“We live three times as long since the invention of cinema,” says a character in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two), an intimate three-hour portrait of a family, their neighbors, and their business associates in present-day Taipei. Perhaps that’s why a week at Cannes—enduring innumerable imaginary lives on screen—ages one so dramatically. Amid the hype and frenzy, Yi-Yi offered a space for reflection on how to find a calm center of truth in a world buffeted by change and cheap imitation.
Days before winning the festival’s award for best director, the boyish 52-year-old avatar of the Taiwanese New Wave explained the genesis of his seventh feature. “Fifteen years ago, a friend’s father was hit by a car and fell into a coma,” recalled Yang. “After a couple of months in hospital, the doctors gave up and told the family to take him home, and talk to him—perhaps in that way he might regain consciousness. To me, that was overwhelming. Because when a father is alive, you can tell him all kinds of lies. But when you have to face someone in that state, suspended between life and death, and talk to them, you have to be very honest with them and with yourself.”
Yi-Yi focuses on NJ, a partner in a high-tech company, who shares a comfortable Taipei apartment with his wife, Min-Min, their two children, and her elderly mother, who soon suffers a stroke. She returns from hospital in a coma; her still, silent presence lays bare the fragility, emptiness, and emotional confusion of the others.
Beneath its calm exterior, Taipei is revealed as a city of extreme agitation, where moral compasses are lost amid a yo-yoing economy, and high technology rubs elbows with deep superstition. “When I first wrote the story 15 years ago, I made the father an architect,” said Yang, who studied architecture in Taiwan before earning two degrees in computer science in the U.S. (He dropped out of USC Film School after one semester and worked as a computer researcher in Seattle for seven years before returning to Taiwan in 1981 to pursue his directing career.) “But when I went back to it more recently, I felt very strongly that he should be a high-tech executive. It’s the most volatile field today, and right in the middle of issues affecting so many societies—the question of how we are going to face the future, as technology changes everyone’s life.”
In Yi-Yi the most concrete embodiment of that future is Yang-Yang, NJ’s small, mysterious son, who photographs mosquitoes and the napes of necks in order to reveal a world invisible to the adults around him. Jonathan Chang, who plays Yang-Yang, is eight years old. “At the press conference yesterday, someone asked him if he wanted to be an actor when he grew up,” said Yang. “He said no. But later, he told his father, ‘I’d really like to direct.’ “