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'Yi Yi's' Intimate Family Circle

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2001


    'Yi Yi' Elaine Jin and Jonathan Chang in the absorbing "Yi Yi."
(WinStar Cinema)
The idea for "Yi Yi" (a k a "A One and a Two") gestated in Edward Yang's head for more than 15 years. Now, the movie, whose title comes from the Chinese word for "one," lives and breathes as a beautifully made family epic.

But "Yi Yi" hasn't been lucky. An entry at last year's Cannes Film Festival, it won the director's award but lost the best picture prize to Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark." And it was denied the opportunity to represent Taiwan in the Oscars' best foreign film category, thanks to a certain highly-successful movie called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

What's amazing is that this movie has not been picked up by any major American studios. But thanks to Winstar Cinema (which distributes specialty films to the U.S. market) and the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, you can see this impressive film, free, at 8 next Thursday and March 2. It's not the biggest auditorium in the world, so you'd be wise to get there early.

Yang, a co-founder of the Taiwanese New Wave with filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien in the 1980s and best known in international cinema for the 1991 movie "A Brighter Summer Day," has created an absorbing reality tapestry set in modern-day Taipei.

This three-hour, multigenerational drama centers on 45-year-old NJ (Wu Nienjen, an accomplished filmmaker who wrote Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Dust in the Wind"), a technocrat whose troubled firm is considering a partnership with a Japanese company.

NJ's work pressure is compounded by a complex situation at home. Crises build, expand and threaten to rupture, starting on the day that NJ's brother-in-law, A-Di (Chen Xisheng), gets married. For one thing, his elderly mother-in-law suffers a stroke and is brought home – still in a coma…to convalesce.

Her unconscious presence puts a pall over the home, driving NJ's wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), into a deep depression. She sits before her mother, unable to say anything.

For another, NJ runs into Sherry (Ke Suyun), an old flame who has never accepted NJ's romantic rejection 20 years ago. Although she's married, she's still angry over the unceremonious breakup.

Even the children are busy with worry. NJ's emotionally fragile teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), is having a romantic crisis, having fallen for the ex-boyfriend of her best friend; and his sweet, 8-year-old son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), is caught up in a philosophical quandary: Informed that no one can learn the whole truth because they can't look in both directions, Yang-Yang decides to take photographs of the backs of peoples' heads. This way, he reasons, the subjects will be able to see the entire truth.

NJ's computer hardware firm is facing bankruptcy if it doesn't change direction. So NJ considers teaming up with the urbane, friendly Mr. Ota (played with great sensitivity by Issey Ogata), an innovative designer of games software in Japan. While visiting Ota, NJ agrees to a revelatory rendezvous with Sherry.

On one level, "Yi Yi" is classic soap opera, with a suicide attempt, a wedding ceremony, even a brutal 11 o'clock news murder, all in the mix. But Yang's direction is so admirably restrained, it lends rich heft to everything.

Much of the action is shown in wide-shot compositions – in which we see the characters from a discreet distance and over the miniature terrain of the foreground. And many shots are shown in mirror or glass reflections. What we are seeing is life through the delicate, revolving prism of Yang's vision. In his eyes, all of life deserves this kind of enrapt, detailed scrutiny because everything is so inextricably connected. And watching "Yi Yi" you become a part of that big picture yourself.

"Yi Yi" (Unrated, 173 minutes) – In Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese and English with subtitles. Contains minor sexual situations and depictions of violence. Admission is free. Call 202/357-2700 (TDD: 202/357-1729).


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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