Crying during quarantine with Edward Yang: A 20th-anniversary celebration of ‘Yi Yi’

Society & Culture

"Yi Yi" is a movie that seeks to define the truth of our ordinary lives, despite the deceptions we give others and the lies we tell ourselves to survive. This year is the 20th anniversary of director Edward Yang's classic, which remains as relevant as ever.

illustrative depiction of Yi-Yi taking photos of back of people's heads
Illustration by Anna Vignet

My mother is a Chinese immigrant. Like many first-generations, I spent my summers in China. I still associate childhood nostalgia with summers spent abroad. I’d wade through the humid days riding amusement park rip-offs at the playground near my grandfather’s house, visiting Buddhist temples with my extended family, gathering around frog legs and homemade dumplings as an orange dot of sun, barely perceptible through the smog, sunk below the horizon. As expected, my annual summer voyage to China was canceled this summer. This year, there would be no celebrating my grandfather’s birthday. There would be no incense lighting, or jasmine flowers dangling off fish hooks to wear on my clothes as perfume, or rickshaw rides down cobblestone canals. COVID-19 severed a sacred tie between my ordinary world, and my other ordinary world. I don’t just miss these trips, I long for them. I’ve never been nostalgic for things that I knew for certain I could see again. I couldn’t miss things that weren’t gone. Now, with an uncertain future, my nostalgia has grown into an ache, a real discomfort, that has simultaneously been satiated and amplified by certain films.

Yi Yi, (“A One and a Two” in English) was acclaimed filmmaker Edward Yang’s last feature film. It premiered in 2000 at Cannes and won him a jury prize for Best Directing. Twenty years later, the film feels just as prescient, poetic, and indicative of the loneliness, existential angst, and moments of hope found during the time of COVID-19.

The film follows the lives (and sometimes deaths) of the Jians, a middle-class family living in 1960s Taipei. The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral, though these events aren’t milestones or even necessarily exposition and revolution, but punctuations, beginning with a colon and ending with an ellipses into eternity. NJ (Wu Nien-Jen, 吴念真 Wú Niànzhēn), the father, is a disconnected businessman working in a computer software company. He’s subdued his passions to the point that his survival instinct is indifference, with his demeanor most aptly categorized as malaise. His eight-year-old son, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang, 张洋洋 Zhāng Yángyáng), is a precocious boy, the encapsulation of when children are wiser than adults, who NJ longs to be pals with. His older daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee, 李凯莉 Lǐ Kǎilì), is 13, quiet, shy, experiencing an increasingly tumultuous first love. This is a formula for the contemporary domestic drama one might be familiar with from American and French indies, but to call Yi Yi a domestic drama is almost insulting, limiting the philosophical rigor of the story and the mind-blowing revelations of the script, but to call it something more violent or intense would be a full lie. In many ways, the film defies expectations of genre while solidifying its grasp on the quotidian psychology, actions, and longings of people all over the world. So maybe Yi Yi is everything. But that’s just too cliché to be my final stance.

At the beginning, NJ’s mother-in-law suffers a stroke, leaving her in a coma for the remainder of the film. She stays in the apartment, permanently sleeping. The family is instructed to talk to her every day. These one-sided conversations become confessionals, private musings, and exacerbations of the profound loneliness each character endures, even when surrounded by many. These silences might be what spurs the Jians into action, as their own stagnation seems nigh. The grandmother’s silence is both an unsettling specter as well as an apt metaphor to our contemporary passions’ unanswered cries for help, when people online divulge their greatest insecurities, angers, and sadnesses into a seemingly mute void.

NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin, 金燕玲 Jīn Yànlíng), falls into a crisis of faith and identity, believing that her life is “a blank,” and driving her to find solace in a spiritual retreat. We watch as a bunch of monks lead her into a shuttle bus, away from the apartment, from the pain, from the family. Ting-Ting is lost and guilt-ridden because she believes she caused her grandmother’s stroke. She pursues a local bad boy, Fatty (Pang Chang-Yu), who she develops a fascination with after she sees his romance with her next-door neighbor and best friend (if you’ve seen the film, you know the bizarre and eerie fate of Fatty, but its senselessness perfectly plays into the very real normal, randomness of life). By coincidence, NJ encounters his first love, Sherry (Ke Su-Yun, 柯素云 Kē Sùyún), at the initial wedding; nostalgia, the what-could’ve-been thoughts, lead NJ to contact Sherry. It’s implied that NJ jilted Sherry, something neither of them have been able to completely get over or understand. They later meet on a work trip in Japan, where NJ has developed a genuinely exciting friendship with Mr. Ota (Issei Ogata), the head of a successful software company. Mr. Ota radiates an internal joy and challenges NJ’s apathy with humor and wisdom.

Sherry and NJ spend sprawling days and nights under technicolor lights, by the calming sea, sharing existential musings and good whiskey with Mr. Ota. They talk in-depth about their families, their current lives, always returning to how they lost each other. It’s a beautiful escape into one’s first love that is as depressing as it is wistful. The question isn’t, Will they cheat, but, How will they survive after opening up this old love? How can you survive after knowing so much more about yourself than you ever wanted to?

But Yi Yi is not misery upon misery; it is hope, lust, contempt, joy, told through characters that maintain a grounded curiosity and tenderness despite devastations and betrayals. The pain comes from two sides: knowing too much and not knowing anything at all. And maybe this pain is what triggered my nostalgia while watching the film. Seeing the tropical atmosphere of Taipei that is so similar to my mother’s green and lush hometown of Suzhou, the lively streets of Tokyo, where I also have family, struck me as so familiar, even as I was thousands of miles and months away from these lands I could so vividly smell, see, feel. I had the thought, This is my life too. And for many, Asian or not, there has been a similar feeling of knowing these lives intimately.

This child-like longing is carried out through the film and best understood via Yang-Yang, who serves as the viewer’s most relatable inquisitor into the basics of who, what, why, where, how. Yang-Yang takes up photography as a respite from the bullying he endures at school and the painful unending silence at home. Yang-Yang, a clear stand-in for Edward Yang as a child, is desperate to find answers in a world that is ungenerous with clarity. So the boy takes pictures of things people often miss. He spends a whole roll taking flash photos of mosquitos. Another time, he takes a full roll of the back of people’s heads, including one of his father. His reasoning: no one will ever be able to see the back of their heads themselves.

Yang-Yang: Daddy, you can’t see what I see and I can’t see what you see. So how can I know what you see?

N.J.: Good question. I never thought of that. That’s why we need a camera. Do you want one to play with?

Yang-Yang: Daddy, can we only know half of the truth?

N.J.: What? I don’t get it.

Yang-Yang: I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind. So I can only know half of the truth, right?

The film is a search to define the truth of our ordinary lives, despite the deceptions we give others and the lies we tell ourselves to survive. And the film never totally succeeds at an ultimate truth, which is the beauty of the story. Because to make a film about ultimate truth would mean an incorporation of every subjectivity possible. So perhaps the most profound not knowing is tied to loneliness. That relationship at least seems to have truth to it now. For months we’ve been stuck inside, unable to know for sure what is actually happening in other countries, in other cities, what data is correct, what masks actually work, even the likelihood of our tests being unpredictable. This has left us screaming into the void, not only, What do we do, but, Who are we now and who are we supposed to be?

What do we turn to when we don’t have each other? How do we live a full life? This is best answered by Fatty. On his first official date with Ting-Ting, the couple goes to an NY Bagel restaurant of all places, where he muses on his love of cinema:

Fatty: Life is a mixture of happy and sad things. Movies are so lifelike — that’s why we love them.

Ting-Ting: Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live.

Fatty: My uncle says we live three times as long since man invented movies.

Ting-Ting: How can that be?

Fatty: It means movies give us twice what we get from daily life.

If Edward Yang were still alive, perhaps he’d tell us that this time is so desperately confusing and lonely and there is no complete remedy. To be with others is to be closer to a whole truth. So what do we do in the meantime? Find solace, graze the boundaries of answers, in the art that has always sought to connect and understand us. Within the search for truth, there will always be immense pain, and the reward of immense beauty.

Yi-Yi is streaming on Criterion Collection.