Something like (a) life

I’m excited to be participating in the first annual Criterion Blogathon, hosted by the great people at Criterion Blues,  Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings! This blogathon is a massive celebration of the Criterion Collection and the hundreds of films that it has given to cinephiles. The following piece discusses Edward Yang’s Yi Yifirst released by Criterion on DVD in July of 2006. Be sure to check out the hundreds of pieces by other participants at the Criterion Blogathon’s central hub and follow it at twitter using #CriterionBlogathon!

Heads up!
The following post contains some spoilers for Edward Yang’s 
Yi Yi. The essay explores the themes and style of the film in some detail, and as a result, reveals the conclusion of one of the film’s subplots.

Yi Yi 01

Yi Yi title 01

Yi Yi (2000) is the only of Edward Yang’s seven feature films to have been distributed theatrically in the West, and is not only the sole film by the Taiwanese auteur to be released by Criterion thus far, but the only Taiwanese film in the collection. As a result, it seems necessary to divide this essay into two parts: The first of these will be an analysis of Yi Yi itself. The second will be an introduction to the late director’s life and career. Yang’s contribution to world cinema extends beyond a single film, and it is important that his status as one of the late twentieth century’s great auteurs is reasserted.

Yi Yi 02

Yi Yi 02

Early in Yi Yi’s third act, a teenage character called Fatty offers his uncle’s theory on the way cinema has affected our lives: “We live three times as long since man invented movies… Movies give us twice what we get from daily life.” Fatty adds to this his own interpretation that movie-going allows us to experience realities that we will never face otherwise, “For example, murder. We never killed anyone, but we all know what it’s like to kill” (an observation that will prove deeply ironic). Despite the way Fatty phrases this musing, his uncle’s idea is less a matter of the extension of life, and more a matter of its expansion. Rather than increase our lifespan, cinema holds the power to allow us to experience multiple lives. This distinction is necessary to fully understanding Yi Yi’s thematic depth. Despite a near-three-hour runtime, the film covers less than a year in the lives of the Jian family, as well as those of relatives and neighbours. This is not to say that time plays no role in Yi Yi. Rather, just as Fatty has confused the vertical extension of life for a horizontal expansion, Yang spreads his generations horizontally, across many characters. Thus, he constructs an intricate narrative system by substituting an expansion—or multiplication—of lives in place of the extension of a life. Thus, Yi Yi provides a simultaneous portrait of a variety of carefully related characters, in distinct stages of life, who, when placed alongside one another, represent the various stages of experience in a single human life.

Yi Yi centres around the lives of the Jian family, living in Taipei at the turn of the twenty-first century. The film opens on the wedding of a relative to the already pregnant former-assistant of his ex-girlfriend. The wedding scene provides a sequence of beautifully composed long- and medium-shots that offer a number of quiet and less-than-quiet moments. It is during this extended sequence that Yang introduces the members of the Jian family and establishes the roots of their personal narratives:

  • NJ (Wu Nien-jen) is the father of the family. The president of a failing computer company who is appalled by his fellow partners’ willingness to sacrifice their ethics—and his—to stay afloat. As NJ becomes increasingly alienated from his business, he revisits a decisive romance from his past.
  • Mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is confronted by the emptiness of her daily routine when her elderly mother has a stroke and falls into a coma. She turns to an alternative religious sect for answers. After leaving to join the group without notice, Min-Min remains absent for much of the film.
  • Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is the Jian’s dutiful teenage daughter, living life by her parents’ design. She searches for experiences, and an identity, of her own while struggling with the idea that she might have been indirectly responsible for her grandmother’s condition.
  • Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is Ting-Ting’s thoughtful eight-year-old brother. His intellectual curiosity puts him in constantly conflict with his school’s tyrannical dean.

There are a number of secondary and tertiary characters as well. The most significant of these being Min-Min’s brother A-Di (Hsi-shieng Chen) (the groom in the previously referred-to wedding) and the Jiang family, who move into the apartment next to the Jian’s during the wedding. The Jiangs are a mother and teenage daughter, whose turbulent lives more closely resemble those found in other contemporary Yang films, such Taipei Story (1985), The Terrorizers (1986) and Mahjong (1996).

