Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two)

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Yi Yi (A One And a Two) directed by Edward Yang

The gatekeepers he was referring to are the people who determine which foreign-language films reach the general public: their number includes film distributors and, in a slightly more remote sense, festival programmers. Trusting these folk?that is, believing that every year they unfailingly winnow out the best foreign films and set them on a course for U.S. art houses?is something that many cinephiles perhaps do without giving it much thought, and others do because they really have no alternative. But I was astonished to think any critic with a brain and access to international festivals would do it, because my experience has taught me just the opposite. When I set about assembling a "10 best" list for the 1990s, I was dismayed but unsurprised to see how many of the outstanding foreign films had passed the decade with little or no access to American filmgoers.

Chief among those unseen masterpieces, Taiwanese director Edward Yang's astonishing, four-hour teens-in-turmoil epic A Brighter Summer Day (1991) not only eluded the nets of American distributors, it was also passed over by the Cannes and New York film festivals, a blunder that looked ever more embarrassing as the film's critical reputation built throughout the decade. Recently I asked a Cannes programmer who was on duty at the time how the oversight could have happened. With a frown, he said, "Festivals make mistakes." (Here insert history's riposte: "No shit.")

Still, my point here is not to bash the gatekeepers, but rather to lament that various factors?some beyond their control, some not?conspired to keep the New Taiwanese Cinema off the cultural radar of American filmgoers during the period of its rise and greatest fecundity, roughly the mid-80s to the mid-90s. As a result, the very belated commercial appearance (last year) of Hou Hsiao-hsien's oeuvre, and the arrival this week of Yang's Cannes triumph Yi Yi (A One and a Two), are welcome events that nonetheless suffer from distortions of perspective that invariably accompany a lack of context.

One example: discussing foreign films in the Times a few weeks back, Stephen Holden opined that "most critics would agree" that the current cinemas of Taiwan, Iran, Spain, China, Denmark and France are "flourishing artistically." I'm not sure how many critics would actually agree with that preposterous statement, but those who do should have their passports renewed. Clearly, "flourishing artistically" applies only, if at all, to Iran, a special case where an authoritarian regime has kept out virtually all foreign films while shrewdly supporting its own filmmakers' efforts at overseas success. The other cinemas Holden mentioned are all in advanced stages of decay or on government life-support.

According to the Cannes programmer mentioned above, speaking a month ago in Telluride, Taiwan's cinema is now "virtually dead." The island's three internationally lauded auteurs, Yang, Hou and Tsai Ming-liang, make their films, in effect, for export, with funds that mostly come from Japan and Europe. That's worth bearing in mind by anyone?critics included?who might risk mistaking Hou's work or Yi Yi as proofs of a currently vital national cinema.

The vitality belongs to the auteurs, whose relationship to their national cultures grows more interestingly problematic as their conditions of production become more transnational. In this sense, Hou and Yang stand in sharp contrast to each other. Hou's films are fastidiously, self-consciously "Chinese" in setting, subjects and style, and usually take place in the past. Yang's films, generally set in the present (the 60s-set Brighter Summer Day is an exception), display a style that might be called international-modernist, and depict a cosmopolitan Taiwan that's overwashed with influences from Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

Amusingly, much as certain precious Western cinephiles once embraced Ozu and Mizoguchi as more "Japanese" than Kurosawa, Hou now gets championed in certain quarters as more culturally authentic than Yang. Yet Yang's cinematic world, in which Taiwanese companies ape Japanese high-tech prototypes and American capitalism drives everything, surely is more authentic to the experience of anyone who steps off a plane in Taipei; it simply doesn't foreground or make a fuss over its "Chineseness."

In fact, local cultural identity seems to mean less to Yang now than ever before. In Telluride I tried to probe him about how Yi Yi comments on Taiwan's present realities. He demurred when I mentioned Taiwan, saying that the more he has traveled of late, the more it has struck him that the crucial divide now isn't between nations, the U.S. and China, say, but between big international metropolises and everywhere else.

Taipei and New York are more like each other than New York is like the American hinterlands, he mused. People who live in these cities increasingly belong to the same culture, and it's not a national or traditional culture. It's a global urban culture. Thus, says Yang, he doesn't make Taiwanese (much less "Chinese") films, because he doesn't really understand or inhabit the parts of Taiwan beyond its capital. He makes Taipei films, films set in a city that more and more resembles every other big, flashing, sleepless city.

