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Thereís a palpable directorial force that permeates every scene in Yi-Yi (A One and a Two), not the overbearing force of the "invisible protagonist" that the late Pauline Kael once attributed to auteurs like Bergman, but something infinitely more gentle. One hesitates to call it a "force" at all. Like his movie, Edward Yang, the screenwriter and director, is a serene giant, at once formidable in size, but soft spoken to the point of self-effacement. Watching his movie, one gets the impression that Yang is everywhere and nowhere. His movie isnít autobiographical, but every scene is realized with such precision that they could only come from snippets of Yangís own life. If this is true, then Yang has accomplished that most courageous thing, to have mined his life of memories, both painful and joyous, and to have given them over completely to his actors, and eventually, the viewers. Itís an act of pure generosity.

I met Yang briefly during last yearís New York Film Critics awards dinner which I was attending as a guest and Yang was attending as a winner (for Best Foreign Language Film). Unfettered by the scores of assistants who attend to the larger cinematic luminaries, Yang was free to roam, which he did, often in silence. Standing over six feet tall with a mess of greying hair, he seemed vaguely paternal and professorial: heís the type of person you think is daydreaming but who unexpectedly chimes in with the sharpest remark of the evening. I donít remember his acceptance speech, and our brief exchange consisted of nothing but a few pleasantries, but he was by far the most memorable person there that evening. His presence was entirely non-verbal. When I congratulated him on his award, he flashed a big smile and nodded but said nothing. Maybe he was embarrassed, or maybe he was concealing his annoyance. Either way, his silence was heavy with something. It made you more curious about him; you werenít content just to be silent with him, you leaned in closer and closer.

Itís no surprise that Yi-Yi is filled with similar stretches of silence, characters staring at each other, or away from each other, too shy or confused to say anything. Viewing the movie on DVD, these moments feel particularly pronounced as if the shrinking of the image from big screen to television has enhanced our aural response to it. We arenít impatient with the silence, rather, like with Yang, we lean in for more. The scene where NJ (Wu Nianjian), a family man living in modern day Taipei, meets his high school girlfriend Sherry for the first time in twenty years is packed with details all of which remain unspoken. At first there is surprise as Sherry steps out of the elevator and nearly bumps into NJ. They stare at each other, paralyzed by each others presence. Yang holds this for awhile, letting the awkwardness play itself out. Slowly the paralysis melts and they allow themselves to smile. They donít dare touch each other, but something does pass between them. The moment is over before they can say more than a few words to each other, and yet what just occurred, the way they looked at each other, their stances, and yes the silence between them contains a wealth of communication. Much later in the movie, NJ and Sherry share a train ride together and again they are quiet. This time, they are looking away from each other, not in hostility, but in contemplation of the life they could have had together. We donít know precisely what they are thinking, the exact thoughts in their heads, and we donít have to know. We know enough about them to fill in the blanks with our own projections.

Yangís commentary on the DVD focuses almost exclusively on his actors. They are without question his most important collaborators, and his working relationship with them is familial. Yang heaps praise on them, and you get the impression that working with him was a gentle, nurturing process. One actor whose contributions to the movie were often overlooked by critics when it was first released is Issey Ogata, who plays Mr. Ota, a Japanese computer game manufacturer. Ota and NJ meet several times throughout the movie (NJís company wants to acquire Otaís); their conversations, conducted in English, are so honest and direct, we forget that they are businessmen trying to strike a deal. "Why are we afraid of Ďthe first timeí?" Ota asks. "Every day is a Ďfirst timeí." Ota is unconventional; heís like that boss or co-worker or classmate whom everyone thought was weird but whom you knew was on to something. "How can we begin to understand computers when we havenít fully understood ourselves?" he asks at one point. These are Yangís own beliefs, as he explains in the audio commentary, and much of what Ota says are the ideas that Yang developed during his years as a software developer in Seattle during the Ď70s and that he later refined when he established himself as a filmmaker in the Ď80s and Ď90s. That Ota feels like more than just a talking head is thanks to Ogata, a stand-up comic in Japan, whose performance isnít a performance but more of a solo act or monologue that serves as moral anchor and voice of reason.

Otaís perspective on life, like Yangís, is one of detached observation. He looks but doesnít get involved. He is above it all, not in a snobby way, but the way in which a benevolent deity might observe lifeís activities with equal parts pleasure and pity. Much of Yi-Yi is filmed in long shots, where characters are reduced to tiny figures against the urban backdrop. "There are two kinds of shots," explains Yang, "the one where you are a part of the action and one where you are watching the action." In choosing the latter, Yang is betting that we are involved enough in his characters that our interest can withstand such distances. His method is similar to Ozuís (a comparison which Yang quickly dismisses) in that the specifics of life arenít important so much as the tempo and the rythym of it. Even the close-ups are shot as parts of a larger whole: Yang often frames his faces in a window or through a piece of glass on which panoramic views of the city are reflected. The resulting shots feel multi-dimensional. The faces exist separate from and as part of the larger city. The individual still exists but he or she is only a small part of Life, its ebbs and flows, its recurring patterns and its evolutionary jolts.

What makes Yi-Yi feel so much like real life is its sense of humor. Itís not the ironic humor that dominates mass entertainment today, but a kind of gentle human comedy which, when properly executed, can be infinitely more effective. There are several scenes designed expressly to make you laugh (a baby-shower that degenerates into a fist fight is one of them), but instead of alternating comedy with drama, Yang opts to give every scene a vaguely comic touch. We donít laugh so much as smile with recognition. The scenes with NJís eight-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) are funny because they are so perceptive, because they capture childhood with such honesty that we canít help but laugh. As he discovers the physical world around him, and even a first love, we sense that he might be a gifted child and this intelligence saves him from being just another cute kid. The other characters, from NJís daughter and wife, to his extended family of cousins and in-laws, all have comic scenes as well, and when we find ourselves laughing at them, it is usually out of pity or empathy, never derision. Itís a difficult kind of humor to get right because it requires time and patience, and in making a long movie (it runs close to 3 hours), Yang creates enough breathing room so that we can find humor in the smallest things. One critic stated that Yi-Yi has the feel of "great television," and watching the movie on the small screen, you can feel the characters grow on you the way the characters of a long-running television series do. We get to know them slowly at first, but then everything about them becomes familiar and we look forward to spending time with them each week. Mixing humor, silence, and deep philosophy, Yang has created a kind of extended family for us, a family we can revisit endlessly.

 


Yi-Yi is now available on DVD from Winstar Video. Suggested retail price: $24.98. For more information, check out the Winstar Video Web site.