Yi Yi

Yi Yi ★★★★

Yi Yi is, like A Brighter Summer Day, a sprawling family epic featuring an ensemble cast. Like the latter, it revels in melodrama — a stroke, a gambling addiction, a nearly-consummated infidelity, a brush with death, a murder of passion. But one of its most affecting scenes is barely about anything at all.

The scene begins with a medium long shot of a darkened hallway. A woman’s muffled sobs can be heard, but there is not yet any diegetic source. Jian NJ, the father of the small family unit the film centers on, walks down the hall toward the lens, his footsteps echoing; he turns on the light. He blinks, and as he takes the scene in, so do we: a medium close-up reverse shot of his wife, Min-Min, sitting in front of the vanity mirror and crying. “I have nothing to say to Mother,” she begins. She pours her heart out to her husband about how small her life is, how little time it takes to narrate her days to her comatose mother, her worries that if she were ever to end up in a similar situation she would leave nothing behind. The camera does not once stray from her tear-streaked face. The vanity mirror behind her even doubles her body language, showing a reverse view of her head and shoulders that echoes her son Yang-Yang’s attempts to show people the backs of their heads through photography. Though Min-Min’s worries may be less flashy or tinged with adventure than those of the rest of her family, Yang treats them with just as much emotional seriousness, letting a middle-aged woman’s existential worries and feelings toward her mother occupy pride of place in this long take. In this way, the scene acts as a microcosm of why I like this Yang outing best of any of the ones we’ve seen so far — its focus on and sympathetic care for the inner lives of women. 

Min-Min’s midlife crisis is far from the only foray the film takes into women’s emotions. One of the primary plot threads of the movie follows Min-Min and NJ’s daughter, Ting-Ting, as she navigates a complicated friendship and its fallout. Ting-Ting becomes close with her next-door neighbor, Lili; whenever they spend time together, the camera tends to keep them in the same shot, documenting them bending their heads together, gazing after each other, and cooking silently in tandem. Lili’s conflicts with her boyfriend Fatty are frequently visible in birds’-eye view as if we were looking down at them through Ting-Ting’s bedroom window. When Lili breaks up with Fatty, Fatty and Ting-Ting begin dating in a sort of mutually masochistic ritual that culminates in the two renting a room for the night and Fatty running out in a panic. Lili soon finds out about the development, and her confrontation with Ting-Ting takes the form of a long take that includes almost no dialogue at all, zeroing in on the two girls’ body language and the quality of the silence between them. 

Toward the end of the movie, Fatty kills Lili’s English teacher upon finding out he has been sleeping with her as well as her mother. This narrative point mirrors similar crimes of revenge committed by jilted men in The Terrorizers and A Brighter Summer Day, but instead of establishing it through point-of-view action sequences as in the former two, Yang allows us to find this out roughly as Ting-Ting does: a phone call to her parents, then a shot of her following a policewoman into the station, then one of her sitting helplessly in the restricted space of a background doorway as she listens to the story. Notably, Fatty does not kill or even threaten his ex-partner as in Terrorizers or Summer Day, restricting his vengeance — illustrated on an intradiegetic screen in a darkly humorous computer-animated instant replay — to the predatory teacher. In this way, the emotional impact of violence is allowed to sink in through the reactions of a teenage girl rather than a direct or even indirect portrayal of a misogynist attack.

With more attention to women’s inner lives than Summer Day and more sympathy for them than Terrorizers, Yi Yi offers the most balanced and fully fleshed-out emotional landscape of any of the Yang films I’ve seen so far. The former two were dazzling in their own right; this, to my view, is the best yet.