13 May, 2009

Movie Review: Paris, TX (1984)

Wim Wenders's Paris, TX begins with a striking image: from the empty depths of the Texan/Mexican desert emerges a lone man. Amongst the hot sun and dry sand, he is wearing a black suit. He is also, however, wearing a red baseball cap. The suit and his shoes are in tatters, but he still wears his blazer, and his necktie is still firmly tied. He is civilized and savage, respectable and wild all at the same time.

The image doesn't provide any answers, and the film that follows doesn't offer many either.

The man is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), and he's been walking for a long time in search of something we never quite understand. He carries a photobooth picture of himself with a young woman and a child and a tattered photo of an empty lot for sale in Paris, Texas. Maybe he's searching for his sanity, maybe for a new beginning, or maybe for the truth behind his past. He is confused and mute, and when he lands himself in a tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere, he wanders off before his long-estranged brother is able to retrieve him.

His brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) is a normal man with a normal wife (the terrible actress Aurore Clement, one of the worst elements of this film) and a regular job as a billboard designer who lives in Los Angeles. He's been raising Travis's son Hunter (Hunter Carson) for four years, ever since Travis and his wife disappeared without a trace. Hunter, now eight-years-old, has naturally come to think of Walt and his wife as his parents; he's a happy, precocious kid with a good life, and their home is stable and calm until Travis suddenly reemerges from nowhere.

Trying to get Travis to speak at all is a difficult chore for Walt, and trying to get him to explain what's been happening for the past four years is an impossibility. Travis is far removed from the basic functions of humanity. Eating, sleeping, and talking come only with great trouble, and so the more complicated actions of raising a family, loving a person, and taking responsibility for life seem like far-fetched goals. Nonetheless, Travis begins the nearly impossible task of regaining the trust of the young boy who is practically a stranger, at one point consulting magazines, borrowing his brother's suit, and consulting the advice of a Mexican housekeeper in order to learn how to behave like a good father. His dream of somehow rekindling a father-son relationship with his brother's adopted child seems futile, but his earnest face, docile words, and sympathetic eyes make us root for him. Walt is a good father, but he's boring and square. There's something special about Travis, though, something sad and essentially human that we connect with, and we want to see him rise above himself.

But Travis has problems with fatherhood and relationships, as we slowly, enigmatically learn throughout the film. His father had a sickness in his mind which in the end consumed him. A Texan, he gradually convinced himself that his half-Mexican wife was something more than she was--a Parisian belle. She was from Paris, Texas, but he told new friends that she was from Paris, a statement that began as a joke but eventually turned into a deception that even he believed. His commitment to the illusion was an embarrassment that ate at her, turning her into something that she wasn't comfortable with, and in the end--we assume--the schizophrenic belief ate away at the family.

Travis inherited a similar inability to connect with his wife, the young, exuberant woman who bore his child, and we find ourselves hoping that young Hunter won't also succumb to the sins of his fathers. For Travis, the sickness he inherited was a twisted blend of obsession, jealousy, and possessiveness, and the end of the film follows his trek to make amends with his errs, to right his wrongs.

Following a lead from Walt's wife, Travis tracks his wife down to Dallas, where she works as a sexual performer behind a two-way mirror, presenting herself to paying men who issue commands to her through a speaker phone but whom she can never see. The setup of their final confrontation mimics the emotional and psychological distance that has always estranged them. On the dark side of the mirror, Travis can see his wife as she performs various roles in superficial stage set-ups, but he can't see himself and she can only see her reflection. They can never see each other head on at the same time; she's in a fantasy room with the fourth wall (the wall he can't see) covered in exposed fiberglass insulation, and he's in a director's chair, issuing orders through a telephone. They confess their regrets and apologies, detailing the separate, lone journeys they've traveled in the past four years, but the distance between them remains as thick as the trick glass.

In the end, we begin to see the possibility of reconciliation. The attempt at one, as well as the earnest desire for one, is proof positive enough. We've watched Travis develop from a mute, tattered shell in the desert into an honest, sincere, and compassionate father, and the reunion between father, mother, and son doesn't seem like too much to ask.

