The most dispiriting news in all those death-of-cinema screeds from a few years back was that foreign-language films account for less than one percent of all U.S. box-office grosses. Merde. I mean, we of that meager one percent can spend an entire Decalogue debating whether Kiarostami is the equal of Kurosawa, Denis of De Sica, Wong of Wenders, or whatnot, but the hard fact of the matter is that a hundred times more Americans wouldn't know what the hell we were talking about, and probably wouldn't care to know, either. (That said, the number of sold-out shows at U Film's recent world-cinema bonanza gives hope that even a modest amount of promotional exertion could boost that figure to a whopping two percent.) Aside from the global consequences of such willful isolationism (including the question of what our president could learn from witnessing, say, China's economic revolution as portrayed in the epic Platform), this cinephobia presents a major problem if we in the one-percent society wish to continue enjoying the likes of Yi Yi (A One and a Two...), a Taiwanese movie whose unmistakably universal themes and near-unanimous critical acclaim couldn't bring it to town any sooner than a year after its world premiere in Cannes.
As it happens, the imperialism of Western mainstream culture is among the many incidental subjects of Yi Yi, a heartfelt and involving family drama to which even the most subtitle-wary moviegoer could relate--being that it's principally about, as the saying goes, birth, school, work, and death. Though that account might make the film sound about as cheerful as The Sorrow and the Pity, Yi Yi is actually very funny. Ten minutes in, we see eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang)--the victim of merciless teasing by a group of older girls--sitting sullenly before a plate of food at his uncle's wedding banquet. Nothing will enliven this poor boy or restore his appetite, not even a new "toy" camera that his dad presents for his approval. So what will make the kid happy? Cut to father and son sitting at McDonald's, the boy hungrily scarfing a cheeseburger and flashing a wide smile at Dad, who looks tired and bored, if not depressed by his son's preferences. Consider young Yang-Yang the typical moviegoer who, stuck in a hard-to-swallow Taiwanese drama, convinces Dad to sneak him across the multiplex to American Pie--which he proceeds to devour.
But an odd thing happens to Yang-Yang in the course of Yi Yi: He gets curious about that camera. So while the boy's obnoxious uncle (Chen Xisheng) deals with gambling debts and a less-than-happy marriage to a pregnant wife (Xiao Shushen); and his elderly grandmother (Tang Ruyun) lies in a coma; and his stressed-out mother Min-Min (Elaine Jin) leaves home to meditate for days in a Buddhist monastery; and his repressed father NJ (Wu Nienjen) suffers the Asian economic crisis and a confusing reunion with a childhood sweetheart (Ke Suyun); and his teenage sister Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) jealously eyes her new friend's beau (Yupang Chang); in the midst of all this, Yang-Yang starts taking pictures.
Wearing a Mickey Mouse nightshirt (another totem of the West), the boy snaps flash photos of "mosquitoes" that fail to turn up in the frame, earning backhanded praise from his teacher for making "avant-garde art." Then, wondering whether we go through life knowing only half the truth, seeing what's in front of us but never what's behind, Yang-Yang begins collecting shots of the backs of people's heads. "You can't see it yourself," he tells his uncle, "so I help you." Could there be a clearer definition of the artist's ideal function?
The character's name, Yang-Yang, is an extra cue that he's meant as a surrogate for writer-director Edward Yang--another artist whose work reveals what might otherwise go unnoticed. The virtues of distance and perspective, as they are for fellow Taiwanese auteurs Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai) and Tsai Ming-liang (Vive L'Amour), are crucial to Yang's work, both in his style of keeping the camera at a remove from his characters, and his diverse background prior to becoming a filmmaker. Born in Shanghai and raised in Taipei, Yang earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and his master's in computer design at the University of Florida, whereupon he took a job as a microcomputer and systems designer at a research institute in Seattle.
After seven years there, he returned to Taiwan in the early Eighties to pursue directing, and he has now made nine features, including his Sixties-set teen-gang epic A Brighter Summer Day (1991). In that four-hour masterpiece, as well as in Mahjong (1996), Yang's characteristic theme of alienation emerges from out of terrible violence; in Yi Yi the events are gentler, for the most part, but the point is much the same.
What Yang shows us in his latest film is what his many characters don't seem able to see for themselves: that despite their connections to each other, by blood or acquaintance, their isolation remains profound. (The Chinese title, literally translated, is "One-one," meaning "individually.") Part of the thrill of watching Yi Yi's brisk three hours--which include a wedding, a birth, an attempted suicide, a murder, and a funeral--comes in discovering how the members of this extended family fit together. Discovering how they don't is what gives the film its tragic dimension. Unspooling intertwined strands of a single yarn, Yang allows us to observe, for example, that the father and daughter are both in the throes of first love, but because they never inquire into the details of each other's lives, that revelation is left to each of us alone. In the final scene, one character's deeply felt confession would seem a measure of progress for the film's dysfunctional family; unfortunately, it comes too late for the intended listener to hear.
And who will hear the universal message of Yi Yi, I wonder, besides those relatively few of us who've been waiting a year since Yang won the Best Director award at Cannes? Already the Star Tribune has marshaled its readership by referring to Yi Yi as "one of the two best movies ever to come out of Taiwan" (never mind the entire oeuvres of Hou and Tsai), albeit misattributing the film's yearlong delay to the success of the other--Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, of course. And so be it. If the Strib flippantly links a meditative melodrama to an action blockbuster that's "Taiwanese" mainly by virtue of the source of some of its financing (imagine calling Pearl Harbor and The Golden Bowl "the two best movies ever to come out of America"), maybe it'll encourage some of that 99 percent to venture outside their comfort zone. Which, it turns out, is the universal message of Yi Yi.