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.
d/w: Edward Yang
(Nien-Jen Wu, Jonathan Chang, Issei Ogata)