Yi Yi (Blu-ray)
Directed by Edward Yang
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 173 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mandarin/English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 15, 2011
Review Date: March 4, 2011
A wonderfully detailed slice-of-Taiwanese-life, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi proves the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We may be in a foreign locale, and the centuries may be changing, but life goes on much as it always has done: little girls still pick on little boys and little boys get their revenge, teenagers still have messy and complicated introductions to sexual feelings and deal with them in unpredictable ways, lost loves sometimes return in vain attempts to recapture former rapture, children are born, people get married, and sometimes people die. It’s all a part of the fabric of life, and writer-director Edward Yang captures it beautifully with sympathetic restraint and a notable lack of melodrama but always with a meticulous attention to detail. It’s hard not to believe that these are real people living out their lives with a camera eavesdropping on special moments in the lives of at least a half dozen major characters.
NJ Jian (Nienjen Wu) is having a series of midlife crises not only with himself but also with all of the members of his immediate family. On the day of his brother’s (Xsisheng Chen) wedding to his visibly pregnant fiancé (Shushen Xiao), his mother-in-law must endure a noisy scene from his brother’s ex-girl friend (Xinyi Zeng) and asks to be taken home. Later in the day, she has a stroke and sinks into a coma, which sends his wife (Elaine Jin) into a nervous breakdown eventually fleeing the family apartment for a spiritual renewal in the mountains. Teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and eight-year old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) are left quite a bit on their own since NJ is also dealing with the near-collapse of his computer software company meeting with a formidable Japanese software executive (Issey Ogata) in Tokyo where his first love (Suyun Ke) from thirty years ago unexpectedly turns up. Ting-Ting becomes involved as an interested third party in the romantic conundrums of her friend Lili (Adrian Lin) and her introspective boy friend Fatty (Yupang Chang). Precocious tyke Yang-Yang spends his time investigating the world including the workings of a camera, retaliation on a group of young girls who constantly pester him, and learning the basics of swimming completely unassisted though a series of youthful experiments.
What a pleasure it is to watch a domestic comedy-drama with so many characters but completely lacking in the soap opera melodramatics of typical American dramatic fare. Sure, there are some hyperbolic hysterics from the young mother when confronted with her husband’s bitchy former girl friend, but it’s all done for comic effect, and it plays wonderfully. So do all of these scenes with the endearing little tyke Yang-Yang from his early refusal to eat wedding food (his dad lovingly takes him to McDonalds for a Happy Meal) to his experiments with balloons both in and out of the water. His photographic efforts seem weird, too, until he explains to his uncle in language so innocently childlike what he’s trying to capture with his camera. Yang stages a superb counterpoint sequence where the father with his first love and his daughter with her first love explore their respective cities’ nightly attractions, and while Yang for some strange reason drops the motif before bringing it to its logical conclusion (their evenings are eerily concentric), it’s a marvelous idea in conception if not in exacting execution.
Nienjen Wu is one of Taiwan’s most respected screenwriters, and yet he is perfect casting as NJ, a man of honor who often sacrifices his own desires for what others expect of him. He and Issey Ogata as the worldly, understanding Japanese software executive have a very special on-screen chemistry (since neither man speaks the other’s language, they both speak English to the other) that makes all of their scenes together something terrific. Xsisheng Chen is consistently over-the-top as the black sheep brother while Shushen Xiao as his wife matches him utterly in demonstrative emoting. Kelly Lee is delicate but perhaps just a bit too quiet as the timid Ting-Ting while her potential boy friend Fatty (the ironically slim Yupang Chang) likewise internalizes his feelings through most of the movie though when a emotional explosion does occur, he handles it expertly.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Surprisingly for a decade-old film, sharpness is only above average and not really exemplary here. Long shots are particularly soft. There are some scenes where weaker contrast leads to a more digital, less film-like image, and there are moments where tight line structures twitter just a bit. Color saturation is nicely achieved, and flesh tones appear natural. Black levels are quite good. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 31 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix features excellent spread through the soundfield. Dialogue has been nicely recorded for the most part (some of the English spoken by Wu and Ogata is sometimes a bit quiet and not easily discernible), and it’s sometimes directionalized for maximum impact. Music and selected sound effects are also handled with care and blend well together.
The audio commentary is actually a conversation between writer-director Edward Yang and Asian film expert Tony Rayns. Rayns wisely asks the director a series of questions about the film as it runs which keeps conversation flowing and comments on point as the lengthy film unspools. The only negative is that the background sound of the film is often too loud and interferes with completely understanding what the two men are saying.
A video interview with critic Tony Rayns finds the cinematic expert discussing the history of Taiwanese cinema from the mid-1950s through the current day with the country having its own New Wave of filmmakers which includes a mini-critique of Yi Yi. Presented in 1080i, this featurette runs 15 ¼ minutes.
The theatrical trailer runs 2 minutes in 1080i.
The enclosed 21-page booklet contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, some vivid color stills from the movie, a critical appraisal of the picture by author Kent Jones, and notes on the film by its writer-director Edward Yang.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is an engrossing comedy-drama which puts the lives of its half dozen protagonists in a clearly focused, masterfully directed venture that’s most entertaining. (The director won the top directing prize at Cannes for this film.) The bonus feature package may seem a little slim by Criterion standards, but what’s here is very worthwhile. Recommended!