November 28, 2012
Yi Yi (2000)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Edward Yang
Stars: Nien-Jen Wu, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang

What it's about. A Chinese-language drama set in Taiwan. The Jian family consists of subdued N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu), his cheerless wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), his elderly mother (Ru-Yun Tang), his wide-eyed and model-gorgeous teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and his precocious eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang).

N.J.'s foolish, superstitious, and mildly overweight younger brother Ah-Di (Hsi-sheng Chen) marries pregnant, beautiful, and moderately wealthy actress Xiao Yen (Shu-shen Hsaio).

Yang-Yang is teased at school by several older girls. He is also bullied by his male teacher. Ting-Ting also attends school but instead we see her interactions with the soap opera life of her neighbor and best friend Li-Li (Adriene Lin), an outspoken and attractive teenaged girl. Li-Li has a nymphomaniac businesswoman mother (possibly played by Shu-Yuan Hsu), a dufus English teacher Chen Lihua (actor's name unknown), and a moody off-and-on boyfriend Fatty (Pang Chang Yu), who isn't fat but instead tall and slender.

Meanwhile, N.J. has his share of troubles. Ah-Di owes him money but can't pay him back. The company he works at is troubled. Min-Min is having a midlife crisis. N.J.'s mother has a stroke and becomes comatose. N.J., due to his honest face, is selected by his company to negotiate with Japanese software celebrity Ota (Issei Ogata), who turns out to be more personable than expected. Ota likes N.J. immediately, and tries to set him up with N.J.'s long-lost love, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), who retains intense but mixed emotions for N.J.

How others will see it. Yi Yi, also known by its equally inscrutable English title One and a Two, turned out to be the final movie by Edward Yang, who died of cancer in 2007 at the untimely age of 59.

Yang first commanded significant attention for A Brighter Summer Day (1991), and by the time of Yi Yi was considered the best Taiwanese filmmaker. Yi Yi was well received and won a slew of dispersed awards, though Oscar, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes ignored it.

The movie had minimal Western box office business and its user vote total is relatively low at 8K. However, the average grade is high at 7.8 out of 10. There is a drop with advancing age, from 8.0 under 30, to 7.8 under 45, to 7.2 over 45. Clearly, younger audiences are impressed by it, while older audiences find it somewhat conventional.

How I felt about it. Yang had a naturalistic directorial style in reminiscent of Japanese director Ozu, though he had a much more modern sense of location and cinematography. Interestingly, while the acting and dialogue is convincing, the same cannot be said for the relationships between his characters.

For example, one wonders why young and attractive Taiwanese moviestar Xiao Yan would marry A-Di, a somewhat portly and decidedly unromantic failed business speculator. We also wonder how Fatty talked the blatantly underaged "good girl" Ting-Ting into a hotel room, or why Sherry would hold a torch for decades for N.J., who is a decent sort but lacks personal charisma. We also find it odd that the film has several trigger-tempered young women but the one murder is committed by a somnolent man, whose victim appears to be a hapless dufus seduced by a mother-daughter combo.

For a three-hour film, the story is unduly compacted. It appears that N.J. returns from Japan, Min-Min returns from her mountain retreat, Ting-Ting returns from the police station, and Grandma dies, all on the same day.

So, the potential of the characters isn't completely realized, despite the exceptional skill of writer-director Yang. But while Yi Yi is not great cinema, it is very good cinema, in itself an accomplishment.