Film Notes: YI YI: A ONE AND A TWO...

7 p.m. Thursday, September 22, 2022
Humanities Quadrangle, Room L01 (320 York)
Introduction and Film Notes by Brian Meacham

Written and directed by Edward Yang (2000) 173 mins)
Cinematography by Wei-han Yang
Produced by Pony Canyon Films
Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Issei Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Cheng Chen, and Su-Yun Ko

“It’s a story about individuals. The film is my observation—indeed, my belief—that everyone in the world is equal. It’s a kind of idealism. But I put it in a very human way. It’s not too deep or philosophical.” —Edward Yang on YI YI

Internationally acclaimed as one of the greatest films of the 21st century, Edward Yang’s YI YI stands as the crowning achievement—and final film—of a filmmaker whose career lasted less than twenty years. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, Yang was awarded Best Director and the film itself was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, and its stature has only grown since.

Edward Yang, born in Shanghai in 1947 and raised in Taipei, didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. Yang’s decision to try his hand at filmmaking sprang from an unlikely series of events: he received a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Florida in 1974, and then decided to attend film school at USC. After one semester there, disillusioned with its focus on commercial Hollywood fare, Yang dropped out, recalling, “I realized I didn’t have any talent at all. I didn’t have what it takes to get into the film business, so I dropped out. I recognized that I better not dream this dream because I didn’t have what it takes.”

Yang followed his family to Seattle, where he found a job at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Cinema was never far from this mind, though; while designing navigation technology for U.S. military submarines by day, Yang watched films at night, with his directorial dreams still on the back burner. One night, he caught a repertory screening of Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, DER ZORN GÖTTES, which convinced him to pursue work in the field once more. His first chance came when a friend asked him to write a script, which became the film THE WINTER OF 1905, directed by Wei-Cheng Yu, starring legendary director Tsui Hark, and released in 1981. As Yang often said, seeing Herzog’s film “turned me around.”

While making his second feature film, TAIPEI STORY (1985), Yang also began crafting the script for what would eventually become YI YI, fifteen years later. He credited Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan with encouraging him to return to his script after many years, having lived enough to feel that he was ready to make the film. “I owe a debt to Stanley Kwan,” Yang noted, explaining that a conversation they shared about the way a death in the family can set off a chain-reaction spurred him to revisit his dormant script, where the matriarch’s illness has the same effect.

Another inspiration for Yang’s story was his lead actor: the role of NJ is played by Wu Nien-jin, the prolific and acclaimed screenwriter and director whose skill in front of the camera came to light when he was cast in a series of beer and food commercials. “If he hadn’t been around, I probably wouldn’t have started writing the story,” Yang noted.

Yang’s ambitious exploration of the problems facing a multi-generational family received acclaim as an intimate epic, a sprawling film with a nearly three-hour running time that still feels clearly focused on a small group of characters, exceptional in their un-exceptionalness. As Yang told an interviewer in 2001, ”It’s basically a story about people. This time it’s not so much about city life or what’s going on in Taipei. It’s about human beings, about some simple lives. I’ve focused on things that happen to a family—about how the individual members react and respond to things that happen to the others. It’s a simple slice of life from the 20th century.”

Edward Yang died just short of his sixtieth birthday at his home in Beverly Hills, California, in June, 2007.

DID YOU KNOW: At the time of his death, Edward Yang was preparing THE WIND, an ambitious animated martial arts feature co-produced with Jackie Chan. Yang had completed a sketchbook of 56 conceptual drawings for the project shortly before his death.

Presented in the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

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Monday, April 10, 2023 - 1:46pm