by Allan Fish
(Taiwan 2000 173m) DVD1/2
Aka. Yi Yi
Talking to grandma
p Shinya Kawai, Naoko Tsukeda d/w Edward Yang ph Yang Wei-Han ed Chen Bo-Wen m/art Peng Kai-Li
Wa Nien-Jen (NJ Jien), Elaine Jin (Min-Min), Issei Ogata (Mr Ota), Kelly Lee (Ting-Ting), Jonathan Chang (Yang-Yang), Adriane Lin (Li-Li), Chen Hsi-Sheng (Ah-Di), Ko So-Yun (Sherry), Hsiao Shu-shen (Hsiao Yen), Hsin-Yi Tseng (Yun Yun),
Our alphabetical journey now takes a second brief stop, for three hours at least, at the Edward Yang station. It’s the last time we will visit here. Had I listed the film by its original title – by which it is equally well known in the US – it would come much closer to the book’s end which, in some ways, wouldn’t be inappropriate. Yang’s masterpiece is a film about looking back; in fact it’s about looking full stop, but especially, in the mind of the principal character, it’s a ruminative, melancholy work whose levels slowly reveal themselves upon future viewings.
When his mother-in-law has a stroke soon after her son’s wedding and falls into a coma, NJ Jien’s life slowly begins to unravel. His teenage daughter is experiencing love for the first time, his infant son is withdrawing more and more into himself and is only happy when he has his camera with him, while his wife cannot cope with her mother’s coma, and goes away to a mountain retreat for spiritual rest. At around the same time, while trying to drum up business for his flagging computer firm, he meets the first love of his life whom he hasn’t seen in nearly three decades, now married and living in Chicago. The meeting serves to put in focus thoughts about what might have been.
Trying to sum up the film’s overall ambience, and its message, is best achieved when using images and dialogue from the film. Take the opening wedding scene. We know from the fact that we see the large photo of the happy couple placed upside down on a stand that peoples’ lives are about to be turned likewise topsy-turvy. Yet it’s a throwaway euphemistic line made by one woman to describe the fad of marrying when pregnant that captured the essence of the piece without perhaps even realising it. For just as young people have sex before the ticket of marriage, NJ is left to wonder rather whether he caught the wrong bus in the first place. His story is not rather of the one that got away, a subject milked to death in numerous melodramas, but rather the one he let go and the consequences thereof. Only by coming face to face with his one-time love can he come to terms with the emptiness of his current life, and with the apathy that leads people to accept the almost stagnation that comes from conformity.
The second snippet to speak volumes comes very late in the film, when NJ’s young son casually explains why he takes pictures of the backs of people’s heads. It’s because he wants to show people what they themselves cannot see. And just as his camera does that, Yang camera seeks to capture, in a glance, a melancholy sigh or a burst of repressed anger that which other people don’t see. It exists in an elegiac mood of contemplation, illustrated in numerous diverse ways. Whether staring into the bottom of whisky glasses or blankly into windows in McDonalds, glass, and reflective surfaces in general, feature prominently here, and further illustrate the nature of Yang’s vision as he observes people, who, on reaching middle age, realise they, to quote NJ’s wife, are living a blank every day. A mood which reaches out to and into the depths of melancholia and is perfectly caught in the scene of Mr Ota playing ‘Liebestraum’ on the piano in a bar which, likewise, is struggling to survive. To top it all, we get a violent murder and another death which, in its almost transcendental nature, wistfully recalls the epiphanal ending of Dreyer’s Ordet. Superbly directed, written and acted (Nien-Jen and Ogata the stand-outs in a perfect cast), this is a film made for the crossover from 20th to 21st century, filled with regret, remorse and a people crying out inside for some hope, some comfort, speaking into an answer-phone in a deserted office at night.