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At the American Film Institute National Film Theater April 29 to May 6
Many American moviegoers may well be irked by the suggestion that a significant number of today’s greatest filmmakers are Asian. After all, Americans are not supposed to like films about foreigners, especially foreigners who speak an actual foreign language. Alas for them, Taiwanese writer-director Edward Yang’s brilliant Yi Yi (A One and a Two) is largely in Chinese, although the film’s cross-cultural conversations are conducted in English (as they were in the director’s equally delightful 1996 feature, Mahjong). Still, viewers who give this gently humorous, quietly profound film a chance will quickly discover that Yang’s Taipei is not so alien a place. Indeed, Yi Yi banishes all notions of Asian discretion and Confucian values in its first scene, in which the groom’s ex arrives at his wedding to ask of the bride, “Where is that pregnant bitch?”
Yi Yi is a family saga, and the newly married A-Di (Chen Xisheng) plays a role in it. The most significant events of his wedding day, however, happen to others: His brother-in-law, NJ (Wu Nienjen, a writer-director himself), chances upon his long-lost love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), in the lobby of the hotel hosting the wedding, and A-Di’s mother (Tang Ruyun) slips into a coma. The old woman’s condition is particularly troubling for daughter Min-Min (Elaine Jin), who is married to NJ, and teenage granddaughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee). Ting-Ting worries that she caused Grandma’s collapse by forgetting to take out the trash, forcing the old woman to strain herself doing it. Min-Min’s regret is more existential: She tries to follow the doctor’s instructions that she talk to her mother regularly, but she finds she has nothing to say: “How can it be so little? I live a blank.” Distraught, Min-Min soon flees to join a religious sect.
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NJ is also disenchanted, both because his computer company is faltering and because his encounter with Sherry raised all the usual questions about the road not taken. He travels to Japan to make a last-ditch deal with a computer-game magnate, Ota (Issey Ogata), who turns out to be a sensitive man who shares NJ’s love of Beethoven. (Ota’s understanding, benevolent presence might be a narrative stand-in for the Japanese producers who funded a film Yang couldn’t finance in Taiwan.) While in Tokyo, NJ also has a rendezvous with Sherry, and they contemplate having an affair or even leaving their spouses. NJ’s tentative romance is contrasted with Ting-Ting’s equally precarious relationship with the ironically named Fatty (Yupang Chang), which begins when Ting-Ting becomes the go-between for the intense and perhaps unstable Fatty and his girlfriend, who’s not exactly serene herself.
There’s one more significant human character: Ting-Ting’s 8-year-old brother, Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). It’s no coincidence that this precocious kid has a name resenbling the director’s; Yang-Yang is primarily an observer, a fledgling photographer concerned with issues of representation and reality. (He takes pictures of ordinary things people can’t see for themselves, such as the backs of their heads.) The boy sometimes serves as a catalyst, however: NJ runs into Sherry, for example, only because he takes his son on a Burger King break from the wedding reception.
Two inanimate objectsor conceptsvery nearly deserve a place in the cast list as well. One is the city, which has a palpable presence that, in some scenes, actually dictates the film’s rhythm. Yang believes that the urban experience is converging globallya point he made more explicitly in Mahjongso that the gap between, say, Taipei and Tokyo is less pronounced than the one between Taipei and the Taiwanese countryside. (Not for him those trips into the sticks that feature in the films of fellow Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien.) A One and a Two was added to the original title (which means “one one”) for its English-subtitled release to suggest the syncopated, contrapuntal style of Yang’s storytelling, but the film also takes its rhythm from such urban commonplaces as the traffic light.
The other recurring presence is film and video representation itself, ranging from a sonogram of A-Di’s unborn child to Yang-Yang’s photographs (which his teacher contemptuously dismisses as “avant-garde art”) to the less intimate images of video surveillance cameras, classroom films, and violent video games. The director keeps his distance himself, largely avoiding close-ups and shooting Yi Yi’s most emotional scenesincluding a virtuoso fugue intercutting NJ and Sherry with Ting-Ting and Fattyin medium and long shots. Yang frequently positions the camera exterior to the action, filming couples from outside cafes, hotel rooms, andin one of those small-world momentsa branch of H&H Bagels.
The last location is where Fatty, in his longest piece of dialogue, tells Ting-Ting that “movies are so lifelike. That’s why we love them.” She responds, “Then who needs movies? Just stay home and live life.” In juggling art and the everyday, Yi Yi takes both viewpoints seriously. The film is actually more carefully structured than it feelsit brackets the opening wedding, for example, with a concluding funeraland its three hours rush by at a pace unachieved by anyone’s home videos. But Yang’s artifice stays as true to daily life as possible. When Yang-Yang ends the film with a moving manifesto, his stated purpose is modest yet sweeping. Yi Yi is the proof that such qualities are eminently compatible.
The road to Alex Waters’ prison cell is paved with good intentions, and such intentions are the principal (and by no means negligible) virtue of director Jordan Walker-Pearlman’s The Visit, a feels-so-bad-it’s-good drama. Alex (Hill Harper) is serving a 25-year sentence for rape, and he also has AIDS. He says he didn’t commit the rape, and he won’t reveal how he thinks he contracted the illness, but neither detail matters. The film is more concerned with Alex’s eternal soul than with his mortal crimes or fate.
The narrative is actually a series of visits, first by Alex’s older brother, Tony (Obba Babatundé); followed by his parents, Henry and Lois (Billy Dee Williams and Marla Gibbs); and finally by his friend Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong), who has suffered more than Alex but has made peace with the world through the gospel church Tony and his family also attend. There are also encounters with prison psychologist Dr. Coles (Phylicia Rashad)who hopes to win parole for Alex even though their talks don’t suggest that the prisoner has come to any kind of acceptance of his plightand with the parole board (led by Talia Shire).
The performances are assured and painstakingly naturalistic, with stammers, awkward pauses, and other inarticulate moments faithfully simulated. This quality might suggest that the dialogue was improvised, but actually it was adapted from a play. In fact, the bulk of the film works best when it’s faithful to dramatist Kosmond Russell’s original format. The weakest moments result from
Walker-Pearlman’s attempts to open it up with flashbacks and fantasy sequences scored to obtrusive sound bites of jazz, funk, and quiet-storm soul. (The director also interrupts the colloquies with fades to black that suggest he’s seen Bresson’s Pickpocket, but these don’t significantly alter the ploddingly uplifting narrative.)
The Visit is a little dull, but its biggest weakness is something that probably also comes from the play. Alex undergoes a spiritual transformation, but it takes place entirely off-screen; that Alex does anything other than lose weight as time goes by is attested only by Tony’s final speech. Rendering this change dramatically credible would have been a challengeand it’s one Walker-Pearlman shouldn’t have ducked. If even the director couldn’t decide how to make Alex’s conversion believable, why should a mere spectator believe it? CP