Let’s be upfront about this: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two is a masterpiece. It was a masterpiece when it was released in 2001, it was a masterpiece when Criterion released it on DVD in 2005 and it’s a slightly prettier masterpiece now that they released it on Blu-Ray on March 15.
Yi Yi is Yang’s most beautiful and touching film, an emotionally complex visual poem of the struggles of a family in Taipei after Granny (Ru-Yun Tang) falls into a coma. “The spark that led me to make this film was I decided that I was going to make a film about life, from birth to death,” he told Michael Berry in 2002 for Berry’s book, Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers.
Breaking that lifespan down into three generations of a family allowed Yang to tell the story in a more manageable way, framing it around three family events, and allowed the normally conservative Yang to become the most playful he’s ever been with his cinematic space – a necessity for the film’s youngest star, the inquisitive, introspective eight-year-old son, Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), to come to life.
Unlike many other Taiwanese films, the narrative in Yi Yi is not bogged down by a deluge of Taiwan’s tumultuous political and cultural history. The characters live and breathe in their own time, in their own way, and get into their own trouble without the help of the Kuomintang. Yang’s teasing camera, along with the film’s universal themes of love, regret and death allow it to become Yang’s – and probably Taiwanese cinema’s – most accessible film. “It’s not death I’m interested in here, it is life,” he told Berry. “In life, you have to go through these things to test your own boundaries. Sometimes it is only when we are faced with loss that we truly appreciate how sacred life is.”
In some ways, it’s what Band of Outsiders is to the rest of Jean-Luc Godard’s work: A wonderful gateway drug that leads you to chase the sensation again, and the deeper you dig, the harder you have to work for it. But unlike some of Godard’s material, Yang’s work is always worth the doing.