This outlook has two noteworthy consequences. First, and not incidentally, it provides Yang's films (Yi Yi especially) with a significant correlation between the cultures they depict and the cultures that finance and consume them; unlike Hou's films, which give Westerners arty repesentations of an exotic Other, Yang's unfold and offer fascinating insights into the prosaic, global here and now. Second, the fading of local culture means that culture itself recedes as a central question, leaving Yang to focus on the individual life, the lone city-citizen and his immediate kin.

It's worth stressing that a long intellectual itinerary has led Yang to the felicities of Yi Yi, because one of the film's virtues is a deceptive conventionality that can make it seem a lot less complex and hard-won than it is. Running three hours yet so steadily engrossing that its end arrives before you want it to, Yang's story chronicles the ups and downs of an ordinary Taipei family (mom, dad, sis, kid bro, plus assorted relatives) as its members endure everything from business challenges, injury, first love and possible infidelity to religious crisis and the encroachment of mortality.

Alternately funny and poignant, the film sometimes dances alarmingly close to the lures of melodrama and sentimentality, yet it emerges as unself-consciously beautiful, humane and heartwarming in a way few movies manage without collapsing into sappiness. At the same time, Yi Yi easily repays multiple viewings because its most impressive accomplishments transpire far beneath its ingratiating, carefully drawn surface.

With a flurry of comic lyricism, the tale opens at a wedding where 40ish paterfamilias N.J. (Wu Nien-Jen) encounters his long-unseen first love in an elevator and notices that there's still a spark between them. She's a musician who's been living in America, but the fact that his company is trying to forge a deal with a Tokyo concern gives N.J. the chance, as the story unfolds, to go to off to Japan for a few days with his old flame and consider starting anew.

The other members of N.J.'s family eventually have their own Rubicons to cross. While his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is distracted to the point of seeking the spiritual guidance of a guru, daughter Li Li (Adrian Lin) gradually develops a crush on a boy who turns out to be seriously unhinged. Meanwhile, seven-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) explores the world through the lens of his own camera and a mind that can't help turning every experience into a philosophical quandary.

Various other relatives occupy the comedy-drama's periphery, and a crucial one gives the story its dead-silent center. Rendered comatose by an accident, Min-Min's elderly mother is returned home with doctor's instructions that the family members talk to her frequently to stimulate her senses. What does one say to an old woman who shows no signs of consciousness? The dilemma adds to existential puzzlements faced by four people who not only don't speak much to each other but don't seem especially adept at facing themselves. To talk to Granny, each must construct a narrative that he or she can listen to and live with.

The film's mastery, however, lies far less in its plot or characters than in the subtlety of its design and execution. Yang fortunately has never fallen prey to Hou's brand of hyperformalism, but that's not to say that form doesn't carry much of the meaning in his films; it merely means that he's more delicate about it. In interviews he has said that he wanted to reflect on the different ages of a person's life, but rather than following one character through many years, he created different characters representing the whole spectrum of age. That's almost like symbolic speech signaling the motives that inform the film at every level: balance, wholeness and a perspective that emphasizes the long view of individual, family and social life.

Yi Yi, in fact, is a supremely humane and wonderfully accessible movie that could equally be appreciated on an almost abstract level. The ways that Yang balances every opposite (young/old, happy/sad, individual/family, love/disappointment, etc., etc.) are quite amazing in their significant thoroughness, just as his skill in interweaving innumerable plot strands and moods without calling attention to their seamlessness recalls that, before turning to filmmaking, he was an engineer who considered going into architecture. Beyond that, there's the sheer skill and truthfulness he's able to conjure in scene after scene, moment after moment, of the film's unfurling.

A Brighter Summer Day is, I think, still the masterpiece Yang is most likely to be remembered for. Made when he was in his 40s, it has the jagged energies and lunging ambitions of an artist still gripped by the demons of his youth but suddenly in the full possession of his own powers. Yi Yi is a more relaxed and mellow film, a contemplative work by an artist who's crossed the threshold of 50 and realized that he has achieved a measure of contentment and philosophic perspective. Both films, though, are similar in feeling deeply personal, which separates them from Yang's estimable but more intellectual other features.

Yi Yi, the seventh of Yang's features yet the first to make it into the U.S. marketplace, will no doubt come as a startling surprise to some viewers. "Where has this terrific filmmaker been hiding?" people will wonder. The answer, of course, is not so much in Taiwan as on the other side of the gatekeepers.

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