Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The seventh and final film from Taiwanese New Wave legend Edward Yang, Yi Yi, is an epic masterpiece that gives backstage access to the intricacies of relationships within a family unit, as well as modern society as a whole.
Bookended by a wedding at the beginning and a funeral at the end, Yi Yi tells the story of NJ, your average family man / small business owner, with a not-so-average set of problems. NJ has to save his failing business while coping with a mom-in-law who has fallen into a coma, which in turn drives his wife into depression and to seek refuge in a monastery. He has a son with bullying problems at school, a daughter just discovering about love, and a brother-in-law that owes him a lot of money. And to top everything off, he bumps into his first love during the wedding reception, and she opens up a can of worms by confronting him about their break up many years ago.
With a script like that, you know that it can easily fall both ways. You could take the Hollywood path and turn it into a blockbuster slapstick comedy, or you could choose to deal with the human drama as truthfully and sincerely as possible. Luckily for us, Edward Yang chose the latter, and he does it brilliantly by taking time to develop the different characters and their relationships with each other, and by the superb pacing of the storytelling.
The story begins the same way as Life began – with a big bang. An angry ex girlfriend storms a wedding reception and makes a scene, only to apologise to the mother of the groom for not being good enough to marry her son. We learn later that the groom is Ah Di, the brother-in-law who is constantly in debt, and the mother of the groom is the one to slip into a coma after suffering a fall. The main protagonist, NJ, appears shortly after with his son, Yang Yang, and will chance upon his first love, Sherry, while waiting for the lift. And so begins the epic tale of love, friendship, family, growing pains and missed opportunities.
After the accident, the doctor advises family members to continue speaking to their comatose mom/grandma to stimulate her mental functions, and this exercise eventually turns her bedroom into a sort of confession box, where the family members take turns to confess their insecurities and innermost feelings. But having to do this daily soon takes a toll on Min Min – the working mum of the household, when she realizes that she has nothing new to say to her mom. She falls into a depression and checks herself into a monastery to reflect on the meaning of her existence. Ting Ting, the elder daughter, is ridden with guilt and pleads for her grandma to wake up. She feels responsible for her grandma’s condition because grandma took the fall while taking out the rubbish on her behalf. Yang Yang, the son and the youngest in the family, is the only one who doesn’t seem to have anything to say to grandma.
At work, NJ’s software business is running out of funds, and his longtime business partners agree that the only way to save the company is to team up with a renown Japanese games developer, Mr. Ota. Having been voted by the rest to have the most ‘honest’ face, NJ is pushed to the frontline to negotiate a deal with Mr. Ota and secure a contract. At the same time though, the partners are also contemplating a cheaper and faster alternative by partnering up with a local company, Ato, that specialises in imitating Mr. Ota’s work.
The bond between NJ and Mr. Ota blossoms into a heartwarming and sincere friendship, and we can see that the two men have found a kindred spirit in each other. We see both men exchanging ideas and listening to each other’s stories over a simple meal, and slowly opening up to one another. We are rooting for NJ to do the ‘right’ thing and sign with Mr. Ota but alas, his partners’ decision to go with Ato reflects the reality of the society we live in today – to maximize profits in the quickest time, at the expense of quality and integrity.
The conversations with Mr. Ota will also push NJ to make a call to Sherry, which will lead to a clandestine meeting in Japan to work out their unresolved issues and find a closure. Sherry still holds a grudge against NJ for leaving her without a word back then, and both adults seem to have lingering, albeit muddled, feelings for each other even after so many years. But things are no longer so simple, and they are faced with an even tougher decision than before.
The best way to describe Yi Yi is a Russian matryoshka doll – the film opens up to reveal many more layers underneath and on the surface of each layer, there are many minute details to discover. Everything is in the frame for a reason, from the upside down wedding photo to the sarcasm by jealous ex girlfriends to the interiors of the different homes and cafes. I am sure these details were thoughtfully added in throughout the film to fill the gap for the many things left unsaid. The director has also managed to capture the sense of uncertainty, envy and regret that pops up quietly at the back of our heads when we reflect on our past and the decisions we made.
The main theme of this film is about how our perceptions are only half truths, and how the people around you can help to complete the whole picture. Surprisingly, the task of conveying this important message is entrusted to the most unexpected character – Yang Yang the youngest son. The young boy carries a camera and goes around taking back view photographs of the people around him, after which he will gift to them so they can form a complete picture of themselves. (Now you know why the poster shows a back view of the boy? You’re welcome! )
This film is not slow-moving but it will force you to slow down and reflect. It leaves enough room in your head space to have your own story running at the background and you will find yourself comparing your real life with what you see on screen. Be prepared for this effect to stay for a while because that’s just the magic of an Edward Yang film.
This is a must watch!