Yi Yi = Life in Half Truths
“Yi Yi” (2000) is a gift of portraits.
Every single portrait is taken by a camera, and therefore only contains part of the whole – we see all that is within the camera’s frame, and none that is not.
Such is life.
“Yi Yi” gifts us with stacks of such portraits of life: some plain, some moving, some indescribable, all revealing. What materializes before us is a web of lives so familiar and ordinary, carrying a spectrum of emotions so ordinary and true, that it is impossible to walk away not feeling that a little piece of ourselves has been rang. The truth is, it probably has.
If a single portrait only carries a partial truth, then the culmination of multiple portraits is the only way to reach the whole truth. Therefore, after all is said and done, director Edward Yang has given us the ultimate gift – by piecing together these portraits, one by one, seam by seam, he has built a free-standing house of life. Looking through its windows, we peek into our own.
In it, we see the ups and downs of the course of human existence. Death and birth. First love and faded romance. Grief and joy. Innocence and discoveries. We see all the ordinary, confusing, and sometime awkward parts of ourselves, and we are fascinated.
The film begins in the midst of a wedding. We don’t see much of the bride and groom, but mostly of those attending. Amongst the guests is NJ (Wu NienJen), an electronic executive, his wife Min Min (Elaine Jin), their daughter Ting Ting (Kelly Lee), son Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), and the grandmother, who hardly speaks a word. This is the family we are invited into, and we see them live.
Throughout the wedding, we gather snippets of truths about their lives. Ting Ting is precociously thoughtful and kind. Yang Yang is quiet but observant. NJ bumps into a woman at the elevator, Sherry. She’s coming out, he’s going in. They pause at the door, it’s obvious that this is not the first time that they have seen each other, and turns out won’t be the last.
We keep watching. The mother becomes distressed as the grandmother falls into a coma. They set up a room for her in the house and take turns talking to her at bedside, because the doctor says it will do good. What starts as semi-obligatory conversations triggers ripples of mixed reactions within the family. Some talk freely. Some, like little Yang Yang, does not say a word. Some only speak in secrecy, as Ting Ting does in the middle of the night. Some break down when they run out of things to say, such as Min Min, who is unexpectedly struck by the emptiness of her own life when faced with the dire morality of her mother. Some speak thoughtfully, like NJ, who observes that the act is similar to praying, where one is not sure of what is heard, nor sometimes what is being said. Indeed, the speaker is more affected than the listener, and the one-sided conversation is an intimate reflection of each’s own inner demons.
I can go on and on and on and describe the entire three hours of “Yi Yi”, but that would tell you no more than what you already know. The lives of these characters are no more extraordinary than that of our own, filled with expected and unexpected events that tempt changes, spur actions, and in the end result in much of the same. Life goes on being lived. Jobs need to be worked. School need to be attended. Growing up needs to be done. The cycles are universal.
What is extraordinary about “Yi Yi”, though, is how it goes about showing us how these lives are being lived. This, in my opinion, is the most difficult of cinematic purposes – to invoke deep, universal resonance from the ordinary. When accomplishesd, it is also the most inspirational.
We see the world from the eyes of the children, who are both not extraordinarily beautiful but extraordinarily thoughtful…or are they? Children are so frequently portrayed as one dimensional creatures in cinema (either wide-eyed pretty young things, or naughty little monsters, or possessed demons) that we underestimate their inner complexity. Ting Ting and Yang Yang may not be any more introspective than others of their ages, and here we are treated to a sensitive exploration of the world through their eyes.
We follow Yang Yang to school and see that he is bullied by his teacher and older girls. He doesn’t provoke it, but his quiet and inquisitive nature invites curiosity and resentment. Yang Yang reacts as a normal little boy would, striking back with pranks and defiance, until a girl walks through the door of a darkened theater with a gentle breeze in her skirt. Then, all of a sudden, everything changes, and his enemy becomes… something he doesn’t even quite understand, and an awakening is initiated.
Ting Ting, on the other hand, is struggling with a different kind of awakening. Hers is that of adolescent crushes and foggy daydreams. Her family is loving, and life to her is still sweet and innocent. Her best friend who lives next door, Li Li (Adriene Lin), isn’t so lucky, having a mother who swirls in and out of affairs with men. Ting Ting tries to console Li Li. Li Li tries to console herself in Fatty (Pang Chang Yu), an indecisive boy. Ting Ting goodheartedly passes notes between Fatty and Li Li…until one day she sees Li Li kissing another boy. Ting Ting is torn. Fatty is persistent. Ting Ting scolds Fatty. And then, somehow, one day the notes weren’t for Li Li, but for her, and so starts Ting Ting’s first taste of the bittersweetness of romantic relationships.
As much as it is about new loves and new ideals, “Yi Yi” is also about lost love and lost ideals. NJ and Sherry meet after 30 years by sheer chance, and she is desperate for answers. We see that he seems to have regrets too. Somehow, they allow themselves to be in Tokyo together, for one week. Now each married to different people, established in different lives, what do you say to the first and possibly only love of your life? Where do you begin to ask for explanations, and forgiveness? How do you come to terms with choices made in the haste of youth? How do you reconcile the past with the present, and the present with the future?
“Yi Yi” is rich with these questions, the essential questions that drive our everyday lives. The truth is, we are faced with these questions every day, we answer with our choices every day, and we do so because we must. Time is a constant tide, and we must abide its rises and falls. It is too hard to swim against the current. Some may even say, impossible. Certain events are universal: first love, first job, first child. We anticipate them with trepid expectations, feeling like we are the first ones to ever experience such ecstasy when in fact, we are only each a grain of sand in the hourglass. Certain events are more sudden: death, loss, grief. They struck us unexpectedly, and we are forced to react in the moment, our decisions often charged with emotions. Then there are those moments that are not sudden or unexpected – second chances, a reconvergence of the same people in the same place once again. But then…we realize, the places may be the same, but the people inevitably are no longer.
Half Truths. What a simple and thoughtful way to see life. Edward Yang, like little Yang Yang, uses his camera to capture those human moments that we perhaps know of, but rarely see for real. Little Yang Yang puts it simply in his innocent, logical words: You can’t see it yourself, so I am showing you. There are so much of ourselves that we can’t see, blinded by physical, social, moral restraints. It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, and it is so beautiful to be reminded, frame by frame, portrait by portrait.
In the end of the film, Yang Yang who has been silent for so long finally speaks to his grandmother at the funeral. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, PoPo,” he explains, “it’s just that whatever I can tell you, I think you already know.”
“I miss you so much, PoPo,” he continues, “especially when I see my unnamed little cousin, I think of how you always tell me that you feel old.”
“I really want to tell him…that I feel, I am old too.”
A one, and a two.
SPOILER below – ending clip: