The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
The Humanistic Condition
Andrew Chan on Yi Yi
Cinephilia is usually characterized as an insatiable, promiscuous kind of love, but Edward Yang’s Yi Yi tempts me to think of it as monogamous. While this certainly isn’t the only film I’ve ever held dear, the reverence it commands leads me to a few hyperbolic convictions most often associated with romantic commitment: that its entrance into my life was destined; that I never truly loved before it; that it will always mean this much to me. As with most worthwhile passions, though, this personal canon of one arouses an impulse for self-doubt. What is it in Yi Yi that makes me think, however momentarily, that I could relinquish the rest of cinema’s varied treasures? Insofar as one’s professed aesthetic values function as an advertisement of an idealized self-image, there must be a strong element of narcissism in my devotion to this film, perhaps the false implication that I have successfully internalized the wisdom at its heart. Surely there is something maudlin about my desire to understand my life in parallel to it and my eagerness to subscribe wholeheartedly to its worldview. Not only does Yi Yi offer a space for its audience to make peace with life’s contradictions (or at least imagine what it would be like to do so), but it couples its serenity with the sense that we—like its characters—possess profound capacities for emotion that counteract bourgeois numbness. Or maybe, in love, timing is everything. My intense identification with Yi Yi—a film that came to me just as I began to fret over what it might mean to be a grown-up—once satisfied a late-teenage compulsion to rehearse the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life from a safe distance. Could it be that my continued adoration is rooted only in nostalgia?
It can be a frightening prospect to revisit a beloved object—lest a diminished love should reveal how much we have changed, how little we knew about ourselves, how briefly anything lasts. Yet Yi Yi’s exquisitely balanced and inclusive portrait of middle-class Taipei seems designed to accompany its devotees like a talisman through the years, and to continually renew and complicate the feelings we invest in it. For all its complex emotional shading, this three-hour family saga is built from the basics, an outline of life crises and rites of passage that could easily be taken for the “universal human condition.” An international audience that might have felt alienated by the historical opacities of other Taiwanese masterpieces, like City of Sadness, is offered a secure foothold here, as Yi Yi (whose title literally translates as “One, One”) pivots on a series of classic binaries, symmetries, and cyclic repetitions—young versus old, life versus death, individual versus community, globalization versus cultural authenticity. This structuring principle is made blatant from the very first scenes, when a wedding banquet is quickly followed by the Jiang clan’s silent, smiling matriarch falling into a coma. Assembling a large cast of characters around the two milestones of marriage and death, Yang constructs his sprawling narrative out of the varying degrees of intimacy and distance between family members—who are simultaneously united in the similar ways they approach life’s challenges, and isolated in their ignorance of these commonalities. Like those in almost all of the great Taiwanese cinema that has reached American shores, Yi Yi’s rhythms are uniformly slow and methodical, but the film’s character-centered progression also gives it the qualities of a dance, as it constantly negotiates its participants’ steps toward and away from one another.
While the film’s reliance on yin-yang duality risks clichéd, overbearing symbolism, it also signals the director’s lack of embarrassment about reaching for core truths. Yang’s epic surveying across the generations never becomes reductive because he refuses to see his characters simply as stand-ins for their age groups and social positions, or as clusters of clearly defined lights and shadows, virtues and vices. His subtlety is exemplified in the profound but largely uncommunicative relationship between the film’s two male heroes, a father and son through whom Yang refracts both his temperament as an artist and some of his autobiography as a passionate, cosmopolitan Taiwanese man who has struggled to find his voice in a rigid society. Yi Yi’s central protagonist is NJ, a disillusioned business- and family-man (played by New Taiwan Cinema screenwriter and popular TV personality Wu Nianzhen) torn between a desire to assert his agency and a resignation to his own sense of powerlessness. The events that provoke his midlife crisis elicit two conflicting attitudes: on the one hand, he valiantly stands up to the unimaginative, profit-hungry decisions of his partners at a software company, and boldly professes his enduring love for a long-estranged high-school flame (Ke Suyun); on the other, when confronted with life’s fundamental unfairness and the problems that arise within his own family, he is stoic, reluctantly verbal, at times frustratingly passive.
