Yi Yi is an elegantly constructed portrait of a family in Taipei in the 1990s. It is bookended by a wedding, at which the family matriarch takes ill, and a funeral, at which the family commemorates her death. In between, we witness the characters and the emotional mysteries that they confront—NJ, the quiet, frustrated father; Yang Yang, his inquisitive son; Ting Ting, his teenage daughter, pulled between her neighbor and her neighbor’s boyfriend. Even the minor characters are memorable. NJ’s avaricious brother-in-law who is paralyzed by negative astrological projections provides levity and despair in equal measure. Mr. Ota, NJ’s business partner to-be, represents the humility and quietude that NJ aspires to. Shirley, NJ’s lover from their youth, the reckless and bold love that he cannot attain.
Visually, Yang builds on the glass canvas of Taipei’s skyscrapers, using reflections to express the emotional distance between characters as they speak to each other. The limits of communication are apparent throughout. NJ is constantly interrupted by the incipient technology of cellphones and pagers. Ting Ting can hardly speak to Fatty, her neighbor’s boyfriend to whom she grows attached. She conveys his letters to her neighbor on his behalf, before they strike up a futile and short-lived romance. The family can barely bring themselves to speak to their comatose grandmother. When they do so, they seek guidance or redemption.
At the heart of the film is the unfulfilled romance between NJ and Shirley. After running into each other at the wedding that opens the film, they renew the flirtation of their youth from 30 years before. Then, NJ had abandoned her. Now, their persistent love is a source of joy and escape from the mundane features of their lives in middle age. When NJ goes to Japan for work, Shirley travels from Chicago to be with him. Slowly, the persistence of their love is countered by the equally persistent flaws that characterized it in their youth—namely, NJ’s fear and tentativeness. Shirley shares none of NJ’s reservations and, in a reversal of their youth, abandons him in Tokyo.
The film is measured throughout, only breaking out of its delicate emotional rhythm when it is revealed that Fatty has murdered the man that was also seeing Ting Ting’s neighbor. Even then, the news is delivered over a distancing television broadcast. The revelation is subsumed by the other, more resonant encounters that fill out this tender film. Yi Yi relishes the possibility of joy and connection that lingers in every human relationship, even when it is so rarely consummated and so often destroyed.