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NJ Jian (Wu Nienjen) is a software executive in his mid-40s, living in Taipei with his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), his wife's mother (Tang Ruyun) and their two children, teenage Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Outwardly they're happy and prosperous, though in fact NJ's company is ailing and none of the family members are especially close. After her mother collapses and falls into a coma, Min-Min suffers a breakdown and leaves for a Buddhist retreat. Faced with turmoil at work and home, NJ begins to reassess his life and ponder a possible reunion with an old girlfriend, Sherry (Ke Suyun). Increasingly withdrawn from the world, NJ barely notices the problems of his own children, as Ting-Ting suffers the pangs of first love and the precocious Yang-Yang is bullied and gets into trouble at school.

Review by Jake Wilson:
One of the best films of the year, Edward Yang's Yi Yi combines a diagnosis of modern times with seemingly old-fashioned 'literary' storytelling - scene by scene it's slow, character-focused and dense with realistic detail, while the sprawling, coincidence-laden plot harks back to the nineteenth-century novel. The references to globalisation and the software industry are pointedly up-to-date, yet the themes are scarcely new: the shock of change, the failure of tradition, and the question of how to stay human in the midst of an impersonal, profit-driven society. Yang is not afraid to state the issues very directly, even baldly: 'Why is the world so different from what we thought it was?' cries teenage Ting-Ting after her romantic dreams are crushed, an exclamation that's close to Chekhov in its gentle comedy and almost shocking sadness. Calmly and relentlessly, Yang keeps on reminding us of the unbearable weight of existence, the inevitability of compromise, bafflement and failure. 

Yet the tone is finally one of philosophical acceptance, helped along by a measured, distanced style: Yang is fond of fixed, crowded long-shots where he can arrange secondary bits of action around and behind the central figures, literally placing them in a wider context. It's not an especially dramatic or attention-grabbing approach; when Yang punctuates the narrative with 'pillow shots' of high-rise buildings or traffic crawling along an overpass, the effect is contemplative rather than ecstatic, like watching the city breathe. Nature's serenely regular alternation between night and day helps to model Yang's TV-like cross-cutting between various subplots; the isolated woes of NJ and the rest are subsumed in the tranquil rhythms of the turning world. Many scenes are filmed through windows and overlaid with reflections, a technique perhaps meant to evoke the loss of substance in a modern capitalist system where images are valued more than truths. Yet if the characters can seem at moments like mere phantoms or traces, in the same moments they seem to shed the weight of their misery - as though the disappearance of the individual were also a form of freedom.

Special features reviewed by Andrew L. Urban:
In his first DVD commentary ever, Edward Yang speaks of choosing to make a film about a family because it represents a chance to study every generation in one story. It begins with a wedding, the happiest time in a Chinese family’s life. But, as he notes, for every one of us, things are not as they seem on the surface.

He uses universal elements – like the ubiquitous surveillance camera – as a way to start working through the similarities and on into the differences. Yang reveals through the commentary how important the various craft departments are to his filmmaking style, from sound and music to lighting.

His American accent, with remnants of Chinese, makes Yang easy to understand, and his off-the-cuff commentary is insightful and informative, adding considerable depth to our response to this celebrated film, and his compassion, his humanity shines through.

Published October 9, 2003

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A One and A Two

CAST: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issey Ogata, Kelly Lee

DIRECTOR: Edward Yang

SCRIPT: Edward Yang

RUNNING TIME: 173 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16 : 9 widescreen



DVD RELEASE: September 13, 2003

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