The disappointment that comes at the end is a heartbreaking bummer, but it isn't unrealistic. We see Travis's potential, but he doesn't himself. We have hope for him, but he's long abandoned such fancies, lost himself in a world without language or love. When at the end of the film he once again disappears into the great beyond, to continue his endless quest for whatever he's looking for out in the desert, it's anger-inducing and heart-breaking, but we understand it and hope that in time he'll take the needed steps to become the regular guy he wants to be and the loving father we know is buried deep within him.

Paris, TX is a difficult and unsatisfying film, as complicated as any father-son relationship. With its beautiful photography and award-worthy performance by Harry Dean Stanton, it deserves a look or two. It's not an uplifting film, but somehow it manages to maintain a smidgen of optimism. When Walt tells Travis he's been gone for four years, Travis asks if that's a long time. It is for an eight-year-old, Walt says. That's half his life. And Travis seems to process this without quite understanding it. With a life as long and tortuous as Travis's, four years isn't nearly so much time, and we leave the film feeling that if it takes him another four years to get his life together, they will have flown even faster and been time well spent.

Paris, TX is #313 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list, which compiles critics' lists to rank the thousand greatest films of all time. To see my reviews of other films on this list, click the TSPDT? tag.

Paris, TX
d: Wim Wenders w: Sam Shepard
(Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell)
TSPDT? #313

Movie Review: In the Mood for Love (2000)

Given the formulas and sources used, the TSPDT? list only contains fourteen movies from the Twenty-First Century on its list of greatest films. Of those fourteen, writer-director Kar Wai Wong's brief 2000 love tale In the Mood for Love is considered the best, ranking at #246 overall. Skillfully filmed and tenderly acted, the movie documents the spatial and emotional confines of love and life in 1960s lower middle class Hong Kong society.

The world presented is a cramped one, where one young married couple lives in a small rented room at the back of a small apartment owned by an elderly couple. Another married couple rents the spare room next door, and so the better part of a dozen people share a few hundred square feet, with rambunctious mahjong players hanging out in the living room drinking until the break of dawn. The world is confined, and the cinematography aptly reflects this with myopic close-up obscured by cramped scenery. The bustle is constant, and the walls are paper thin, so it is surprising that one of the husbands is able to carry out an affair with one of the wives for as long as they do, hiding in the other's room, borrowing their spouses clothing, pretending to be staying late at work.

We never see these adulterers head on, though; walls, furniture, and other bodies always seem to be in the way. The brave lovers, whose deceptions become increasingly blatant, remain disembodied voices, as absent in the film as they are in their respective spouses' lives.

The ruse only lasts so long, though, after their lonely spouses (Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai) strike up a timid friendship. The clues are obvious, but they try to avoid it at first, and when it's obvious that they're deceiving themselves, they try to understand the ins and outs of every angle of the deception. They're too passive to actually confront the liars and too upright to exact revenge. Instead they assume that the solution lies in truth and understanding--that by figuring out everything that must have been said and thought and done during the illicit courtship they will eventually achieve some sort of enlightenment. In a way it's anti-evolutionary--sometimes what we don't know actually hurts us less, and it'd probably best for them to just forget it and move on--but when a deception of that magnitude occurs, the ego yearns for the details. What was he really doing that night he had all that excess paperwork? Who first moved in for the kiss? What did he eat when they went out for dinner together, and how was it different from what I would have eaten? What jokes did she laugh at, and how does her laugh differ from mine?

While the affair continues, they spurned lovers obsess over the details, method acting what they think might be happening on the other side of the wall. She plays his wife, he plays her husband, and they direct each other. My husband would never say such a thing. My wife would definitely drink this type of tea. In the process, they get to pretend to be the people that their spouses love--the confident man, the spontaneous woman. While acting out the roles of their lovers' lovers, they get to become love-worthy people, to learn how to distinguish their own insecure personalities from the seemingly better identities of the cheater.

