Yi Yi: Criterion Collection Review

Edward Yang’s film opens with a wedding reception in a downtown Taipei hotel. It’s one of those weddings – you know the type. The bride is quite obviously pregnant, on account of the date being held off for what the groom A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen) believes to be “the luckiest day of the year”. The groom’s ex-girlfriend turns up and creates a scene – “It should have been me!” - and the reception rapidly descends into a series of drinking games. NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), the brother-in-law of the groom is there with his family, and they are all finding it quite eventful. An old flame of NJ’s happens to be staying at the same hotel and asks him why he ran out on her 30 years ago. His 8 year old son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is being tormented by all the young girls at the wedding. The Grandmother, who disapproves of the marriage, leaves and is brought home by NJ’s daughter Ting Ting (Kelly Lee) where she has a heart-attack. Soon many of the wedding guests have moved their party over to the hospital. One of those weddings.

A wedding is an appropriate and brilliant way to start Yi-Yi and, without giving anything important away, a funeral one year later is the right way to end it, since in between the film is all about family, the succession of generations and the connections between them all. Not only then does the film’s opening find a way of introducing you to all these main characters in a short period of time, but it also summarises its themes and outlook – life moving on, taking new directions, leaving some people behind, moving forward with others, taking risks in life and starting afresh – all of it shot through with a rich vein of humour.

Yi Yi therefore has all the pleasures of the best ensemble pieces – the interactions of a large cast, delineating their personalities, their lives, their hopes and their ambitions, and bringing them together in all their contradictions and conflicts, working with each other and against each other. In this alone there is enough in Yi Yi to make a fascinating and quite brilliant film, but it also manages to say so much about the everyday lives and realities of middle-class people living in Taipei – it’s about city life, the conditions of family life there, the expectations for education, employment, leisure and their outlook, being part of a country that continues to grow as one of the major competitors on the world commerce market.

Each member and each generation of the Jian family have different drives and ambitions. For NJ, it is to have control and authority over important decisions that need to be made in the company he has invested in with some old school-friends – an IT company needing to be adventurous and competitive in an expanding world market. For his wife Min Min (Elaine Jin), she comes to the realisation as she talks to her mother who is lying in a bedroom in a coma, that her daily life can be reduced and summarised in two minutes, and none of it is meaningful. Ting Ting, their teenage daughter, wants to emulate Lili, the beautiful and musically talented girl next door, and have a boyfriend like hers, but her life is not as ideal as you might think. Yang Yang just wants to fit in at school, but seems to constantly be picked on by teachers and other children, particularly one older girl who is a school monitor. We don’t know what ambitions the grandmother has because she is in a coma, but each of the family comes to speak to her as if she is the representative of past generations, seeking approval for the complications that threaten to take over their lives and answers to the questions they can’t answer. More than just mediating on where they are and what their hopes and ambitions are, each member of the family wants to feel that they are behaving with sincerity, honesty and integrity with those around them, but they find this more difficult than it should be.

The beauty of Yi Yi however, is that neither the characters nor the plot can be easily summarised or encapsulated in a few paragraphs. Their personalities and characters are much more complex than that – which makes the film, where not a great deal happens in its three hour running time, still “eventful”. Despite their ambitions to behave with integrity, life continues to throw new opportunities and challenges their way. They are all the events that many people experience – the beginning of a new life, the spark of first love, mental breakdowns and marriage break-ups, illness and death – but each person has to confront these things in their own way and each person can be swayed by other less noble motives and impulses, or by simply not knowing what is the right way to behave. These are not perfect people, each of them is trying to find their place in the world, each of them have flaws and contradictions, which are all the things that make people interesting, since they are all the things that make us human.

Yi Yi is released in the US by Criterion. The DVD transfer is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 1.

Criterion’s transfer looks good, but it is markedly different in tone from any previous release of the film on DVD. It is certainly darker, the colours and tones being dampened considerably with a warm amber tint. How accurately this meets the original intended look for the film I can’t say, but after being initially surprised at how dull the film looked, I found it did complement the richness of the colour schemes and beautiful compositions seen throughout the film, so perhaps all that is required is a little period of adjustment. Dark scenes and interiors are affected most by this change of tone, blacks inevitably becoming quite flat and lacking in shadow detail. Elsewhere though, the film looks fine and there are certainly no marks or damage on the print. Macro-compression artefacts can be detected in a slight flickering of backgrounds, but the image has fine detail and sharpness without any noticeable edge-enhancement. Rather more noticeable than the flickering is a slight shaking jitter in the transfer that is evident in a couple of scenes and can be quite irritating on the eye, but these are fortunately brief and infrequent.

The original soundtrack is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. It’s generally quite clear, with no audible background noise, and a fine warmth of tone, with good stereo separation and virtual surround sound giving it a subtle enveloping quality.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. The white font is perfectly sized and positioned. Subtitles are not included however for a few scenes of English dialogue that take place between NJ and Mr. Ota (Issei Ogata).

Prompted by Tony Rayns, the writer-director Edward Yang describes the purpose of the characters, the relevance of certain scenes and the overall structure, method and themes of the film – Rayns suggesting additional symbolism and meaning. It doesn’t add greatly to the film, but there is some useful background information provided on the casting and the significance of certain aspects of Taiwanese culture. Like most commentaries, it’s certainly not essential, particularly on a film like this which is good enough to speak for itself.

“Everyday Realities”: Tony Rayns on New Taiwanese Cinema (15:16)
Rayns provides a concise and informative overview of the Taiwanese film industry, its major players, and the subject matter of their films, with a specific look at the work of Edward Yang.

U.S. Theatrical Trailer (1:52)
The US trailer typically has no dialogue, but presents scenes in an arresting manner that captures the whole tone and subject of the film.

The accompanying booklet contains an essay by Kent Jones, which is more of a personal meditation on the themes the film suggests. This is no more or less interesting than the impressions the film would have on any individual viewer. That it is the film which should speak to you rather than an essay or commentary, is borne out by the Notes by Edward Yang where he states that “The best thing a director can say should probably be found inside the film, not on the page”. He also provides information on the casting, which replicates what he says in the commentary.

Much as I admire Edward Yang’s film Yi Yi and much as I’m sure I will continue to find new wonders and beauty in its complex arrangements of characters, visuals, themes and ideas and in its comprehensive meditation on so many aspects of our lives, I confess to being bewildered at its status not only as a modern classic, but that it is even considered as one of the greatest films in recent cinema history. In a Sight & Sound 2002 poll of UK film critics Yi Yi was considered as the 10th best film of the last 25 years, up there with Apocalypse Now, Fanny and Alexander and Raging Bull. That it is a brilliant film is beyond question, and it is very satisfying that its qualities appear to have been recognised, but I think it is far too early to be judging the film in such terms, and would consider its appearance in the Sight & Sound Top 10 as the kind of anomaly that often happens when a strong new film arrives on the scene at the time of a major poll. Make no mistake however, Yi Yi is a great film, and its status is likely to continue to grow ever greater with its release in the prestigious Criterion Collection. Criterion have done the film proud, and made up for lesser editions that have previously appeared, providing a fine transfer of the film with some good features, supplements, criticism and commentary.

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Last updated: 08/05/2018 21:55:07

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