The film titled "Yi Yi" -- the Chinese figure for 'one' repeated -- and released in the United States for some reason as "A One and A Two," as though it were a Taiwanese version of "Tango," is a brilliant study of a middle-class Taipei family as they live through some crises and conflicts over a period of a few weeks. Writer-director Edward Yang, who is almost unknown anywhere but on the international festival circuit, and whose films have never had a commercial release here, gives us a contemporary family portrait that is Jamesian in its depth and understanding.
Yang takes his time (almost three hours, that pass more quickly than a thirty-second Bud Lite commercial) and draws us into the world of this family, focusing mainly on a father and his son. The father, middle-aged NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), is a partner with his brother Ah-Di and some others in a software company that is at the moment only marginally successful. NJ's brother has borrowed money against anticipated income and now can't pay it back. NJ's wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is spiraling down a path of depression, and leaves the family to live at a Buddhist retreat house in the mountains. His young son Yang-Yang, perhaps eight years old, is a delicious child who sees all, speaks little, is quite mischievous, and is constantly picked on by his older sister's girlfriends.
Yang-Yang has an insatiable curiosity about the people around him. He photographs the backs of their heads, so they will be able to see what is normally hidden from them. Through Yang-Yang we see everyone in a double vision: the filmmaker's and the child's. Yang-Yang is a way, I think, for Mr. Yang to get us closer to his people without having to substitute the obvious for the real; that is, he invites us to identify and think and feel with them, rather than objectify and judge them from the safe distance of a theatre seat. Yang finds what is interesting and worthwhile knowing in each of his people; what happens to them could just as well be happening to us. They are, after all, just like us. Like the little boy, Yang sees all but does not judge.
At the center of the film is the motionless, silent figure of Min-Min's mother, lying in a coma, victim of a stroke as she comes home from a wedding that opens the film with a foreshadowing of the relationships and conflicts to come later. The family has been told to speak to her, that hearing her family talk may help her to come out of the coma. So one by one they visit her room in the apartment, talking about -- well, about what most of us would say to such a figure. That is, we could open ourselves, or we could lie, or we could say we can't think of a thing to say. And in the film all of those alternatives are shown.
Early on, NJ unexpectedly sees Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), his very first love, whom he had run away from one day so many years ago. She now lives in the United States, but travels often to Taiwan and Japan. They have many issues to confront, and in the course of the film they will deal with them. NJ also meets a Japanese businessman, Mr. Ota, who could supply his company with top-quality hardware, and he goes to Japan to close the deal. Mr. Ota turns out to be a kindred spirit who has good insights into the life and choices NJ now faces. NJ and Sherry have made an assignation to spend time on the Japanese coast, and it is there that NJ and Sherry must decide whether to pick up again with each other.
Meanwhile, Yang-Yang's older sister Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) is dealing with the first stirrings of sex and adolescent angst (Big Apple alert: Some Taipei scenes are set at a fast-food place called New York Bagels, which features H & H bagels). She is also the one in the family closest to the grandmother, and the most open in her one-way conversations with her.
Edward Yang has given his film the textures, the interwoven patterns, of a major musical work. He weaves them in and out so seamlessly that we're not even aware of location shifts -- from Taipei to Tokyo, from bedroom to company boardroom, from school window to railroad train window. And like a musical construction, the film has small tensions and large ones, conflicts and (some) resolutions. He has been deceptively gentle with his people, by which I mean that he reveals them in their nakedness but does it without malice or 'attitude'. "Yi Yi" is long but it is exactly the right length. It is the kind of very special film whose characters teach us as much about ourselves as about themselves; that is, Yang's people help point out the right and wrong things we all do. It's a great gift, and I for one am grateful to receive it.