In NJ’s brief, fragmentary descriptions of his early life, we recognize some of Yang, a “good Chinese son” who eventually rebelled against the pragmatic careerism expected of him. Though we meet NJ on the path set for him by a courageous choice of self-determination made in his young adulthood, we discover that not unlike Yang—who in interviews expressed his bitterness about the Taiwanese audience’s general apathy toward his work—our hero has become painfully aware of the constraints on his idealism and ambition. His face alone could tell the whole story: small, slightly rumpled, with a natural scowl that only occasionally lifts into a faint smile, Wu looks like he feels the violence of each and every emotion, but has given up on registering them in his words or expressions. Yi Yi may be tackling the big questions of life and its meaning, but it focuses its inquiries on the subtlest gradations of tone and mood, the kind that are barely legible on NJ’s face. What, it asks (without ever fully answering), is the most mature, responsible attitude we can take toward our own suffering? How much is wise to accept, and how much is foolhardy to rebel against? How much should we share, and how much must we bear on our own? And how does a man who always imagined great things for himself maintain dignity after decades of mounting disappointment?
Yang intercuts this portrait of missed opportunities and unfulfilled promise with an equally convincing affirmation of youthful possibility. NJ’s young son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), may be the director’s riskiest creation, not only because his unassuming adorability and preternaturally old soul could have tipped the film’s balance toward sentimentality, but also because his presence might have come across as an overly calculated attempt to assuage the pain we see in NJ’s defeat. For the most part, the characterization remains scrupulously matter-of-fact. Like almost everyone else in the family, Yang-Yang spends a great deal of his onscreen time in solitude, which allows us to get to know him outside a potentially fawning or trivializing adult gaze. But even as the film maneuvers carefully around the cute-factor, Yang-Yang rings so true precisely because of his symbolic function, and Yang’s willingness to engage with both our knee-jerk romanticization of and condescension toward childhood. Yi Yi confers guru status on the young and innocent who stand on the sidelines of life, and seeks to mimic the lack of prejudice, irony, and judgment in their perspective. At the same time, the film sets Yang-Yang up as an easy target for that patronizing question “What do you know about the world?,” as a reminder that each stage of life creates as many obstacles to knowledge as it takes away. Where NJ’s journey brings to the surface a nagging desire for what might have been, Yang-Yang represents the interplay between two certainties in our engagement with the world: on the one hand, the boundaries of individual perception, and on the other, the boundlessness of empathy.
Yi Yi is constantly swinging the pendulum between these two poles. If Yang’s omniscient eye and beautifully detailed characters make the act of slipping into another skin look effortless, the film also asks how we can feel deeply for others when we can’t share their sight, let alone their souls. Perhaps the most poignant example here of a failure of identification is a scene in which NJ walks in on his wife having a breakdown and finds himself offering nothing but canned responses, immobilized by his inability to go to that dark place with her. Later, when Yang-Yang develops an interest in photographing the backs of people’s heads to show them what they can’t see, his curiosity and burgeoning artistic sensibility become metaphors for the filmmaker’s concerns about how emotional knowledge does and does not transfer between people. In catching Yang-Yang at the moment of realizing that each human being is confined to a single subjectivity, Yang gives shape to the invisible gulf that can often make genuine communication seem impossible—that space in which loved ones become the coldest of strangers. Embedded there, this cinema of crystal clarity seems as if it were born in between the tempestuous, stream-of-consciousness lines of To the Lighthouse: like Virginia Woolf, Yang stitches together a community from a series of innermost thoughts and feelings that will never come into contact and may never be verbalized. It’s not a community that can be achieved on the ground, but one that exists in the aerial view art gives us and in the music it unearths from our speechlessness.
