So here we are, at the end of this long journey that was Criterion month, and staring down the barrel of 21st-century filmmaking. Over the course of these 30 days, we ventured through a wide variety of different genres, but I suppose it’s apt that we end with a film entrenched in the kind of stripped down realism often equated with the kinds of art house cinema Criterion has made their name on distributing. The genre I would ascribe Yi Yi to is the “real fucking life” genre, which isn’t really a genre per se. Basically because these kinds of films are inherently anti-genre in their desire to paint an honest picture of how people live their small, modest lives with dignity and grace, which this film is full of.
So with that introduction, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that Yi Yi isn’t the easiest film to discuss plot-wise, especially when it’s filled with so many characters. But basically, the film begins with a Tapei family gathering for the wedding of their bumbling uncle A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen), and from there the film takes different detours exploring the inner lives this family goes through over the course of a year. Though I suppose the bulk of the film focuses on the Jian family’s patriarch, NJ (Wu Nien-jen), a software engineer who’s having a bit of a mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, we also see a lot of his two younger children, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) and teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) exploring all the shenanigans that one encounters when you’re young and unburdened by the world’s realities.
I should say that though the wedding at the beginning of the film is generally a joyous occasion, it does start a bit awkwardly. One of the groom’s old flings comes to the ceremony uninvited and makes a scene to the Jian family’s grandmother. This causes her a decent amount of distress, and eventually sees her spending the rest of the movie in the hospital before the inevitable funeral that serves as the film’s epilogue. And that’s kind of how Yi Yi goes – it shows the small triumphs that life hands us (NJ meets a captivating software Japanese business bro, Yang-Yang discovers a knack for photography, Ting-Ting goes out with a boy she likes).
But for every fleeting moment of joy, there’s always some harsh reality there to bring these characters back down to Earth (nothing really comes of NJ’s dealings with the business bro, Yang-Yang still gets picked on a lot at school, the boy Ting-Ting likes turns out to be super crazy). And for a “real fucking life” movie, I feel like this is the right tone to strive for. Life is not an unrelenting barrage of sadness (the way John seemed to describe Au Hathazar Balthazar), but it’s also not a cavalcade of overstimulation like Beyond The Valley of Dolls. It comes and goes in plateaus, though I suppose it does kind of depend on whatever your worldview happens to be. Anyways, here ends my overwrought thoughts on what life should feel like tonally on film.
Really, if there’s one complaint I have about this film, it’s that I don’t know that it should’ve been a film. Now, what I mean by that bizarre statement is that with its many interwoven storylines and methodical plotting, Yi Yi feels a bit like it maybe should’ve been a TV miniseries or something. At 173 minutes, it’s definitely one of the longer films of its kind that I can recall seeing. Though I have no idea if Taiwan had much of an artistically viable television industry, so it seems silly to complain about the film’s pacing and length when it’s just a miracle that a film this small but also with so much scope ever got made.
And because the film is so focused on its characters, from a technical standpoint, I wouldn’t call Yi Yi a super ambitious film. But at the same time, it finds ways to be visually arresting, even with its strict adherence to its unfussed over style. Also, there’s just something about the simple ways director Edward Yang places his characters as these tiny figures in the vast scope of their urban landscape. Also, the fact that the film has a psuedo-“home movies” feel to it, makes it feel like you’re being placed right there at the turn of the 21st century, as Tapei (and the rest of civilization) is standing on the precipice of modernization.
Which can’t help but remind me of perhaps my favorite discovery of this whole Criterion Month, Tokyo Story. Much like Tokyo Story, Yi Yi has this whole clashing of different generations through line, though perhaps because Taiwan isn’t a country as steeped in tradition as Japan, it’s not as overt about it. But at the same time, Yi Yi is going after that same idea that if you want to explore the whole grand narrative of life, doing it through the eyes of one family ain’t a bad way to do it. Because it allows you to explore all the different ups and downs you face at certain ages, while still being reminded that for every heartbreak or failure, life will go on. Just like after this sometimes workmanlike but often rewarding month, Mildly Pleased will go on, hoping to find the kinds of pop culture worthy of an institution like Criterion. Welp, it’s been fun.