It's a Taiwanese film and the last from Edward Yang, who died in 2007. He'd been one of the leading members of the Taiwanese New Wave and Taiwanese Cinema, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming Liang. This film I've seen described as his magnum opus and it won him the Best Director Award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for the Palme d'Or, won a ton of international awards and was cited in 2002 by Sight and Sound magazine as one of the ten greatest films of the past quarter-century, alongside the likes of Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Fanny and Alexander, Blade Runner, etc.
At 173 minutes you'd also think it would have to be Yang's longest, although that title actually belongs to the four-hour A Brighter Summer Day (1991). It's probably his best-known film in the West, though. Yang doesn't make short films, but this one at least wears its length lightly. It's not hitting us over the head with drama, but merely inviting us to live with a Taiwanese family for a while. It's likeable and sometimes funny. Obviously everyone has their own lives, which interweave and resonate with each other.
What does the film mean? I suppose the answer's in the title. The original title is just "Yi yi", but the subtleties of that are untranslatable and so Edward Yang himself added the "One and the Two" for the English version. "Yi yi" is just the Chinese character for "one", repeated. Now the thing is that in Chinese (as also in Roman and our Arabic numerals), "one" is simply a straight line. However similarly "two" is two lines, so writing "one one" looks a lot like "two". That's the ambiguity Yang's playing with. You've got all these interlocking people and their spouses, children, lovers, ex-lovers, potential lovers, business partners and possible business partners from Japan who they admire. Who should they choose? When do two people become a couple? What's the difference? What about partners separating? You've got the younger generation starting to find their way through these complicated issues, while their elders remember doing the same things and wonder whether they made a mistake.
The latter could have been cloying, by the way, but it's not. It even has one big surprise as you realise Yang's pushing his parallels somewhere you won't have considered, which to be honest is only a grace note, but still a cool one.
The film has three main characters. These are a middle-aged father (Nien-Jen Wu) and his eight-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) and thirteen-year-old daughter (Kelly Lee). Obviously there's a whole constellation of other relatives, friends and neighbours around them, but those three are protagonists. Nien-Jen Wu has turbulent new in-laws, an old flame unexpectedly showing up after thirty years and some slightly disturbing problems at work. Taiwan looks like a slightly scary place to do business. He's a partner in a company that you wouldn't call fly-by-night, but to which you wouldn't be in a hurry to lend money. We get to know our stoic little hero and his relationships, both personal and professional. The most charming is that with Issei Ogata, who proves to be a font of Japanese wisdom and quirkiness, expressing himself in almost hypnotic English. Ogata's really a comedian, but one who's addicted to writing and acting in stage plays and every so often will take a starring role in a major arthouse film. He played Emperor Hirohito for Aleksandr Sokurov in The Sun (2005), for instance.
Kelly Lee's story is more straightforward. She's a modest girl whose next-door neighbours have complicated man problems. She too ends up getting involved with a boy, but it's not how you think. Finally and the coolest of them all is Jonathan Chang, who's like a pre-pubescent Asian Buster Keaton. He doesn't really emote, but goes around deadpan. He's great. He made me laugh more than anyone, for instance with his ongoing war with the five bigger girls who bully him or his strange, offbeat philosophy of what you can see. The latter's surprisingly deep, by the way. One of his conversations with his dad didn't just stump Nien-Jen Wu, but also stumped me.
This is a pleasant film. It's enjoyable, it pulls you along and there's nothing difficult about it at all. You'd recommend it. It's certainly not fluff, but the normality of its setting and characters make it always easy to relate to. That said, I never laughed out loud and it's a fairly low-key story in which not a lot really happens, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's nice.