Jonathan Chang (left) in Yi Yi: A One and a Two.
Winstar Cinema/Everett Collection

Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang was trained as an electrical engineer and worked in high tech for years before turning to filmmaking. Is it possible that having some life under your belt before you start trying to capture it on film can make you a better director? Early in Yang’s extraordinary Yi Yi, middle-aged Taipei family man N.J. (Wu Nien-jen) runs into his first love from long ago, Sherry (Ko Su-Yun), and their chance meeting rattles him. He seems to be living his life as he should, whatever that may be: his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is attractive and efficient. He has two children he adores, teenage Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and 8-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Then his mother-in-law (Tang Ru-Yun) suffers a stroke, intensifying the family’s anxiety, and money troubles seem to be brewing as well. N.J. begins to wonder about the choices he’s made, and he has a chance to rethink his future on a last-minute business trip to Japan.

Yi Yi is extraordinary for so many reasons: Yang shows a remarkable lightness of touch even when, or maybe especially when, he’s dealing with big life questions. He understands city life, the way big feelings can flourish even in small, tight spaces. And as Yang-Yang—pensive, perceptive, hilarious—Jonathan Chang gives one of the great child performances in all of film. (He gets the film’s final moment, and as you find yourself re-launched into real life, you may not be sure if you’re feeling bereft or filled with tempered joy.) Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Miang-liang, was one of the great figures of Taiwan’s late-1980s New Wave; he died in 2007, at 59, and Yi Yi was his final film. It’s a gentle caress of a movie, but there’s nothing lightweight about it. You can’t get through life without feelings of wistfulness, because there will always be some path not taken. How do we ever know we’ve made the right choice? The bigger proof of our good judgment is how we live with the choices we’ve made.

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