Looking back at what I've written in this series over the past few weeks, I noticed that for a month now, I've only reviewed black-and-white movies: happy ones, sad ones, violent ones, funny ones, American ones, foreign ones: all very good and all monochromatic. It was time for what we sober types in the business call a "colorgasm" picture. Or at least, that's what I call them.
While it might not have the candy colors of a Technicolor fantasy, the late Edward Yang's Yi yi fits the bill nicely. I am of course aware that I'm the last person in the world to see this film, so let's please just move past that part.
Since color is what made me watch the film, it's fitting that color should be such a good entry point into what makes it tick. One of the defining visual elements of Yi yi is its reduced palette; not in some overarching way where only five colors are used in the entire movie or anything like that, but in a scene-by-scene and even shot-by-shot way. Basically, each scene in the film is reduced to three or four colors, with reds and yellows much predominating. One needn't go very far into the film to find a good example of all this: at the wedding that opens the narrative, the rooms are all bright red, the decorations are pink, the people are all in black, and from time to time someone walks through a space where a yellow or gold object interrupts the red.
The important thing, however, is not which colors overwhelm the film (and even in the scenes where yellows and golds are not present, the whole film is washed in a golden softness, about which I'll have more to say in just a second), but which colors are used in tiny ways that draw the maximum attention to themselves. A better way to think about the film than a collection reds, yellows, blues & greens is as a collection of warm and cool hues, and taken in that spirit, the visual scheme can be fairly well described as warm scenes with tiny patches of coolness within the frame, patches that are almost always linked with people through color or composition or movement. The color scheme is used, in other words, to emphasise the locations in the film and the humans in the film, particularly in how those two elements do not combine smoothly.
In its most reduced form, the story of Yi yi is about how idealism - particularly idealised memories and idealised concepts of how the world should fit together - don't necessarily fit in a world full of well-meaning but messy human actions. The use of color is a major component of how that theme is explored. Most of the film is bathed in soft yellowness, I mentioned, and that calls to mind vintage photographs, an old album where only nice things are recorded and families always seem to be untroubled and happy. The reality is never that simple, of course, and the film is a study of how one family learns that being human is a bit messier than lovely snapshots and nostalgic glow.
It's all well and good to pick on a specific element of a movie, but Yi yi is more than a beautiful work of color cinematography, and more than a story about humanity. It's about everything, really: formally, it fires on all cylinders. The compositions are as precise as anything in an Ozu film, a fairly trite comparison given how many of them are, like Ozu's work, entirely static. But that's all the farther we can take this, for while Ozu's frame traps his characters in boxes, Yang's film has much more energy and kinesis: people are constantly moving in and out of the shot, back and forth, keeping those precise compositions fluid and alive rather than stately and claustrophobic. The imagery in the film is quite marvelous, from the heart shaped balloons floating around the wedding to a series of photographs snapped by an eight-year-old trying to show adults what the world looks like, to the stunning motif of reflections showing the world around the protagonists, not just the protagonists' world.
That last bit is the important part. Throughout the film, whether its compositionally or narratively or in the extremely well-designed overlapping soundscape, Yi yi is a film about how the whole world exists, not as a series of separate experiences but as one giant flow from moment to moment and place to place. In one case, even the very structure of the film gets in on the act: the opening ten minutes are a free mixture of the events before and during a wedding, cut together in a way that owes more to mood than to storytelling. Events slide into each other such that we might as well watch them blended together.
Nothing in the film happens in a vacuum. It is as much a story of Taipei as it is the story of the Jiang family: NJ (Wu Nien-Jen), a media executive whose company is several steps behind his intelligence, his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin), suffering a spiritual crisis after her mother falls into a coma, their teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), finding her way around first love as she watches the neighbors' lives implode, and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), the young boy who gives the film what might be the closest it has to a dedicated point of view. Other people whose lives cross with the Jiangs' fall into the story as needed.
The acting is across the bar superb, but it's the young Chang who gives the film its center, reading lines in that stilted way that young performers often do, but making up for it with a total lack of candor that can only be found among the very young & innocent. His reading of the film's final line is a truly lovely thing, the most honest moment in a film full of them. Still, it wouldn't do to claim that the rest of the cast isn't work at the highest level: it's a brilliant ensemble working in the quietest mode possible, always seeming like people instead of characters.
In every way, Yi yi works. It's not the same thing as calling it flawless - a lazy and uninteresting term - but rather that every beat and every image and every cut and every note feels like a part of a whole. It is a total movie, the kind that bear comparison to Citizen Kane and the like: nothing is wasted, everything is meaningful, and it doesn't take any more to understand than simply opening your eyes and watching. At one point a character mentions that movies are three times as real as life. I'm not sure I agree with that. But there is a complete richness to Yi yi that makes for a fairly good argument.