Fatty is a singular character in the film; it is only he who is able to effectively—though briefly—move between the distinct narrative threads (and narrative styles) of the neighbouring families. His primary role is in the melodramatic world of the Jiangs. He is the on again-off again boyfriend of daughter Lili. He briefly crosses into the primary narrative thread during a brief romance with Ting-Ting. Fatty is ultimately unwilling to expose Ting-Ting to the torrent of the Jiangs’ Taipei, and he ultimate abandons her to return to Lili. Significantly, the Jiang plot thread concludes when fatty crosses into the “second life” of a murderer, by stabbing Ms. Jiang’s lover (who has also had a relationship with Lili).

There’s a current of violence that runs throughout Yang’s oeuvre, and the it might be obvious to point to the Jiangs’ narrative thread as an outlet for this preoccupation with Taiwan’s modernization and the social alienation that leads to violent acts. But violence very much plays a role in the lives of the Jian family as well. It surfaces in tantrums, outbursts, and even a (possible) suicide attempt. But it also surfaces in shattering sound of thunder (both actual and projected on a screen), in crashing of Pacific Ocean waves and the splash of a little boy jumping into a swimming pool. Violence of this type is reflective of a quotidian life, and a reason that Yi Yi, among all Yang’s films, has such universal appeal. As an educational video in the film offers, “It’s believed that thunder created all life on earth. 400 million years ago, a bolt of lightning created the first amino acid, the origin of life. That was the beginning of everything.” Surely it is this unifying message that is at the heart of Yi Yi, and it is this message that has made Yi Yi the only Yang film to have appealed widely to Western audiences (or at least to Western distributors). Yi Yi is a true humanist film, and this sets it apart from the deeply cynical films that precede it in Yang’s oeuvre. While the majority of Yang’s contemporary films couple a diagnosis of modern malaise with a kind of fierce detachment (Yang had spent many years in the US before returning to discover this modern Taipei), Yi Yi finds Yang seeking out the humanity still present among the concrete and glass.

Yang has a decidedly intellectual approach to cinema. One may expect his previous career as a computer engineer in the United States to have little impact on his filmmaking, but this is far from the case. Yang’s films consist of complex and meticulously designed systems of narrative events, characters, and visual patterns. Yi Yi may be the most powerful example of this. Yi Yi, after all, is not the story of a family, but the distinct—yet overlapping—stories of a family’s individual members (along with characters in their immediate peripheries). The construction of this narrative requires a near-scientific approach to narrative construction, the organization of characters and events comparable to carefully ordered punch cards that were once a necessary method of computer programming.

In Yi Yi, Yang balances these potentially alienating intellectual tendencies by structuring the film as a series of quotidian episodes. The film establishes a natural rhythm through the alternating of characters, often providing a scene that is no more than a brief moment in the character’s daily life. This not only gives the three-hour film a brisk pace, but creates a kind of levity that disguises Yi Yi’s existential weight. Furthermore, the significance of an occasional longer scene is underscored by the established rhythm of short sequences. This rhythmic element is less informed by Yang’s background as an engineer, and more influenced by the director’s passion for classical music (whose systems are no less complex). The brief length and precise delivery of the individual episodes draws on the tradition of comic books, Yang’s first love. The influence of comics is especially evident in the comic vignettes that make up Yang-Yang’s narrative. These vignettes are almost exclusively brief, focused on single setting, with a clear central activity and a concluding punch-line. Many of these could be just as effectively conveyed via four-panel comic strip, containing the simplicity and wit comparable to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

Yang frequently uses visual and auditory patterns to draw parallels between the unique lives of his characters. Nowhere is this more evident in Yi Yi than in the film’s centrepiece: NJ uses a business trip in Japan to revisit a relationship with his first love, Sherry, while Ting-Ting simultaneously experiences her first romance with Fatty. This masterfully-edited sequence cross-cuts between the older party’s spoken memories of their early courtship and the younger party, which is “re-enacting” these experiences in real-time. As NJ speaks of holding Sherry’s hand for the first time, Yang cuts to Fatty taking Ting-Ting’s hand. When NJ recalls getting cold feet on the eve of what would’ve been their first sexual encounter, Yang immediately follows with a scene of Fatty (re)living the experience.

