Yi Yi (A One and a Two)
dir.: Edward Yang
NR, 173 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt
The world described by Edward Yang’s Yi Yithe world anyone with a computer and a television belongs to todayseems small, scarcely separated by national and cultural boundaries. Taiwanese kids eat New York bagels, and they hang out at McDonald’s and the downtown megaplex; Japanese and Taiwanese businessmen converse in a common languageEnglish. A phone call is all that’s needed to connect a man in Taipei with a woman in Chicago. And yet the main characters, who share the same apartment, are as remote as moon dwellers. Yi Yi, the Taiwanese movie that won Best Film honors a few months ago from the National Society of Film Critics, is set in modern-day Taipei. But for all it has to say about the hopes and regrets of all human beings, it might as well be a peek inside our own windows.
Yi Yi begins with a wedding, on what the groom insists is the luckiest day of the year. Instead, the event precipitates a string of family crises. The groom’s old girlfriend shows up, wailing; his nephew is picked on by bulliesall little girls. The groom’s brother-in-law, a middle-aged computer entrepreneur named NJ (Wu Nienjen), needs air, so he leaves the reception to buy his young son a burgeronly to run into the boyhood sweetheart he broke up with decades before. As pressures build at homea stroke leaves his mother-in-law in a coma, sending his wife (Elaine Jin) into despairthis chance encounter makes NJ wonder how his life would have turned out if he had married his former flame.
Meanwhile, NJ’s adolescent daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) befriends the girl next door and is drawn into a potentially dangerous first love with her new friend’s ex-boyfriend. The separate stories become part of the same human questfor love, for connection, for proof that our time on Earth hasn’t been wasted. Yet each person’s search blinds him or her to what the others are suffering, which only isolates them more. For all his comic relief, the movie’s wisest figure, in his cryptic way, is NJ’s mischievous 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). He runs around with a camera trying to capture “the other half of the truth”the things people can’t see behind them, because they’re so busy looking straight ahead.
It’s appropriate that the young truth-seeker with the camera is the director’s namesake. I’ve only seen one other film by Edward Yang, a four-hour drama of Taiwanese street gangs in the early 1960s called A Brighter Summer Day, which rivals The Godfather saga or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America for sheer narrative drive and density. With that film Yi Yi shares a fascination with the bonds people seek outside the family, including bonds of tradition and belonging. But the rosy past mourned here is a personal one, not the loss of national identity suffered when Chinese nationalists left the mainland for Taiwan. NJ wants what we all want: to know that the life he gave up wasn’t the one he should have had.
Watching this engrossing family drama, in some ways, is like seeing three back-to-back episodes of an unusually strong TV showin part because TV is the dramatic medium that regularly affords space for ongoing character development and a wealth of subplots. To this, though, the movie adds pleasures that are purely cinematicmainly Yang’s beautifully precise, balanced widescreen compositions. These convey great feeling, even though he often keeps his characters at a distance, photographed in long shots or partially obscured by walls, doorways, or panes of glass. NJ and his family are separated even when they share the frame.
Yet by examining the odd dislocation felt by all of us as life rushes past, Yi Yi reinforces the connections shared by everyone. The setting is contemporary Taipei, but Yang’s concerns are universal: By telling the story of one family, to some degree he tells the story of all families. One of the movie’s saddest characters says that people do three times as much living now, because the movies they watch show them twice as much life. Watching this vibrant and bountiful film, it’s hard to disagree.
The conquest of cool
Prior to MTV, music videos were known as “promotional clips” and were designed to be shown on variety shows and late-night UHF filler programs. When MTV debuted in 1981, some astute critics noted the irony of a network devoted exclusively to “commercials,” but now MTV has gone one step further, largely replacing promotional clips with programs that are essentially advertisements for MTV itself. In just 20 years, the network has created its own hermetically sealed environment, where everything that occurs on air presumes that the home viewer will have spent most of his or her life watching MTV, making memories from inexpressive band interviews and bursts of bleeped profanity.
This is the culture into which Josie and the Pussycats arrives, and from which the movie draws its comedic strength. The writing-directing team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who made the promising but not-quite-all-there high-school party flick Can’t Hardly Wait a few years back, have taken a property based on a cute but bland comic book and animated cartoon from the ‘70s, and have used it as a jumping off point for a riotous spoof on the corporate takeover of teen culture.
Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson play the title rock group, who get signed by venal industry types (played by Parker Posey and Alan Cumming) after a popular boy band named Dujour disappears in a fiery plane crash. The label picks up the Pussycats with the intention of subtly modifying the gals’ sound and image, so as to draw enough of an audience that a secret military-industrial cabal can sneak subaural commercial messages into the band’s punky pop songs.
By a sheer coincidence of real-world pop culture, an episode of The Simpsons had a similar “duping youngsters through today’s hits” plot a few months back, but Josie doesn’t stop at implying that there are sharper points hidden in the shiny hooks of modern Top 40. The film boldly exaggerates the ubiquity of the salesman’s pitch in the culture at large, cramming every space on every wall with logos.
The tone of Josie is all over the map, from satire to comic-book camp to self-referential to exultant, and the times when it’s laugh-out-loud funny only make the times when the comedy falls flat all the more disappointing. The filmmakers also should’ve followed through on the implications of their premise and gotten into the complicity of teens in their own duping. As barbed as some of the jokes arelike the idea that musicians are targeted for death to keep VH1’s Behind the Music in business, or the fact that Dujour’s biggest teenybopper hit is really just a paean to anal sexthe larger issues addressed by the film are perhaps dispensed with too lightly once they’ve been turned into a joke.
