There’s a wonderful naturalness to Edward Yang’s saga of the various generations of a Taiwanese family, “Yi Yi (A One and a Two),” a domestic comedy-drama that, at nearly three hours, is epic in length but unfailingly absorbing. The picture might have been titled “One Wedding and a Funeral,” since it begins with the former and ends with the latter, and in between it offers such matter as a murder, some near and actual adultery, first love, the re-emergence of old love, illness, attempted suicide, schoolyard highjinks, squabbles, mental breakdowns, mother-daughter rivalry and a baby’s birth; but what another filmmaker might have turned into a bombastic, bathetic soap opera, Yang presents with remarkable delicacy, subtlety and understatement. “Yi Yi” is, quite simply, a beautiful, touching and memorable film.
The linchpin of the film is NJ Jian (Wu Nienjen), a middle-aged computer executive who’s having difficulty both at his job and at home; at the very moment the firm is on the verge of bankruptcy, NJ must deal with a newly-married brother-in-law (who happens to be deeply in debt and still involved with a former girlfriend), the sudden incapacitation of his elderly mother-in-law, and the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart. His wife goes into depression over her mother’s illness, while his daughter enters a tentative romance with a neighbor’s ex-boyfriend and his young son gets into difficulties at school while taking his first steps at trying to understand the world. As the family’s varied relationships develop in intricate and surprising ways, NJ becomes involved in trying to salvage his company through negotiations with an innovative Japanese software expert, who represents for him a re-invigoration of his own professional commitment, and also has to deal with his attraction to his former love. The characters’ interconnections aren’t clear-cut, nor are they easily resolved; a tone of gentle resignation and regret suffuses the latter portion of the picture, but there are hints of hope and renewal, too. Yang’s film ends on a bittersweet note that seems very true and very right.
“Yi Yi” isn’t a flashy or ostentatious work; Yang treats his material with respect, keeping even the most strenuous displays of emotion under control and preferring understatement (even in the humorous scenes involving the brother-in-law and his new wife, and the sequences centered on little Jonathan Chang as NJ’s son Yang-Yang) to anything too demonstrative. The cast is uniformly fine, with Nienjen, Kelly Lee (as daughter Ting-Ting), Yupang Chang (as her shy, confused suitor) and Jonathan Chang standing out. And special mention should be made of Yang Weihan’s serene, often striking cinematography.
Filmgoers devoted to American action movies and accustomed to the most obvious effects and unrealistic narrative tricks will probably find “Yi Yi” too sedate and complex for their tastes. But if you’re willing to surrender yourself to its deliberate rhythm and unassuming style, you’ll find Yang’s film a marvelously textured and affecting piece, a picture of rare truthfulness and cinematic purity.