It’s possible to accuse Yang of being too clever in his attempt to parallel the lives of father and daughter, especially in a sequence that places such emphasis on it. And if the intention of the scene was only to connect a father and daughter from Japan to Taiwan, it would verge on saccharine. Instead, what Yang does in this scene is reveal a thematic element that has previously been buried under the surface of its narrative. In conversation with Michael Berry, Yang revealed that Yi Yi began with the idea of portraying a single character’s life from beginning to end:

I decided I was going to make a film about life, from birth to death—following someone’s entire life from childhood to adulthood to old age, depicting him at various stages in his life. Suddenly it dawned on me that the best way to tell this story would be through a family, because all the various age groups have a representation. They are all related and their experiences can be projected onto one another.[1]

This insight into the film’s origin is the key to unlocking its true complexity and emotional power. Though on the surface, Yi Yi’s narrative follows the lives of distinct characters across the same brief time period, it simultaneously portrays the experiences a single person faces by highlighting the significant stages of one’s life. More is revealed in that sequence than a couple of romantic experiences shared between father and daughter. During an argument between NJ and Sherry over why he abandoned their romance, NJ reveals that there was a time when he, like Ting-Ting, played the role of dutiful young adult. As a result, he conceded to the demands of his parents and Sherry and pursued an undesired career as an engineer. Yang provides similar connections between NJ and Yang-Yang: NJ implores his son to take up his interest in photography. Yang-Yang uses the camera as a tool to explore his own philosophical questions. In turn, NJ’s has philosophical reawakening after encountering the humanist software designer Ota.

The similarities between children and father are more than hereditary. Rather, Yang-Yang and Ting-Ting are reflections of NJ’s own experiences at different stages of his life, just as his mother-in-law, lying in a coma from which she is not expected to awake, stands for his life’s eventual conclusion. Yang has made an effort to pursue his original idea of conveying a single character’s experiences “from childhood to adulthood to old age”, but has abandoned the temporal structure for one in which these stages of experience are distributed across multiple characters. Thus, Yi Yi’s narrative functions on two levels: the literal level of family narrative, and the sub-textual level conveying a life experience in its entirety. Thus, the previously-detailed centrepiece in which Yang cross-cuts between experiences has an additional layer of complexity, as it functions on both a spacial and temporal level.

It’s possible—even likely—to appreciate Yi Yi without considering Yang’s underlying effort to present, by alternate means, life in its entirety. In fact, Yang’s decision to restructure the film as he has invites it. This subtext carries tremendous emotional weight nonetheless. Much has been made of the film’s ability to reduce audiences to tears. Most films achieve this effect rather through the use of romanticized deaths and melodramatic scores. But Yi Yi evokes tears of a different sort. These tears come as a result of the viewer having experienced, in the span of only three hours, the full weight of life in its entirety. It is a truly overwhelming emotional experience, and just as in life, the ending is the most difficult to bear. Despite Yang’s carefully conceived narrative structure, this is not accomplished through manipulation, but rather the intuition of a unified human experience. Yi Yi is not only a system of complex design and scope, but one that when played out loud, evokes the beautiful music of life.



Edward Yang 04

Yi Yi title 03

Yi Yi was Edward Yang’s seventh feature film and his first to receive theatrical distribution in the West. The film premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where it was widely celebrated and Yang received the award for best director. This long overdue coming-out party must’ve been liberating for Yang, whose cynical perspective of modern Taiwan had by then turned toward its decaying film industry. Yi Yi, the first of his features to be embraced by the West, is also the only of his films never to have been distributed in his native Taiwan. Yi Yi was also Edward Yang’s final completed film, before he succumbed to colon cancer in 2007, at the age of fifty-nine. Yang battled cancer for most of the seven-year period between Yi Yi and his death, and perhaps this is why he turned his focus to animation, first uploading shorts on his own website, and later working on an animated feature with Jackie Chan, entitled The Wind, left unfinished at the time of Yang’s passing.

