Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Yi Yi

Dir. Edward Yang

I remember taking an advanced writing class in high school. While the curriculum was hardly what I would call 'advanced' I did pick up a few good pieces of advice about writing along the way. The first was out of Stephen King's book "On Writing", where he recommends only writing what you know. Its solid, yet kind of obvious advice. In an overly literal sense we can only write what we know since writing something that has never entered into our consciousness would be impossible. Still, its an essential step towards compelling and honest writing, if that's what you're interested in doing. If not you can be like Stephen King and write fictional horror stories (note: psychologically King writes what he knows, it just has a tendency to manifest itself in a grossly inordinate way). The other piece of advice I garnered from the course was to avoid writing about events that you are too emotionally attached to. This may seem kind of backwards but if you've ever read a 2 to 3 page essay by a high schooler on the recent death of a family member or friend, you'd know why. Emotion overpowers articulation. Sincerity overwhelms the scrupulous nature of good writing. Conversely, writing that is devoid of emotion, permanently detached, tends to be tedious. Striking a balance between the necessary amounts of separation and connection needed to aptly convey meaning is a formative task, but it's realization is often breathtaking.

Take Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two): a brutally honest and unflinching portrayal of life as a whole. In just under 3 hours Yang shows happiness, strife, failure, success, modesty, arrogance, birth, death and so much more. What makes Yang's film stand out among so many other films whose narrative arcs are meant to mirror the arc of a human life is how sincere he is. In the film's memorable last scene, 8 year old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) stands before his recently deceased grandmother and tells her that when he grows up he wants to show people things they've never seen before. Off the lips of anyone else this comment would sound condescending, but in this case Yang-Yang's innocence is overwhelming. The significance of such a tender and beautifully orchestrated moment is that it is one of many, a part for the whole, in the film. Yang covers so much territory in this family epic from a mother (Elain Jin) distraught by the inconclusive redundancy of her adult life; a daughter (Kelly Lee) coping with adolescent disillusionment; a father (Nien-Jen Wu) reliving his past while trying simultaneously to move forward with his family and in his company; and a son (Chang) slowly discovering the grandeur of life. And these are simply the main characters. Like a great novelist Yang brings to life everyone who appears on screen and does not shy away from the realities of clashing egos and formidable heartbreak. The film features several fights and many moments of intensely affecting displays of emotion, be it screaming or crying. His spectrum is wide and his pallet is astonishingly diverse but Yang never once gets lost in his own attention to detail and his greater diligence towards emotional impact and paralyzing realism. The film is vibrant and self-aware from start to finish. Simply speaking it is glorious; a piece of cinema for which any number of words are completely superfluous.

There's a moment in the film between Ting-Ting (Lee) and a boy nick-named Fatty where they are discussing a movie they have just seen. Ting-Ting didn't like it because she thought it was too sad. Fatty points out that film is created so that we might see lives that do not run parallel to our own. With Yi Yi, Yang has accomplished a near impossible task: the perfect molding of the familiar and the foreign: what we can relate to and what excites us into a stupor the way only something we've never experienced before can. The pain and crushing weight of repetitious reality that the adults cope with, the aging of the elders who begin to see their own end, and the confusing and enlightening lives of children who wake up every day just to see what the world will show them next, is all presented with such magical truth that the epic begins to develop into something more than just a film. It ends up being a mirror of our own lives and how we construct them. Yang pours every subtle conclusion about the mysterious reasons why people do what they do into this film and blends it together magnificently with beautiful, inventive and often appropriately symmetrical cinematography. It strikes a chord so loudly and so passionately that it is impossible to ignore.

What I didn't mention before when I described the film's final sequence is how I ended up crying when it finished. This is not meant to be a reason to see the film that is void of academic reasoning. I don't think that's really necessary. It is trying to put into a human context the raw power of Yi Yi and the miracles of life it so articulately expresses. Ultimately, though, I think it better epitomizes the powerful waves of sentiment that have rendered me (mostly) speechless, in spite of myself.

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