Monday, November 28, 2011

CLASSICS: Yi Yi (2001)


It always frustrates me when a highly regarded film just doesn’t click with me, mostly because I can’t help but ascribe some portion of it to my own lack of competence as a viewer. I’m not terribly well-schooled when it comes to film, but I like to believe that I’m working towards an increasing lack of ignorance. I also generally believe that film is a medium that’s always accessible on some level, and that you should never need secret or specialized knowledge to parse a film. So it’s somewhat unnerving when something so widely lauded falls flat and lacks any resonance for me, because it either means my assumptions about the medium are false, or that I’m just simply on a vastly different wavelength than most viewers.

I’m not talking about Yi Yi actually, but Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. I continue to read about the rich humanity and depth of emotion in Ozu’s films, but fail to see it for myself. Barring the possibility that I’m an emotionless robot, I have to chalk this up to my own taste. I see humanity through a character’s actions and words, not simply by their presence on screen. And while the old couple in Tokyo Story seemed perfectly nice and almost preternaturally gentle, I didn’t empathize with them any more than I would an acquaintance’s grandparents. I appreciate the technical aspects of the film: the frame focused on a room through which characters enter and exit as if they aren’t aware they’re being watched, the face-on dialogue shot as if you’re conversing with the characters. Still, even these techniques, which should have enhanced the realism of the film, just couldn’t pull me out of my apathy.

Back to Yi Yi. It’s a similar film in a lot of ways - focusing on an ordinary middle-class family in the midst of the minor tragedies and victories of life which seem momentous in scale only for the ones directly experiencing them. Both films focus on a family forced to confront a death juxtaposed against the otherwise boring pace of real life. Both focus on the insecurities and fears each character possesses which manifest in the shortcomings of their behavior. As in Tokyo Story, we encounter these characters in the midst of everyday life - in medias res for the story of their lives, and leave them just as they’ve started to comprehend their own plights.

What makes Yi Yi different for me is that the people we see are fully realized - as flawed as they are good, but always aspiring to be better. They’re not as one-dimensional as the neglectful family or the saintly grandparents in Tokyo Story, but fleshed out people, fully intending to live up to their personal ideals, but without the courage or motivation to always follow through on them.

The English title for Yi Yi is “A one and a two…” and it’s appropriate, given the slow rhythm of ordinary life that drives the film’s narrative. We don’t have large emotional arcs or slow climbs towards drama here, just the gentle ebb and flow of happiness and disappointment along with the cycles of yearning for what might have been and appreciation for what is. It’s a form that filmmakers usually don’t choose to capture, but one that’s immediately resonant when it works. The closest recent thing that comes to mind in comparison is the musical structure of the movements within The Tree of Life. If you’re a fan of that film and have got the time to sit down uninterrupted for about three hours, I’d recommend checking this one out.

8.5 / 10 = See it

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