They lose themselves in the wish-fulfillment of their playacting, and the cinematography tracks this. Multiple days pass in a few minutes of screen time, with them acting and re-acting the various nuances of their extramarital encounters, the camera cutting often with frequent costume changes and only minor shifts in attitude. The lovers obsess over the adultery, and since the truth can never quite be understood, they live out the scenes eternally, fully inhabiting their roles in every possible way.

There's a scene where the spurned wife, Mrs. Chan, confronts her husband at the dinner table. As always, we only see over his shoulder while she finally admits that she knows about the lies. He insists she's crazy, but she insists she knows the truth.

And then he simply confesses: yes, he's having an affair. She shakes her head, and the camera pans to reveal that it's not really her husband but the spurned husband. They've reached the point where they're practicing their confrontations, and the wife refuses to believe that her husband would ever be so outright about his confession. He'd lie, he'd hide it, he'd say how much he loved her, or maybe he'd scream at her and throw things, but he'd never just come out with it so calmly.

The camera cuts, and they repeat the scene word for word. The crucial point of departure comes, and he confesses in exactly the same way. This time, however she accepts it. She seems to forget that she's a director and that he's just acting, and she cries. Maybe he would be so matter-of-fact. After all, it is a matter of fact. Only at that moment does she seem to realize this, does the game transcend playing and become reality.

Although we spend our lives trying to pinpoint the truth, it's a fragile and complicated thing. Our capacity for self-deception is profound, and our propensity for mistakes is great. The spurned lovers spend a very long time trying to dissect the minutiae of what they know almost nothing about--the exact words said, the sidewalks walked, the beverages consumed--while still being able to hide the fundamental truths from themselves--that their lovers are cheaters, that their lovers don't love them, that maybe they don't even love their lovers.

It's heartbreaking: two sweet, shy people who love their disloyal spouses so much that they can't abandon them, can't stop thinking about them, even when it's obvious that they should just hook up with each other. They'd make a wonderful couple (and they play one in Hero), and toward the end they begin to realize that, but they never quite overcome the past. They never commit the others' sin; they never sleep with each other.

In the Mood for Love is a fantastic and bittersweet film with a cinematographic style that perfectly captures the tension, the close confines, the obsession, and the ambiguity of the story it tells. It's a love story between two people who have been brutally stabbed in the back by love yet can't break free from it. The acting (with the added difficulty of actors playing actors) is soul-wrenching, the numerous costumes (Maggie Cheung wears a different cheong-san dress, 46 in all, in each scene) are beautiful, and the symbolic, graceful camerawork by director Kar Wai Wong and cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee is of the utmost caliber. This is an original, artful masterpiece of a film well-worthy of its status as one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.

In the Mood for Love
d/w: Kar Wai Wong
(Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai)
TSPDT? #246

06 May, 2009

Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)

The story behind Touch of Evil, the final film of the film noir genre, is perhaps more interesting than the convoluted plot of marijuana smugglers, dynamite explosives, and illegal immigrants. Slated as a B film, Touch of Evil was to star Orson Welles alongside Charlton Heston, but confused Heston thought that Welles was also attached to direct, and being the superstar that he was, he pulled his weight and the studio made it happen. Thus Welles filmed this so-called masterpiece, which ranks #21 on the TSPDT? list, using extremely long takes (now considered cutting edge) in order to keep the film under its original budget.

Without Welles's touch, this movie most certainly would have been forgotten by now. A sensational plot about lesbians in leather jackets smuggling mary jane across the Mexican border, Charlton Heston in brownface with a mustache, Janet Leigh's hysterics, a cartoonish Dennis Weaver gnawing at the scenery--the first hour, excluding the famous long take of the opening shot, adds up to a bunch of boredom.

