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Signs Of Life: On The Transformative Power Of 'Yi Yi' 20 Years On
Ian Wang , May 10th, 2020 16:02

Edward Yang's domestic epic Yi Yi premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 20 years ago this week, where Yang won Best Director. Today, the film is a vital, tender resource on subverting midlife crises and saving lives through cinema, finds Ian Wang

In Yi Yi, Edward Yang’s domestic epic which premiered at Cannes 20 years ago, one character famously opines that, since the advent of film, “We live three times as long” because “movies give us twice what we can get from daily life.” Quoted less often, however, are the lines that follow. Ting-Ting, the daughter of the family at the film’s centre, is on a date with the boy who says those words, but she is bemused by his declaration. When he goes on to explain that, for example, movies can show us “what it’s like to kill” even if we’ve never killed anyone, this only leaves Ting-Ting even more perturbed. “What good is it to me?” she asks. “If life’s so horrible, why live at all?”

There is an obvious self-reflexivity to this exchange: if Yang is asking why people care about movies, then embedded within that is the question of why people should care about this movie, his movie. “Who needs movies,” as Ting-Ting asks, when we can “just stay home and live life”? Why live in someone else’s misery when we have our own to contend with?

Yi Yi is not a miserable film – a perhaps surprising fact given the cavalcade of disappointments and small cruelties its characters endure. Over the course of its three-hour runtime, we see key figures – Ting-Ting and her inquisitive little brother Yang-Yang, their despairing mother Min-Min and their melancholic father NJ – experience midlife crises, romantic frustrations, career failures, schoolyard bullying. They are haunted by loss and longing and guilt, a collective pain echoing through generations.

“Why live at all,” then? “Who needs movies,” then? The conventional cinematic response to the existential crisis is to provide some kind of respite, some escapist fantasy that frees its characters from their repressed malaise. Think of American Beauty or Lost in Translation, both also turn-of-the-millennium reflections on human purpose and the search for meaning. The solution these films propose is to break away completely from the suffocating confines of everyday life, to find freedom through quitting your job or in the arms of a stranger. In doing so, they exalt cinematic language with a kind of redemptive power – through dream sequences and carefully-staged visual beauty, their characters find liberation and intimacy, they get “twice what we can get from daily life”.

But fantasy, and even beauty, are not value-neutral. American Beauty’s central escapist symbol is the exploited, objectified sexuality of a teenage girl. In Lost in Translation, it is the romance of a Japanese cityscape that excludes actual Japanese people. The intoxicating, transportive enticement of cinematic fantasy becomes problematic when you begin asking "Whose fantasy, and at whose expense?"

Yi Yi offers a tender rebuttal to the excesses of cinema’s escapist tendencies. On several occasions, the film offers its characters a way out of their seemingly humdrum lives: NJ reconnects with an old flame, Sherry, who still has feelings for him; Min-Min, following an existential breakdown, retreats to a Buddhist monastery. But there is no climactic liberation in these moments, no ecstatic thrill. Yang is uninterested in a narrative logic of tension and release – instead, he stages everything in languorous, contemplative long takes. His camera is muted, hesitant, forgoing the heady aesthetic appeal of traditional escapism on film. It lingers insistently and even uncomfortably, not on the joy of freedom, but on the confusion and conflict which complicates it. In the end, NJ turns Sherry down and Min-Min leaves the monastery – the fantasy is over, and perhaps it never really existed in the first place.

It would be easy to read this aspect of the film’s narrative as pessimistic: “If life’s so horrible, why live at all?”: But what Yi Yi offers us is a chance to seek joy, not in the glossy sheen of cinematic fairytales, but in the things we find when we choose not to run away from reality. When Min-Min first arrives home from the monastery, NJ explains to her that he “had a chance to relive part of [his] youth”, and contemplates what might have happened if his life had gone a different way – if he could escape from his current position. But he concludes, “Even if I was given a second chance, I wouldn’t need it.” In the end, instead of turning inwards and pining for an idealised past, he looks outwards – towards other people, towards the future. Yi Yi does not agree that “movies give us twice what we can get from daily life,” then, so much as it encourages its viewers to search for the beauty that was already present in daily life.

And Yang consistently pushes against conventional cinematic language to evoke this point more deeply. In aninterview with IndieWire, he described how he eschewed close-ups while filming Yi Yi, because they focus only on an actor’s face, ignoring the way human beings also express themselves through their physicality, their posture, their walk. Yang is a big-picture director – in other words, he is interested in the way his characters’ interiority relates to their exterior environment, and even the clumsy frailty of their own bodies. If the length of his takes allows us to feel his characters’ emotions more intensely, then his rejection of close-ups places those emotions in context.

That context is important. Yang insists on viewing people not just as individuals living separate, distant lives, but as being deeply embedded within their community and their city, parts of a greater whole. He shoots several scenes through windows at nighttime, where characters can only be seen filtered through the overlaid reflection of the city outside, a kind of mock-double exposure. Even when we feel at our most broken and alone, there is a whole world out there in which we can find meaning. Like the young Yang-Yang, who takes photographs of the backs of people’s heads to show them what they cannot see themselves, Yang’s precise formalism reminds us that his characters are part of something much bigger than themselves, that they are connected to so much beyond their own private pain.

This is the fundamental truth that undergirds Yang’s answer to the question of why life is worth living. Rather than using the conventions of cinema to stage an escape from the pain of the everyday, Yang subverts them by leaning into that pain, asking us to sit patiently with it, and finally encouraging us to see the beauty that lies beyond it. Life is full of misery, but we can find fulfilment and connection in the people and the places around us. Yi Yi may be suspicious of the false promises of cinematic fantasy, but ultimately it offers a shining example of cinema’s transformative power – not to help us escape life, but to help us live it.