Sadly, Western distributors seem to have maintained the idea, over the past fifteen years, that Yi Yi’s universal appeal is anomalous among Yang’s films. Traditionally, a director’s breakthrough film provides the opportunity to (re)visit his previous work, but there has been no such retrospective celebration of Yang’s oeuvre. Yi Yi remains the director’s only film available on DVD or Blu-ray in either North America or Europe, despite the acknowledgement by critics and scholars on both continents that as many as four of his seven features are masterpieces: Taipei Story, The Terrorizers, A Brighter Summer Day (1991), and Yi Yi.

In fact, it took a major rebellion on Yang’s part for him to ever make a film. Like many of his generation, Yang was born on the Chinese mainland and then migrated to Taiwan with his family as a child, the result of the fall of China’s Nationalist government to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Yang displayed artistic tendencies in his youth, falling in love with Japanese magna and writing and drawing comics of his own (His production company was renamed Atom Films in honour of The Mighty Atom, known in North America as Astro Boy); however, Chinese society held the arts in low esteem, favouring more practical pursuits. Thus a young Yang complied to his family’s demands and pursued a degree in engineering. This eventually sent him to the United States, where he earned a Masters in Computer Engineering from Florida State University. Yang went on to work as a computer designer in Seattle for several years, but the desire to pursue a more creative path remained. After a theatrical viewing of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Yang could no longer supress his desire to make films. Yang left an established career the United States behind and returned to Taipei.

The timing of Yang’s rebellion was serendipitous. Taiwan’s film industry was in flux, and the government-controlled Central Motion Picture Corporation was willing to pursue new avenues in order to catch up to the nation’s modernization. Yang was chosen by then-CMPC screenwriter Wu Nien-jen (who plays NJ in Yi Yi) as one of four directors to take part in the portmanteau film In Our Time (1982), which would come to be known as the film that launched the influential Taiwan New Cinema movement. Yang’s segment, “Desires” was immediately recognized as the film’s stand-out episode, providing Yang the opportunity to make his first feature film, That Day, On the Beach (1983).

Yang was an important figure in the birth of the Taiwan New Cinema. His house became the movement’s de facto home base, where, as Yang states it, “the door was always opened because there was nothing to steal”. The new wave’s young filmmakers hung out drinking beer and watching films on video. It was there that Yang first introduced the others to many of the European filmmakers that had influenced him. But Yang’s contribution to the movement was far more significant than providing a central hub and a crash course in European cinema. Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien remain the two most important filmmakers to have come out of the Taiwan New Cinema movement, each having made a number of films ranked among the greatest Chinese-language films ever made. The two were friends in the early years of the era; Yang selected the music for Hou’s breakthrough, The Boys from Fengkuei, and Hou made an even more significant contribution to Yang’s Taipei Story, producing the film and, in a brilliant performance, starred in the film alongside Taiwanese pop-star Chin Tsai (Who would become Yang’s first wife). Eventually, Yang and Hou had a falling out, seemingly a result of opposing philosophies, and by the late eighties, the Taiwan New Cinema movement had come to an end.

Together, Yang and Hou have influenced prominent world cinema directors of today, such as Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhangke, and Hirokazu Kore-eda; however, Hou’s films have received far more attention in the West (though still not as much as they deserve). Reasons for this include Hou’s more prolific output, and the general belief that he is the superior of the two directors. Another factor, which Western distributors and critics might be hesitant to acknowledge, is the differences in content of the two directors’ films: Hou’s films are frequently set in the past and in rural locations; as a result, his films appeal to the West’s orientalist conception of life in Asia, and thus, the “otherness” of the films holds an appeal to audiences. Yang’s films, on the other hand, offer vicious critiques of an urban, frequently modernized Taiwan. It may be difficult for Western audiences to reconcile the cosmopolitan Taipei of Yang’s films with the established orientalist perspective.