Only one thing keeps the film from falling to pieces: Orson Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan, a limping, obese, slurring police detective that you just know is dripping with sleaze and probably behind all the murder and corruption in town. A recovering alcoholic, he's now addicted to candy bars, stuffing them into his huge, hairy face as he grimaces and leers. His town is a filthy one, bordering on lawlessness, and he knows that only he can regulate it, assigning himself full impunity to execute methods, no matter how unorthodox, for bringing justice to his kingdom.

He acts on hunches that he intuits from his crippled leg, which isn't exactly something we'd grant sovereignty to, though we never see it actually make a mistake. The limb is the perfect symbol for showcasing Quinlan. On the one hand, in the vein of wicked witches with crooked noses and leering maniacs with hunchbacks and scars, the broken leg is a sign of his deformity, what separates him from full, normal humanity, the most obvious physical manifestation of his unattractiveness. On the other hand, he received the injury while intercepting a bullet and saving his partner's (Joseph Calleia) life, an heroic act the partner claims is only outshone by his success in climbing on the wagon and freeing himself from alcoholism. The limp is unsightly, but it was caused by valor, just as his obesity is monstrous yet, we realize, only developed when he began replacing drinks with less harmful sweets. Finally, the leg is a sign of his power; it supplies him with clairvoyant knowledge, which is regarded and acted upon as gospel though we can choose to dismiss it as superstition. The impulsive hunches his leg stirs up have more power than the words of any informant.

And so we have a complex, compelling antagonist--racist, deceitful, and egotistical, yet dedicated to justice, capable of heroism, and full of determination.

I hesitate to talk about the end of this film, which is the only part that redeems it and makes it somewhat worth calling a masterpiece. Though my reviews are often full of spoilers, to talk in depth about the beautifully shot, Shakespearean climax seems to cross even my line. So, stop reading now if you want.

A murder occurs as part of an elaborate setup, and the partner whose job has been to plant key, implicating evidence that has always led to convictions finally discovers a real piece of crucial evidence at the crime scene. The evidence, a cane, however, indicts Quinlan, who has always given the orders to plant the suspects his leg fingers. Ironically, the film's first real clue points to the one responsible for all the fake clues.

The partner, despite trusting in Quinlan for all these years, despite having knowingly participated in many illegal activities in pursuit of ending crime, decides that murder is too far. Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Heston), a no-nonsense, straight laced investigator, offers the partner a means of pursuing true justice unsullied by evil, and so they work together to bring down Quinlan, using official police procedures.

The partner tries to procure a confession while wearing a wire. Quinlan, pissdrunk after reaching the breaking point and falling off the wagon, sneers at him in disgust. "What is that you're wearing?" He shakes his head. "Guilt."

You shouldn't have killed him, the partner says. You're a cop. Cops kill, Quinlan responds. It's a dirty job. "You didn't have to make it dirty," his partner says.

Quinlan discovers the bug and the deception from his best friend, and now aware that his old and proven inquisitional methods are against the new and weak yet honest methods of Vargas, he clumsily shoots the partner whose life he once saved, getting blood on his hands in the process.

He stumbles to the filthy Rio Grande to cleanse his apparent sin. An agent of the new justice kills him, and from the bridge above, the blood of his slain friend drops back onto his hands. Defeated and dead, he collapses into the dreck.

An onlooker--a prostitute he once loved (Marlene Dietrich)--watches his swollen corpse with more disappointment than sadness. Isn't someone going to come and take him away, she asks Vargas. In a few minutes, someone will do it, he responds. The body floats, filthy, sad, and perhaps too undignified. Would you like to say some words, Vargas asks the woman. "He was some kind of a man," she says. "What does it matter what you say about people?"

Which is the point of the movie, what makes it a phenomenal film despite so many things going against it. In a cinematic world of hoo-hahing nemeses with laundry lists of violent sins and neurotic motivations paired against strong, handsome heroes with one or two forgivable flaws that never get in the way of saving the day, Hank Quinlan joins the ranks of more realistic characters like Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood, the flawed, complicated, ugly, pathetic, but not flat-out evil humans who inhabit the real world. He has only a touch of evil. Unloved and unloving, disgusting yet sympathetic, driven by virtue but tarnished by the filth all around him, Quinlan is a true and honest portrait of a dishonest man.

