‘Yi Yi’: Capturing the back of our heads

At first, the seemingly daunting three hours of cinema feels like not enough within seating, or at least just enough to tell the story that Edward Yang wanted to tell. The Taiwanese film ‘Yi Yi’, otherwise known as ‘A One and a Two...’ in some English translations, was Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s last offering before he left us too soon with colon cancer in June 2007.

Perhaps it would be of great disservice to potential viewers if this review even tried to describe what the film was about. British film critic Nigel Andrews describes calling ‘Yi Yi’ a “three-hour Taiwanese family drama” as akin to calling ‘Citizen Kane’ “a film about a newspaper”. It is more of a sensual-visual experience than a story that can be told in words; it is the ineffable that makes ‘Yi Yi’ so comforting and impressionable to many cinéphiles. Its tender storytelling of the lives of a Taiwanese family in Taipei brought Yang the Best Director Award at Cannes.


Edward Yang’s cinematography and mise en scène is quite minimalistic and austere; there is minimal camera movement, and he frequently employs static shots. He often plants his camera on a tripod and lets the story tell itself, whether the characters are talking, walking, or not knowing what to do, and because the camera remains static, the audiences’ eyes must direct themselves. Even the smallest of movements of the characters and scenery have the deepest imprint on spectators.


And it could be because the writer of this review grew up in Seoul, which is another East Asian city, but the colours and the landscape of the city represent to me, and probably to much of the audience, something that is familiar and nostalgic for many people, especially young people who grew up in East Asia. It showed a particular snapshot of life during the turn of the century in Taipei, or even other cities, of what it was like to come of age there in that particular environment, and yet the specificity of such experiences made the themes of the film all the more resonating. As many have said before, if you want to be more universal in storytelling, be more specific.


‘Yi Yi’ is a film that is so full of life, although it portrays characters who are stuck in something that they cannot fully describe, trying to escape the ennui of daily life, the spontaneity of urban life, and to find a meaning amidst the chaos. Fear occupies the many characters that drive these stories; the fear of missing out, the fear of not living their best possible life, and as the Japanese video game programmer Ota wisely described in the film, the fear of the first time.

At the same time, these feelings of emptiness are shared by the characters in the film, and portrayed through the screen are the parallels of life that exist between the family members, especially in the sequence where the lost love encounter of NJ and his daughter Ting-Ting’s first love encounter are juxtaposed with each other. The lonesome images that are imbued through the screen may be seen to reflect the idea that although all of the lives of the characters, and ostensibly our own, may be separate, the universality of our experiences cannot escape us.


It is a coming of age film for everyone at any age, that extends even towards the twists and tribulations of our lives that we hardly understand, as we can’t even see the back of our own heads. NJ’s little son Yang-Yang asks “I can’t see what you see, and you can’t see what I see, so how can I know what you see?” NJ responds: “That’s why we need a camera.”


This is reminiscent of the last lines in ‘Chekhov’s Three Sisters’, “Oh if we could only know!”. It reminds us that despite this, despite our inability to see the whole picture, we are forced to confront the complexities of life, as if we have done it before. If we could see everything, why would we need other people? What would we show them? What would we talk to them about? Perhaps showing people photographs of the backs of their heads is how we find enjoyment while we’re here existing together, despite our many flaws and mistakes.


Perhaps that’s why we pick up the camera and make movies.


The boyfriend of Ting-Ting’s neighbour Fatty tells Ting-Ting: “My uncle says we live three times as long now since man invented movies”, to which he replies: “How can that be?”. “It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life”. Movies make our lives that much richer. This film is no exception.