I was a college boy stumbling wide-eyed through my first summer in New York when I heard the news of Edward Yang’s death at the age of 59. Suddenly the world around me began shaping into a patchwork of images and references from his mournful city symphonies. I had based so much of my cinephilia on the hope that there would be another Yi Yi, and now the man who would make it was gone. The truth is there is nothing quite like Yi Yi—not among Yang’s other six features, nor among the masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, which serve as the film’s most obvious prototypes. In what would turn out to be his swan song, Yang borrows elements from previous work—the cold urban disaffection in Taipei Story and The Terrorizers; the breathtaking panoramic scope of his most virtuosic achievement, A Brighter Summer Day; and the indignant social satire in his underappreciated globalization-themed comedies Mahjong and A Confucian Confusion—and delivers them with unprecedented lightness, compassion, and a carefully modulated flair for melodrama. Where his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien has spent most of his career developing a style mimetic of Taiwan’s alienation from its own history, Yang risks giving us something that might feel too familiar or overly intent on exportability. But as someone who was born in mainland China, raised in Taipei, influenced by that city’s remnants of colonially imported Japanese culture, and eventually naturalized as an American citizen, Yang knew how to harness his uniquely diasporic melancholy to his artistic advantage. Perhaps only someone who has belonged everywhere and nowhere at once could make a film so deeply rooted in in-between, indefinable space, a film that longs to transcend its locality while also never completely surrendering to the naïveté of that desire.
Since Yi Yi rhymes vision with knowledge and emotion, it’s appropriate that my memory of it rests mostly on images. For the most part, the film disguises its meticulous visual stylization behind an unostentatious naturalism. No shot here has the muted lushness or soft golden lighting that Mark Lee Ping-bin has given Hou’s most recent work, but Yi Yi’s equally controlled mise-en-scène strikes a similar balance between a consistently realist surface and glimmers of the divine. How to explain the ways in which the slightest gestures of rhythm, framing, and movement in Yang Weihan’s cinematography give way to the most sublime expressivity, transferring the burden of articulation away from the characters and onto the filmmaker’s eye? The camera seems neither a detached third person nor a humanized first person, but somehow instead—without a trace of overt mysticism or any belittlement of Yang’s essentially secular themes—a vaguely spiritual presence that both sees and feels.
An example: the camera follows NJ and his first love as he walks her to her hotel room, their backs to us. We pause at the door, and he says goodnight; he tells her he’s never loved anyone but her. Then he turns to walk away, now face forward, the camera tracking back. The shudder he must have felt at speaking such a long-repressed, self-endangering truth echoes in the silence. The only way to recover from the rupture his words have caused is to keep walking. Nowhere else in the film do our eyes follow a character’s movement so intensely, and in this one graceful, gliding motion up and down a hallway, observation gets embodied, becomes personal and affective. The heightened gaze implied here is not one of surveillance but of companionship. For a few seconds, our mere looking is transformed into an act of empathy, and Yang’s camera becomes a source of consolation—as invisible to the characters as God or the spirits of deceased ancestors, though just as present.
The one shot in Yi Yi I always remember most vividly played a role that first summer of mine in New York, when I still had enough sentimentality about the big city to confer outsized poetic significance on my commute back to Flushing. There was a moment on my ride home when the train would hurtle aboveground, and if it was late enough, you could see up-close a stretch of buildings shot through with points of light and the occasional tableau of human activity. I would be awoken from my mind-numbing routine with the sensation of being uprooted from my surroundings, of drifting past the everyday workings of the world that ensnare us by day while still maintaining enough proximity to catch their poignant undersong. And each time I would be transported back to an image that could easily have constituted a tiny cell in that nighttime cityscape—a scene in which NJ’s wife, paralyzed by depression, stands alone in a darkened office. We see her only as the reflection on a window, her image fuzzed together with that of the city, a red streetlight flashing coincidentally right at the center of her chest. Flesh is permeated by light and shadow, and the immateriality and transparency of the image, in contrast to the film’s usually direct, clear-eyed observation of physical reality, slides our vision into a register beyond the perceptible. While the scene is meant to be despairing, it also encapsulates what makes the film magical: its visualization of a mind, caught in mid-feeling, being revealed to itself. Yi Yi lays us bare before our own reflection. It floods us with a city’s worth of emotions, but preserves enough distance for us to regard them with the tenderness and bemusement of an onlooker. Like no other film I know, it gives us a chance to inhabit the inside and outside of a feeling—both in the same instant.