Touch of Evil
d/w: Orson Welles
(Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Joseph Calleia)

05 May, 2009

Movie Review: Manhattan (1979) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Woody Allen considered Manhattan to be a colossal failure when he completed it, offering to do another film free of charge for the studio as an act of penance, and years later, after the film proved to be one of his most successful and enduring films, he still considered the film to be the biggest deception he ever got away with, a disastrously flawed film and his least favorite of all of them.

Manhattan is the highest ranking of eight Allen films on the TSPDT? list, falling quite high at #114. It was a phenomenal box office success, and it was nominated for two Academy Awards. I have to admit, though, I agree with Woody Allen.

What have I taken away from this film? Not very much. A few laughs, maybe. Some gorgeous black and white cinematography shot on location in New York City, and an interesting setup involving pretentious Manhattanites and their overlapping, forever in flux affairs. By the end, I guess, it makes a statement on checking our own egos, our hyperbolic criticisms of ourselves and others, our swollen pretentious, and our certainty in our own maturity and adulthood at the door. As fortysomething Isaac (Allen) frantically makes his way across town to win back the high school girl (Mariel Hemingway) he's recently dismissed as being too young, too naive, and too immature for love, we're supposed to realize that she--unlike other lover Mary (Diane Keaton) with her thousand insecure opinions and neurotic best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) with his mid-life crisis and flighty contradictions--may be the most grown up and least tainted of all of them, with her decent grasp on reality and her calm acceptance of all people and their flaws.

We're supposed to believe that and I guess it's a nice message, but it's more than a little creepy coming from a writer-director with his sexual background, a biased message endorsing the adoration of youth, a naive idea dripping with nostalgia and a bit of sexual perversion. (Personally, I didn't like hearing about what a powerful beast Allen is in bed.)

Not to mention the stilted acting that never quite flows smoothly. Hemingway, who received an Oscar nomination, is perhaps the best at playing the sanest character, but Murphy and Keaton both seem contrived, and Allen seems to be having too much fun reading his own witty script.

And there's also the halting direction and unenthusiastic pacing. And a script that isn't nearly as funny or crisp as it thinks it is, with a distracting subplot involving Meryl Streep as a lesbian ex-lover penning an implausible bestseller.

All in all, I can't see anything that's genuinely amazing about this film. It left a sour aftertaste in my mouth, and it quickly slipped from my memory.

Manhattan Murder Mystery, on the other hand, is hysterical, clever, and rich. Penned by Manhattan writers Allen and Marshall Brickman and again starring Allen and Diane Keaton, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a Hitchcockian satire following the tepid lives of four would-be mystery writers as they attempt to one-up each other in solving the most implausible crime that could ever enter their mundane lives.

When energetic Mrs. House (Lynn Cohen) dies suddenly of a heart attack, Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) can't bring herself to understand what the paramedic plainly describes. Her chatty, older neighbor, whom she had just met the night before, had never mentioned a heart condition. Though she confesses to loving rich, creamy, French desserts and though the workout routine she does on her new treadmill is perhaps too exhausting for a woman her age, Carol can't fathom that a woman so alive one day can be carried out in a covered stretcher the next. What begins as a denial of life's impermanence escalates into suspicion. Why does fuzzy Mr. House with his soothing baritone and his pedantic stamp collection seem so accepting of his wife's death, so nonchalant about the loss? Does he just have a better understanding of mortality, or could he have murdered the wife he seemed to cherish, have force-fed her cholesterol packed mousse or strapped her wrists to the treadmill in order to induce what doctors would dismiss as natural?

And why is he taking the elevator downstairs at three in the morning?

What's fueling the paranoia is her stir-crazy boredom. She's middle aged and essentially unemployed, surrounded by artists but with no artistic output of her own, dreaming of opening a restaurant but never taking the steps to fulfill that dream. The murder is her chance to get back into the world and to express her imagination.