But even if the film is only gently mocking, at least it names names. Besides, the performances by all the leads (Reid especially) are delightful, and the music is pretty good. It’s just too bad that the target audience for Josie mostly stayed away on opening weekend and probably won’t turn out in the weeks to come. Maybe it’s because the Pussycats’ music is slightly rawer than the teen-pop currently in the charts, or maybe it’s that the movie doesn’t have enough starpower. Or maybe it’s that the majority of today’s youth don’t care to have the tight seal of their culture ruptured, lest they be made aware of the foul smell contained therein.
Would it do any good for me to say, up front, that a novel and the movie based on it are bound to be two distinct things, not merely versions of each other? Probably not. Despite a fundamental, tacit understanding among reasonably sophisticated moviegoers that one should not judge Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Movie even by the fairly lowbrow standards of Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Book, most reviews will be filled with careful delineations of where the screenplay deviates from the bestseller and why, as though the latter were merely mistranslated assembly instructions.
In the case of a bestseller like Helen Fielding’s comic depiction of her circle of London “singletons,” the movie reviewer’s comparison is probably seen as a service to the target marketthose who’ve read the book. We’re assumed to be queuing up for Diary because it’s a presold property, like a Batman or Flintstones movie. Never mind that even unsuccessful films reach many millions more people than the most wildly successful publishing phenomena.
So while I have a terrific review of Sharon Maguire’s movie based on the necessary shift from Bridget’s self-absorbed, solipsistic world of the prose Diary to the more objective, linear narrative of the celluloid one, that review will never be written. Because Maguire’s movie accepts that shift as unavoidable and makes the best of it. And the best that can be made of it is a terrific comedy with three performances that remind us what comedy is all about: Renee Zellweger as a Bridget who’s prickly, clumsy, never slipping into cutesy endearments, and for these very reasons adorable; Hugh Grant as her lady-killer boss, with all the charm we’ve come to expect and twice the venom; and Colin Firth as the potential date in Bridget’s blind spot, underplaying to beat the band and so unconventionally wonderful that you can’t wait for Bridget to swoon into his arms.
Fielding played a hand in adapting her own novel and presumably had some say in the choice of directors, since Maguire was the model for one of her characters. Both women, and their collaborators, don’t appear to have spent much time mourning the impossibility of translating Bridget’s jargon-laden and quirkily obsessive diary entries onto the screen. These remain in the briefest sketches to remind us of the story’s roots, but for the rest of the film, Bridget is allowed to break free of her own subjectivity and become the star she only imagines herself in her diary. Whether she’s succeeding triumphantly (not until the unfortunately pat ending) or falling flat on her face (for the never tiresome first hour), Zellweger’s plucky but confused heroine stays in the game. And for that, men pursue her, friends stick by her, and audiences will love hernot as a bastardized translation of something they loved in another form, but just as she is.
Hall of mirrors
Written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by his onetime wife and frequent collaborator, actress Liv Ullman, Faithless sometimes has the feel of the Swedish master. Some themes and some shots will remind audiences of a certain age of Bergman’s deliberate, humane character studies. More to the point, the whole exercise will appear to many to be an exploration of Bergman and Ullman’s relationship: A writer/director named Bergman (Erland Josephson) conjures up a woman and half-feeds to her, half-receives from her the story of the breakup of her marriage as he writes a script in a notebook.
The many levels of control, creation, and the work of the Muses portrayed in Faithless give us plenty to ponder during the slow stretches of exposition. Bergman’s informant, Marianne (Lena Endre), bears a name that apparently comes out of Bergman’s own past, works as an actress, and is married to an internationally famous conductor (Thomas Hanzon). She decides to have an affair with a film director (Krister Hendriksson) during a meticulously chronicled series of moments of weakness and self-indulgence. The tryst is not only doomed from the start but also destined to destroy her marriage and wreck her relationship with her daughter Isabelle.
At times Ullman sinks us so deeply into the downward spiral of Marianne’s love life that we forget about the meta-story; we get lost in the painting, oblivious of its frame. But as her narrative comes to an abrupt and strangely neat conclusion, in a film where loose ends are left deliberately and tantalizingly hanging throughout, the frame reasserts itself as the true focus of Ullman’s concern. We are left to wonder how real a character in a film or play can be for its creator, how the character’s depictions of other characters can also take on semi-independent life, and what out of the director’s own life is being resurrected and reburied in this story. The blurry edge between the film and the creative life it explores makes it difficult to separate the threads for analysiswhen I write “director” or “Bergman,” how are you to know whether I am referring to the inside of the film or the outside? Yet Ullman keeps these matters, if not distinct, at least distinctly significant. The relationship between creator and creature is larger than Bergman-Ullman/Bergman-Marianne; it includes everyone who tries to make a reality and then wrestles with her own power or impotence in that reality.
Faithless may have its jumping-off point in Ingmar Bergman’s life and work, but it’s not for fans only. Patient viewers will be alternately absorbed by the dissolution of relationships within the frame and tantalized by the way the frame itself dissolves, failing to hold together even what we would think is the minimum relationship a writer or director must maintain to the work. Like the mysterious apparatus behind a glass plate in Bergman’s on-screen officea camera? a projector?we are finally forced to consider whether we are recording, receiving, or forging images faithful to some reality of our choosing.
Highlights for me: -Deacon is very Thinking Face. -You are not David Bowie and this…
Yea!!! I just watched Ep. 5, 6, and 7 on Comcast Demand--> Put "Chasing Nashville"…
How about "WeHo"?
Franco's role in the action turkey HOMEFRONT is essentially his SPRING BREAKERS character without a…
I saw THE MANITOU at one of Nashville's long-gone downtown theaters in '78. Boy, was…