Much like Taiwan itself, Yang is something of a transitory figure, and this too might alienate audiences. Hou’s films tend to draw from traditional Chinese aesthetics, rather than Western influences. For this reason, Hou’s cinematic style was much easier for other Taiwanese filmmakers to borrow from, and for Western audiences to find some novelty in. Yang not only drew from a greater pool of disparate cultural influences, but had been greatly affected by his time spent in the States. As Wu explained to Berry, “[Yang] once asked me, ‘What language do you think in?’ I told him that I think in Chinese or Taiwanese. He responded, ‘I think in English.’ He lived in the United States for a long time, which makes him quite different from other [Taiwanese] directors.”[2]

Nonetheless, Yang’s cinematic style perfectly balances influences and intelligences too often thought to be incompatible: Eastern and Western, the logical and the intuitive. His films feature perfectly composed long and medium-shots (comparable to those found in Hou’s films, which are almost exclusively comprised of shot of this type), with careful attention placed on details of mise-en-scène. This intuitive artistic quality is combined with a meticulous attention paid to montage, providing editing sequences that make use of subtle visual and audio patterns. Sometimes a visual pattern will be introduced with such subtlety that it doesn’t reveal itself until much later in a film—or else is never apparent. Sequences can be edited with a mathematical precision, with avant-garde leanings that have more in common with ‘60s new wave cinema than the cinema of his New Taiwan Cinema compatriots.

The director to whom critics most often grasp at for comparison is Michelangelo Antonioni, but the Italian maestro’s impact on Yang’s work is overstated. Yang himself hated the comparison, and this may be with good reason. It can be argued that similarities between the two directors’ work may be the result of a sort of kinship, rather than Antonioni’s direct influence on Yang. Each director was responding to significant political sea change that took place just prior to their filmmaking careers. Antonioni’s work is a response to Italy’s post-World War II transition from fascism and ensuing economic miracle. Yang was responding to the transformation that took place as a result of Taiwan’s own economic boom, and the country’s resultant modernization and globalization.

Comparisons are also drawn between the two directors’ employment of modern architecture’s dominance over the individual, but this too is likely the result of a shared interest, rather than direct influence. Yang had considered architecture as a potential career path—a way of striking a compromise between his artistic passions and the practical demands of his family. Even once Yang had decided to abandon his career in computers, he again briefly considered studying architecture before ultimately committing to film. Similarly, when asked which career Antonioni would choose if film was not an option, the director offered architect as the only potential alternative. Furthermore, the dominating effect of modern architecture is apparent to most anyone who has set foot in a metropolitan city; this effect was likely magnified for Yang, having returned to Taipei after such an extended absence.

Yang was a true original, able to draw from a pool of influences and experiences not shared by any other director—either in Asia or the West. He was also a director whose unique brilliance exceeded the realm of cinema. These are surely factors that contribute to the continued negligence of his work, for as difficult as his work may be for Western audiences to interpret, it must’ve shocking to Taiwanese audience, who had lived in an isolated and repressive society for nearly four decades by the time Yang’s career had launched. Yang may ultimately be the victim of the tendency to categorize directors and their films. Despite some aesthetic similarities, Yang is certainly not a Western filmmaker. Nor does he fit into the established conventions of Asian cinema. It’s this idiosyncratic blend for which Yang’s work should be championed. He is a true cosmopolitan filmmaker—one whose films are ripe for re-evaluation in today’s globalized cultural.

In his own way, Yang fulfilled the musings of Fatty’s uncle by finding a second life through film. He abandoned a life and a career that he had never asked for in order to pursue his passion for cinema, and it is through these films that he will be remembered. Though Yang’s oeuvre has received little exposure to this point, there is reason for optimism: The Terrorizers has been restored and issued on Blu-ray in Taiwan; A Brighter Summer Day was the subject of a restoration by The Film Foundation (and has been long rumoured for a Criterion release); A restoration of That Day on the Beach will premiere at this year’s Taipei Golden Horse Festival, and Taipei Story’s restoration is in progress by Cinematek. It’s no longer difficult to imagine a time when Yang’s films are available to those cinephiles who would seek them out. But even if Edward Yang never gets the attention his films warrant—even if Yi Yi were to remain the only available film on which his reputation stands in the West, it would still be enough to ensure that Edward Yang’s cinema has extended his life three times over, or more.

[1] Berry, Michael. Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. pp. 289-90
An invaluable resource for those interested in Chinese language cinema.

[2] Berry, p. 305


2 responses to “Something like (a) life

  1. Terrific post here. I’m a big fan of Yang and love this film. It is probably up there with my favorite post-2000 films. Hsien is real good too. A Brighter Summer Day should come out someday.

  2. Congrats on your daily award!

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