Edward Yang's epic is a subtle and quietly affecting exploration of the emotional crises faced by a middle class Taipei family. The three hour running time might seem overlong, but it gives its characters time to breathe and doesn't restrict them and also allows Yang to seamlessly weave between the issues each member of the family faces. Compare this to a similar film that was made at around the same time; Sam Mendes' 'American Beauty'. This explores many of the themes that Yang's film does (dissatisfaction, adultery, emotional breakdown) but without any of the subtlety, relying on more sensationalist plot developments to try to make its point. I've always considered Mendes' film, despite its commercial and critical success, to be overrated and trying too hard to make its point. Seeing 'Yi Yi', this has only reinforced my position. There's no question which is the better and more emotionally affecting film.
NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) is a businessman whose electronics company is facing financial difficulties, seeking a deal with a Japanese games maker in a bid to save the company. At the wedding of his wife's brother, he meets an old girlfriend, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). Having not seen her in nearly thirty years since he abandoned her, this chance meeting throws his life into chaos, forcing him to ask questions about his comfortable life as it current exists and also to wonder whether it's too late to start again and what if he'd stayed with Sherry. NJ's wife, Min Min (Elaine Jin) is experiencing an emotional breakdown and visits a mountain retreat of dubious nature. Their children, Ting Ting (Kelly Lee) is having her first lessons in love, and Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang) is constantly teased by classmates and finds himself in trouble at school. The family grandmother has a stroke which leaves her in a coma, which confuses and worries the children.
Starting with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Yang packs in every aspect of human life in between. Although it doesn't satirise the entire bourgeois lifestyle like 'American Beauty' (which was heavy-handed in any case), it does focus on dissatisfaction. At the start of her breakdown, Min Min realises "my life is a blank" and "what am I doing every day?". She feels she has little to show for her life and is desperately unhappy. We don't see that much tenderness between her and NJ. Whether this is a marriage that has been having problems for a while, we can only speculate. That might explain NJ's readiness to seek out the possibilities with Sherry. However, as the Japanese software designer whom NJ meets, explains "we never live the same day twice", and as Ting Ting's boyfriend suggests "life is a mixture of happy and sad things". 'Yi Yi' is not just a downbeat look at middle class life. It also considers the richness and possibilities of life and contains much humour - the tricks Yang Yang and his friends play, the scene caused between the wife of Min Min's brother and his ex-lover at a class reunion, etc. Yang doesn't settle for lazy resolutions and too much sentiment. 'Yi Yi' is a balanced and confident look at life at the turn of the millennium and unfortunately was to be the final film he made before succumbing to cancer. Most of Yang's films are unavailable on DVD, which hopefully might be addressed soon. 4/5