It’s All Relative


Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, which screens tonight at the New York Film Festival and opens Friday at Film Forum, is a wonderfully engrossing experience—a lucid, elegant, nuanced, humorous movie that’s never nearly as sentimental as it might have been. This complex but understated melodrama opens amid a tumultuous wedding banquet—”Where is that pregnant bitch?” the groom’s ex cries—and ends, nearly three hours later, with a child’s funeral address. In between, Yang orchestrates a soap opera season’s worth of family crises with virtuoso discretion.

It’s a measure of Yang’s skill that the movie’s piled-on coincidences hardly ever seem contrived. Taking a break from his brother-in-law’s manic nuptials, staid 45-year-old NJ Jian (filmmaker Wu Nienjen, who wrote Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind, among other screenplays) unexpectedly bumps into a poised businesswoman who turns out to be his first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), whom he hasn’t seen since he jilted her some 20 years earlier. Later that day, his mother-in-law suffers a stroke and, for the rest of the movie, lies at home in a coma as, per the doctor’s instructions, members of the family take turns talking to her.

That the grandmother is a retired schoolteacher suggests that her condition will serve to instruct the family. NJ’s wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), suffers a mini breakdown under the strain, and after she removes herself from the action by departing for a Buddhist retreat, the philosophical burden is assumed by eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang, a wonderfully alert child actor): “How can I know what you see?” he asks his father. Meanwhile, teenage sister Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), who has become increasingly drawn into the domestic disarray in the apartment next door, falls victim to magical thinking. She blames herself for not taking out the garbage the night of her grandmother’s collapse.

Yi Yi, which won Yang the director’s prize at Cannes, is the most inclusive portrait that the 53-year-old filmmaker has yet made of Taiwan’s uneasy urbanites. The large, multigenerational cast encompasses not only an extended family but a cross-section of Taipei’s middle class. After the unrepeatable triumph of his period monument, A Brighter Summer Day (something like a Michelangelo Antonioni remake of West Side Story), and two ambitious but unsuccessful youth-oriented satires of Taipei’s boomtown mentality, Yang has found his tone. He chose Yi Yi‘s English title, “A One and a Two,” to bring to mind a jazz riff, and although dense with incident and motif, the movie has an effortless flow. The action segues easily through Taipei’s placeless high-rises, karaoke bars where English is the businessman’s lingua franca, malls, and fast-food joints—as well as the pedestrian underpasses beneath the city’s ubiquitous freeways, sites for individual high emotion amid indifferent traffic.

Yang has never been more sensitive to the rhythm of urban life—at one point setting a scene’s pace by using a traffic light as his metronome. The movie’s tone is as level as its frames are carefully composed. Yang juggles subplots with aplomb and refuses to crowd his characters, typically positioning his actors in tactful middle-shot. Such strategic understatement compares favorably with the contrived hysteria of Robert Altman’s upcoming Dr. T and the Women, a not dissimilar drama of family frenzy and male midlife crisis. Yang is less glib than Altman in handling his ensemble antics and constitutionally incapable of scapegoating individual characters.

Yi Yi is centered on the soft-spoken, self-contained NJ, who’s alienated from his unreliable business partners and perhaps his family as well. As the film’s most solitary and conscience-driven character, he’s particularly eloquent in leaving a message on Sherry’s answering machine while delivering a crucial line to a closed hotel room door. A business trip to Tokyo allows NJ the opportunity to rendezvous with Sherry and, in effect, a chance to rescript his life. Yang suggestively crosscuts this expedition into the past—a kind of voyage into a parallel universe—with Ting-Ting’s first tryst, the same evening back in Taipei. She proves no less conflicted than her father and even more vulnerable—walking home alone, in the white linen dress she’s chosen for the evening, to kneel before her comatose grandmother’s bed. (There’s nothing more heartbreaking than Ting-Ting’s slow trudge of rejection, unless it’s the unembarrassed malice with which Yang-Yang’s teacher ridicules the child’s natural genius.)