Larry Lipton (Allen), meanwhile, is a successful book editor, more accustomed to striking out excessive fancies and implausible bouts of wild, melodramatic imagination. He tries to bring his wife back down to earth. The doctor said she had a heart attack. The old woman loved heavy whipping cream. Big, old, harmless Mr. House collects canceled postage, for godsakes.

With her husband the critical voice of boring reason, Carol unites with old friend Ted (Alan Alda), a playwright and theater director who's able to come up with motivations on the spot, and able to constantly twist and change them as needed to fit the ultimate story. The murder mystery is a fun game for him, not nearly as serious as it is for Carol except that it allows him a chance to spend quality time with her, his unrequited, unattainable love of many years.

And so the murder mystery becomes a love triangle, with Larry suddenly realizing that he'll have to play along and become a gumshoe in order to keep up with Ted and save his probably deluded wife as she further embroils herself in breaking into apartments, hiding under beds, and making impostor phone calls to seedy hotels.

One of the funniest scenes (though I won't mention the funniest one, which had me cracking up loudly in an empty room) happens when the three come together with Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), one of Larry's controversial, bestselling authors. It's a scene of artistic competitiveness, all of them racing to solve the mystery while veiling hostilities and ulterior motives.

"Well, basically, he got away with the perfect murder. It's as simple as that," newcomer Marcia matter-of-factly reveals with an arrogant amount of boredom to the three stumped sleuths who have struggled so hard to fit together the ridiculous, trivial jigsaw pieces. "And when I get back from the loo, I'll tell you how to catch him."

Ted is mesmerized. The sexy provocateur has pieced together the perfect, surprising plot. Larry is impressed by her cockiness, but overwhelmed by the ridiculous revelation. Carol, meanwhile, is just pissed. Not only has this femme fatale sauntered into the scene in the last act and solved her mystery, but she's also stolen the center stage as well as the two male leads--Ted, who's drooling all over her, and Larry, who seems to have just a little too much history with his client. You're jealous of me liking her, that's untrue but fine, Larry explains to his wife, but why are you jealous of Ted liking her unless you want Ted to like you?

What hangs in the balance of this mystery isn't so much life and death and future crimes as egos, relationships, and escape from the doldrums of middle age. The murder mystery, with its absurd twists and riotously silly climax, is just a red herring.

d: Woody Allen w: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
(Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway)
TSPDT? #114

Manhattan Murder Mystery
d: Woody Allen w: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
(Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston)

04 May, 2009

Movie Review: Yi Yi (2000)

With Taiwan in a financial recession, N.J. (Nien-Jen Wu), an executive board member of a Taipei electronics firm, must decide between investing in Ota (Issei Ogata), a successful, revolutionary video game programmer, or Ato, one of many Taiwanese knockoff companies that would provide similar profits with cheaper products for a cheaper price.

N.J. is captivated by the tranquil, reflective Ota. Following his thoughtful speech on the future of video games, which will follow the evolutionary path of man away from primitive violence and into more philosophical, meaningful spheres, the board members hastily squabble over margins and expenditures. Ota excuses himself to the corridor while they discuss, and the camera follows N.J.'s line of sight as he watches Ota beside an open window, cooing, waiting, charming a pigeon to land on his shoulder.

Later, N.J. meets Ota at a bar to discuss the business opportunity. The board members, excluding N.J., think it would be safe to invest in the imitator. Ota's tactics, though intelligent, are too much of a gamble, and times are too tight for such a risk. N.J. explains in halting English, since he doesn't speak Japanese and Ota doesn't speak Chinese.

Ota nods. He understands the fear of investing in someone who seems to offer miracles and magic. He acquires a deck of cards and while shuffling them he recounts his childhood dream of becoming a magician. He had approached a professional prestidigitator, hoping to become an apprentice, only to be told to come back when he'd learned a solid trick. He does the trick, recalling N.J.'s chosen card repeatedly from the shuffled and reshuffled deck. Is this magic, he asks. No, it is skill. When the professional sent him away, he studied and practiced and studied some more until he knew without a doubt where every card would be despite any amount of shuffling. No magic, just determination. He sets the cards down.

