There is a disarming honesty to the way writer/director Edward Yang speaks of Yi Yi — A One and A Two, an honesty which is rarely — if ever — to be found in critical writing, so his words perhaps better suited than any (especially mine) to introduce you to his creation.
“The film is simply about life, played across a spectrum of its span. In my view as the writer, simplicity is what’s at the bottom of the whole lot of complications at the top.”
So says Yang, and he should know. To claim that Yi Yi is ‘simply’ about life is not an oversimplification in its simple self (oh my), but there is, however, no need to elevate the film above the basic emotional core that is at the centre of every one of the stories Yang tells here.
There’s no real point in a plot synopsis, beyond explaining Yi Yi is largely about the day-to-day experiences of a contemporary Taiwanese family. That the film is nearly three hours long should give some indication of the depth of Yang’s exploration of their lives (and not just their lives — there are a bevy of aunts and uncles, as well as friends, neighbours and classmates that all receive some attention from the camera at one time or another), but the running time rarely becomes a hindrance. Rather, events unfold at such a leisurely pace that the film never feels forced and there is very little sense of Yang taking his time (or your time, for that matter). Some characters get more screen time than others, but none are neglected and this certainly works to the film’s benefit — the trials and tribulations of each character, from eight-year-old Yang-Yang to elderly Grandma, are so easily identified with because they can be so readily recognised as being similar to (or more frightening, exactly the same as) one’s own experiences.
It’s strange that a film so concerned with such raw and negative emotions (fear, jealousy and (self-)loathing) should not only be so enjoyable but also so affirming of so many positives as well! Yi Yi is so gently told that it is almost impossible to resist — this film is the ultimate celebration of life (there’s that word again) as a journey rather than a destination, and if that sounds trite… well, it is. Despite all the pain and suffering, there are enough quiet moments of satisfaction and hope in Yi Yi that optimism reigns supreme. “ Life should be like a jazzy tune” Yang says, “not something tense, or heavy or stressful.”
To call this film a Work Of Art is really to deny it as a subjective experience — certainly the actors all give uniformly brilliant performances, Yang’s script manages to be ‘clever’ without undermining the realism and his direction is nothing short of magnificent, but these are all part of a greater whole that just… works. In order to (hopefully) ram what I’m saying home I’m going to have to resort to cliché one last time — Yi Yi must truly be seen to be believed.