Shuffling through the photos that were taken by his 8-year-old son, a father notices that every single one focuses on the back of a person’s head. When the boy is asked about it later, he offers an explanation of both childlike logic and aged wisdom: people can’t see the backs of their heads, so he’s helping them.
This is what Yi Yi does for all of us. Written and directed by Edward Yang (A Brighter Summer Day), the movie patiently chronicles a year in the life of an extended, middle-class Taipei family. We see what they can’t, until the moving final half hour, when sobering self-knowledge begins to sink in. Nothing that occurs is out of the realm of ordinary experience—there is a wedding, a grandmother’s stroke, money troubles, a funeral—yet it all reverberates with meaning because of the camera’s careful attention and the sensitive performances by every actor in the ensemble cast.
Just when you think that one of these family members—say, Ting-Ting, the teen daughter (Kelly Lee)—is going to be relegated to a peripheral role, Yi Yi pauses to spend some significant time with them. Even a comic brother-in-law (Xisheng Chen) eventually receives a fuller arc. True, little Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) and his father, NJ (Nianzhen Wu), are probably the twin focal points—Yang-Yang’s restless curiosity balancing out his father’s weariness—but never at the expense of other characters. Yi Yi has space for everyone.
Literally. Yang prefers static long shots that in some cases allow for large groups to fill the frame. Mostly, though, they’re used to place a figure or two in a particular, carefully arranged environment. This allows for some gorgeous compositions—at the wedding, Yang-Yang and a handful of servers in white offer a striking contrast to the backdrop of red curtains and pink balloons. At other times, the setting provides wry commentary on the action, as when Ting-Ting and a tentative new boyfriend meet at a busy intersection, the stop lights behind them flickering from green to yellow to red as an acknowledgement of the tenuousness of their relationship.
In that final half hour, Yi Yi delivers a tiny flourish of magical realism that opens the emotional floodgates. (I won’t spoil it.) Whether we read this as a dream, a premonition, or a visitation, the result is the same. In that moment, Yang is pointing his camera at a dimension we normally can’t see, to help us better understand the one in which we live.