The Antonioni-esque anomie of Yang’s early films has here been tempered by more humanist concerns—and by a sense of detached reflection, some of it on the medium itself. Yi Yi is unostentatiously punctuated with a variety of cinematic quotations—ranging from video porn (heard but not seen) and classroom education films to screen-filling images of sonograms, computer games, closed-circuit surveillance tapes, and Yang-Yang’s artless “avant-garde” snapshots. It hardly seems coincidental that, in their longest conversation, Ting-Ting and her date discuss the nature of motion pictures: “My grandfather says that we live three times as long since man invented movies,” he tells her.

In the context of Yi Yi, this parallel world is offered as both comment on and consolation for a lifetime of betrayals and disappointments. Yi Yi doesn’t look anything like cinema verité, but it has a similar feel—there’s a real sense of familiarity; the characters seem to be directing the narrative. As accomplished as Yang’s filmmaking is, his movie seeks to break through the theatrical wall; it has the epic intimacy of great television.

Two Family House is a vaudeville turn that comes off as fine and mellow (and warm) as the John Pizzarelli ballad used by writer-director Raymond De Felitta to ease his camera’s descent from the heavens down to Staten Island.

Set in the year of Our Elvis, 1956, this well-wrought indie (De Felitta’s second feature, after the 1995 Café Society) concerns a frustrated crooner. Having been scouted by broadcast personality Arthur Godfrey while he was in the army, Buddy Visalo believes that, had he followed his star, he could have been Julius La Rosa. Instead, he works in a machine shop, lives with his in-laws in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge, and times his lovemaking to The Perry Como Show. As played by Michael Rispoli, Buddy has a quizzical baby face and a head full of dreams. He’s not especially bright, but he’s generous and, as it turns out, gutsy. Over the voluble objections of wife Estelle (Katherine Narducci, who, like Rispoli, has played a recurring character on The Sopranos), Buddy buys a derelict frame house on the outskirts of his Italian neighborhood, planning to live upstairs and transform the ground floor into his own personal nightclub, Buddy’s Tavern.

Populated by acerbic women in cardigan sweaters and posturing men in porkpie hats, Two Family House conjures up an affectionately cartooned vision of Eisenhower-era white-ethnic working-class New York. The colors are slightly overbright, the squabbling elaborately volatile, and the stereotypes affectionately broad. Rheingolds are ubiquitous (although the requisite horde of cap-gun-toting kids is conspicuously absent). There’s a hyperreal home-movie quality that De Felitta, who based his script on a family story, accentuates in having the film’s narrator, like Tristram Shandy, begin by describing the events leading to his birth.

Having become an unwilling landlord, Buddy is compelled to evict an extravagantly deadbeat tenant (Kevin Conway) complete with pregnant missus (Kelly Macdonald, a veteran of Trainspotting). The process proves problematic, but the feckless O’Neary vanishes of his own accord when his Mary gives birth to an unmistakably mocha-colored baby. Variety, which reviewed Two Family House when it was shown last January at Sundance, expressed some concern for the ongoing Irish-Italian insult-fest—never more comic than in O’Neary’s intentional mangling of Buddy’s name—and the racial banter that Mary’s baby precipitates. But these attitudes, which will scarcely shock anyone familiar with the films of Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, are explicitly presented as expressions of insularity and fear. Buddy courts excommunication when he retrieves the splendidly querulous Mary from a flophouse and secretly rents her a room above a neighborhood salumeria. “You’re all a race of pimps!?” she incredulously explodes, unaware that her baffled benefactor in particular has no idea of his intentions.

A fairy tale that presents love as a case of mutual enchantment, Two Family House is not only uniformly well acted, superbly designed, lovingly lit, and sensitively scored, it’s as romantic as it is funny. This deft and touching urban fable about the neighborhood legend who “threw his whole life away” is like discovering a long-lost episode of The Honeymooners—the best New York movie Woody Allen never made.

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