Earlier this year, amidst the build-up towards the Oscars, the National Society of Film Critics bucked the trend by not awarding their Best Film award to any of the obvious front-runners, "Gladiator", "Traffic", or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Instead, they bestowed the honor on "Yi Yi (A One and a Two)", a little-known Taiwanese film that had earned its director, Edward Yang, the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. With all the hype surrounding the other Taiwanese import, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Yi Yi" had quietly slipped in under the radar. But thanks to the stamp of approval from the National Society of Film Critics (along with Best Foreign Language Film awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association), this multi-layered look at the drama, heartbreak, and simple joys of everyday life has become more widely available to North American moviegoers.
The story focuses on the daily travails of the Jians, a middle-class family with a relatively comfortable living in Taipei. There is the head of the household, software company executive NJ (Wu Nienjen, whose screenwriting credits far outnumber his acting ones), his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin of "Gorgeous"), their teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and his spunky eight-year old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Unfortunately, within the first half-hour of the film, the sedate domestic bliss of the Jian household is quickly unraveled by a number of disasters.
First, NJ's mother-in-law (Tang Ru-yun) suffers a stroke and lapses into a coma, and each family member must spend a few minutes each day talking to her, in the hopes that the stimulation will bring about a full recovery. Unfortunately, they quickly realize they each have very little to say, with the hardest hit being Min-Min, who comes to the realization that her life is a complete 'blank' as she ends up repeating the same empty words to her mother day after day. Sensing a need for some spiritual enlightenment, Min-Min runs off to a Buddhist retreat to reflect and take stock in her life.
At the same time, NJ's software company is running into some serious financial difficulties, and salvation is seen in striking a deal with Japanese software developer Mr. Ota (Issey Ogata). Given that he has the 'most honest face' among all the firm's partners, NJ is sent to negotiate with Mr. Ota, whom he quickly finds to be a valuable confidant. Also, a chance meeting in a hotel elevator with his first love, Sherry (Ke Su-yun), forces NJ to re-examine the decision he made to walk away from her twenty years ago. Though she is married to an American, she still remains heartbroken over NJ, and together, they ponder the possibility of rekindling their long-dormant feelings for one another.
Meanwhile, Ting-Ting has some romantic entanglements of her own to deal with. She finds herself longing for a boy named Fatty (Pang Chang Yu), who also happens to be the boyfriend of her best friend. Finally, Yang-Yang, the most carefree member of the family, spends his days doing whatever strikes his fancy, though he must contend with the incessant teasing of older girls at his school, and the belittling disciplinary measures of his teachers.
Unfolding at a leisurely pace over three hours, "Yi Yi" is a slow-burning meditation on the regrets that haunt us, the doubts that keep us up during the night, and the calamities that often blindside us when we least expect them. As NJ agonizes over whether or not things would have worked out better had he not walked out on Sherry, Ting-Ting is haunted by guilt over her grandmother's coma, which she may have inadvertently caused by neglecting her chores. Similarly, NJ's doubts about running away with Sherry are counterpointed by Ting-Ting's doubts over the viability of her blossoming relationship with Fatty. And true to Yang-Yang's words of wisdom at the end of the film, "If I can't see what you see and you can't see what I see, how can we know more than half the truth", the characters find their aspirations dashed by what they don't know. NJ finds himself betrayed by his partners, who keep him out of the loop on important decisions that impact the negotiations with Mr. Ota, while circumstances beyond Ting-Ting's control result in her heartbreak.
In the end, the film ends up coming full-circle, with the Jian family essentially ending up where they were at the beginning of the film, their dreams and aspirations tempered by the pragmatism of real life. NJ, who has spent much of the time wondering how life might have turned out differently had he not walked out on Sherry, ends up being convinced that things probably would have ended up the same. Meanwhile, Min-Min comes to the realization that her life was just as empty and meaningless at the Buddhist monastery, where the spiritual leader often said the same things to her day after day, making her life no more meaningful than it was before.
Audiences in search of a happy ending may find such a resolution discouraging, as it seems to be a rather fatalistic view-- no matter what you do, no matter what the struggle, things end up the way they end up. This would be the underlying theme, if it were not for the common mistake that each of the characters have made-- instead of looking within or making an effort to create their own happiness, they expect someone else to bring meaning and a sense of fulfillment to their lives. In addition to NJ, Min-Min, Sherry, and Ting-Ting, this misguided philosophy is also evident in the film's supporting characters, such as NJ's brother-in-law (Chen Hsi-sheng), who seeks approval from others by making them think that he has changed his money-squandering ways, without actually addressing the problem itself.
In fact, the only character that seems to grasp this concept is Yang-Yang, a free spirit who does not let anything discourage him from pursuing any crazy idea that gets into his little head, whether it be taking pictures of mosquitoes, investigating the most effective way to fill water balloons, or learning how to hold his breath underwater so that he can meet the girl of his dreams, a strong swimmer. Thus, Yang-Yang serves as the film's ray of hope, as he is too young to have been jaded by experience, never wastes his time agonizing over his choices, and thinks that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.
Part of the charm of "Yi Yi" is found in the earnest performances delivered by the gifted group of actors that Yang has assembled. Wu plays NJ in an appropriately understated manner, as his character is a middle-aged man who seems to be resigned to his fate. Newcomer Kelly Lee is also effective as Ting-Ting, a quiet teenage girl who wishes to say so much, yet can never find the courage to utter the words. Likewise, Ogata is amiable as NJ's business associate and informal spiritual advisor, while Ko acquits herself well as the emotionally volatile Sherry. But top honors would have to go to Chang, whose enthusiastic and charming portrayal of little Yang-Yang steals the show, as well as the hearts of the audience.
The film's three-hour running time, as well as the director's understated style, will certainly test the patience of audiences used to more quickly-paced and boisterous fare, but it is well worth the effort. Resting somewhere between the astute profundity of Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love") and the heartfelt domestic dramas that made Ang Lee famous at home and abroad (such as "Eat Drink Man Woman"), "Yi Yi" is a brilliant blend of bathos and pathos, of comedy and melancholy, that resonates the agony of everyday life, while offering up some answers and a glimmer of hope for the future.