We wake up, Ota says, every day not knowing what's going to happen that day. Maybe it'll be similar with the same routines, encountering familiar people, doing regular tasks, but we know that it will never be exactly the same as any other day. Every day is new. Every day holds something different. New conditions, new events, new challenges. And it should terrify us, all that newness, all those unanticipated surprises, all that possibility. And yet we wake up anyway.

Then he excuses himself to play the bar's piano, for everyone should engage in the musical arts to live a full life.

What prevents us from mastering the cello? From writing the great novel we each contain? From pursuing the love we know is right, the lover we know we need? Lack of time, we tell ourselves. Fear of failure. Not enough real skill. Too many other, more important things to take care of.

Yi Yi is a dense, long (three hours) soap opera of a movie, following the life of N.J., his extended family, and their acquaintances through a short period of life in modern Taipei. But despite all the complexities of multiple plotlines and a plotting ensemble, the film concentrates on this idea of not holding back, of not falling into safe routines because of our irrational fear of the limitless possibilities of life.

We rest comfortably in the assumptions that we know ourselves and can rein in our small lives and worlds, and yet N.J.'s (incredibly adorable) eight-year-old son (Jonathan Chang), a budding photographer, points out through a series of photographs he takes of the backs of people's heads that there is a whole half of us we can't even see. Maybe we see where we're going, but we can't at the same time see ourselves as we go there, nor where we're coming from. Attempts to simplify life through routines, expectations, self control, and prejudice don't help us, don't increase our understanding, and don't make life any less scary or unpredictable, no matter how easy and comfortable they may be.

If you want to swim, sometimes you just have to dive into the water and not worry about drowning. If you envy your friend's artistic success then you mustn't shy from the plentiful mistakes and downfalls that come with artistic development. If you see the woman you'll always love exiting the building but you've got business to take care of, you should probably follow the woman. Most daily business can wait; love is a more precious and wild thing.

Many of the characters in Yi Yi have regrets. Many of them compare their current selves with the selves they dreamed they could be. When N.J.'s elderly mother suffers an accident and falls into a coma, we learn about their conflicts from the therapeutic monologues they tell the still woman. (Talking to the comatose grandmother, a doctor advises, might help her as well as the family to deal with the trauma.) N.J.'s brother, a suicidal wastrel and alcoholic, tells the listening mother of his financial success, his popularity, and his new lease on life. He's lying more to himself than to her.

N.J.'s wife, meanwhile, tires from telling the woman the same things everyday--today I did the laundry, made lunch, watched television.... How does that add up to a life, she asks N.J., sobbing. What's the point of waking up everyday if you're just going to wander around passively and without a thought? She decides to head off to a mountainside monastery to change things up a bit and regain her mental and spiritual sanity, and though she realizes that life on the mountaintop isn't so much different from life in the condominium, she at least realizes that life needn't be an unremarkable Sisyphean cycle.

Most interesting, though, is young Yang-Yang's refusal to talk to his grandmother, which we eventually learn has less to do with his fear of being around the ill woman and more to do with his lack of arrogance. He's only an eight-year-old boy. There's still a world of beautiful things to discover, interesting people to meet, magnificent clouds to be drenched by, physical laws of science to understand, and beautiful moments to photograph. How could he, at the beginning of his life, say anything enlightening to a wise woman at the end of hers? With a promise that he will always explore, keep an open mind, and discover the beauty and art in everything, this fantastic movie concludes.

One of a very small handful of movies made since 2000 to make it onto the TSPDT? list (it's #446), Yi Yi is a richly layered, superbly written, moving, thought-provoking, and flawlessly acted film worthy of many repeated viewings.

Yi Yi
d/w: Edward Yang
(Nien-Jen Wu, Jonathan Chang, Issei Ogata)
TSPDT? #446