December 7–14, 2000
Round and Round
Directed by Edward Yang
A Winstar release
You expect a film that lasts nearly three hours to aim for grandeur, to be a brash aesthetic salvo like Breaking the Waves, or a self-conscious epic like Titanic. What you don’t expect is a film of such self-effacing humility as Yi Yi (A One and a Two). Edward Yang’s Kieslowskian melodrama is a quiet and subtle film, one whose power has ample time to creep up on you.
Set in Taipei, Yi Yi follows a host of characters, most related by blood or marriage, and all at a point in their lives where they’re forced to re-evaluate who they are and what they do. That’s as true for NJ (Wu Nienjen), the middle-aged businessman who’s confronted with the possibility of reviving a relationship with the high school love he hasn’t seen in 30 years, as it is for his eight-year old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who develops a habit of photographing the backs of people’s heads as a way of trying to show them what they normally can’t see.
From its title (which literally translates as "One One") to the use of repetitive character names (in addition to Yang-Yang, there’s Min-Min, Ting-Ting, Li-Li and Yun-Yun), Yang’s film conveys a softly comic sense of life’s persistent cycles, our Sisyphian quest to solve once and for all those conundrums which we must forever go on solving. As NJ, whose wife has checked into a spiritual retreat to deal with the stroke that has left her mother in a coma, recalls the details of his doomed high school romance, Yang shows us NJ’s daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) engaging in her own doomed flirtation, tentatively holding hands with her next-door neighbor’s (briefly) ex-boyfriend.
There is, of course, much to be learned along the way. Though it never seems likely NJ will convince his skittish, short-term-minded business partners to back a visionary software designer’s attempts to move video games away from kill counts and flying kicks — they opt to deal with a Taiwanese copycat who specializes in aping the designer’s style — it’s clear the experience of dealing with him enriches NJ, even if we can’t say exactly how. The crassness of NJ’s partners is echoed by the ironically nicknamed Fatty (Yupang Chang), whom Ting-Ting attempts to console when he’s stood up by his girlfriend. At first, he seems to grasp the view that art can expand our experience of life: "We live three times as long since they invented movies," he explains. "Watching movies is like living twice." When Ting-Ting asks him for an example, though, the best he can come up with is murder. Thanks to movies, he tells her, "people now know what it’s like to kill."
That sentiment leads, much later, to one of Yi Yi’s rare conspicuous uses of style, a flash cut from a real act of violence to a simulated one. To explain more would be telling, but suffice it to say that Yang has established such a sedate tone up to that point that a comparatively minor filmmaking trick has the effect of setting off a flash bomb in the theater. It almost jolts you out of the film entirely, but it’s clear the point Yang’s making is a critical one: that art should sensitize us to life, not anesthetize us from it.
That’s as close as Yi Yi gets to an overt statement, and it’s one that’s borne out by the film as a whole. As complex in themes as it is simple in style, Yi Yi is a film made up of connections both explicit and glancing, resonances that both ring and whisper. Part of the special magic of long films is that they force you to adapt to their rhythms, and Yi Yi tells us that life has a rhythm as well, though we are mostly deaf to it. Its characters are perhaps only beginning to hear it, or perhaps remembering what they heard long before. And if we listen closely enough, perhaps we can hear it as well, even after the movie’s over.