a bracing realism. Workplaces depicted in his films feel familiar, as Yang captures the tension between characters’ personal interests and workplace demands on their time. Both the father and mother in Yi Yi take time away from work during the film as they individually reflect on their lives and relationships.

A number of remarkable filmmakers emerged during the 1980s and 1990s in Taiwan, including Hou Hsiao-hsien (who also acts in Yang’s earlier film Taipei Story) and Tsai Ming-liang. Like many Asian countries during the time period, Taiwan’s economy was in the middle transforming itself to become more globalized, particularly in the technology sector. Yang explores the impact these changes had on the country’s values, as characters in his films explore the meaning behind work. The subtlety of the country’s shifting priorities appears in the beautiful backgrounds in which characters are situated: gleaming against glowing billboards, in coffeeshops and McDonald’s, in empty office buildings at night.

The characters in Yang’s films are stylishly dressed. Watching Taipei Story, I was transfixed by a scene where Tsai Chin selects from her collection of sunglasses a pair to start her day. This scene sets a stylistic tone that carries through Yang’s following films. The clothing made of lightweight fabric for the warm climate, the glamorous hair, the careful selection of accessories like sunglasses or a compact camera—characters in Yang’s films are purposefully dressed.

Yi Yi’s wardrobe consists of classic, minimalist 1990s pieces: button-down shirts, knee-length skirts, sensible leather shoes for women and tailored suits for men. The style is familiar—an example of classic American Ivy style, exported the world over in a different cultural context. There are no stretch fabrics in sight. Yang’s characters are completely at ease in their clothes. Yi Yi has many scenes with water and rain: characters carry umbrellas in their walks on the way to school, or squelch, soaked completely, through the apartment after jumping fully clothed into a pool—the sound of two small, soggy sneakers pitter-pattering along with a satisfying squish-squish.

A woman (Tsai Chin) fixes her hair in a mirror in the film "Taipei Story."

Tsai Chin in the film Taipei Story (1985).

In Yi Yi, the camera zooms around witnessing its characters from many perspectives. Sometimes the lens is zoomed out as we observe characters from an apartment balcony, watching them walk on the streets below under concrete overpasses. Sometimes there is no one in the scene at all, as we hear conversations taking place but do not see the characters. Like many of his earlier films, Yi Yi has effervescent nighttime city scenes, brilliantly fluorescent-lit. Cars and motorcycles zip through the night as we take in Taipei streets under glowing lights. The dad in Yi Yi has a fantastic vintage BMW, and we get to admire it as he drives through nighttime city streets.  

Yang’s films, from a different time and country, ask viewers to reflect on life the way the characters from his films are reflecting on their own. Witnessing characters in Yi Yi from a distance, in the car, or completely out of frame reveals how memories return in fragments, as images, as sound, as conversations heard but not seen. Nighttime scenes of headlamps weaving through city streets bring back our own memories of where we were in the past and where we are headed next. We are surrounded by family members and friends, each on their own specific journeys, making sense of who we are and how to make sense of our world.

A couple climbs stairs in a leafy green park. The stairs are covered in the shadows of trees. The couple is located at a distance from the camera.

Yi Yi, released in 2000, was Yang’s last film. Yang passed away in 2007 when he was 59 years old. Just shy of three hours, Yi Yi feels as relevant today as it must have felt over twenty years ago. It takes its time sharing characters’ stories with viewers. As we live through what film critic A.S. Hamrah describes as the streaming death of our times, inundated with short-form video content, and hear from film critics like Wendy Ide attempting to make the case for shorter films, Yi Yi keeps you within its world, asks you to reflect on questions its characters are exploring, and encourages you to see the beauty of the everyday circumstances that surround you.  

Edited by Matt Levine

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.