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Monday, Jan. 1, 2001


Yang offers up portrait of 'real' family life

Family dramas are a movie staple, but few have the texture of real family life, in which individual destinies unfold and interact in ways too messy and complex for the usual movie ad copy. What we usually get instead is either melodrama or caricature -- i.e., something that can be easily packaged and sold in one high concept line. The rare director, such as Robert Altman, who tries to put the whole enchilada on the screen may be commended for bravery, but gets tagged as difficult -- the commercial kiss of death.

In "A One and A Two" (Yi Yi), that most difficult and talented of Taiwanese directors, Edward Yang, tells stories of a family in modern Taipei that may follow an arc -- his film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral -- but do not observe the usual plot conventions. (There is, in fact, no plot at all.) His people look like ordinary upper-middle class Taiwanese (for good reason -- most are unknowns with little or no acting experience), but he does not present them as representatives of anything but themselves.

Altman does something similar in the ensemble pieces "Nashville" and "A Wedding," but his approach is extrovertedly American, coloring everything more brightly than life to the point of grotesquerie. Yang's approach is the opposite, almost too much so, dialing down the emotional tones to the beiges and grays of postmodern angst.

The absence of camera moves, the preference for long shots, the low key, almost stolid, performances of the leading actors are all familiar devices in not only Yang's work ("A Brighter Summer's Day," "Eternity and a Day," "That Day At the Beach"), but in much of Asian art cinema, to the point of cliche.

The models for this style are less the traditional Asian performing arts (Chinese opera, Japanese kabuki, Korean pansori), which are inflected in the extreme, than European auteur films. (Yang once said jokingly that if he hadn't seen the films of Werner Herzog, he might be a millionaire in Seattle today.)

Yang, however, has made this style his own, with a quiet, subtle, but powerful authority. In "A One and a Two" he uses it, over the course of nearly three hours, to paint an intimate family portrait on a broad canvas, with a structural and thematic coherence that illuminates and exhilarates. It is a masterly culmination, this portrait. One hopes that other, lesser, talents don't imitate it. Given the film's success on the festival circuit (Yang won a Best Director prize for it this year at Cannes) that hope is probably forlorn.

The film's central figures are a family whose quiet lives are suddenly interrupted by change and difficult choices. At the wedding reception of his pudgy brother-in-law Ah-Di (Chen Hsi-sheng) and hugely pregnant bride, computer company executive N.J. (Wu Nien-jen) meets the woman whom, 30 years ago, he cruelly jilted. Now married to an American and living in Chicago, Sherry (Ko Su-yun) has never forgotten her love, or her lover's betrayal.

Meanwhile, excited and upset by the events of the day, including the tumultuous appearance of Ah-Di's old girlfriend at the reception, N.J.'s mother-in-law (Tang Ru-yun) suffers a stroke. His wife, Min Min (Elaine Jin), tries hard to do the right Confucian thing by waiting on the old woman hand and foot, but buckles under the strain.

His teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), though a straight-arrow model student, is torn with remorse over a minor peccadillo that she is convinced contributed to her grandmother's illness. And his 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is battling bigger neighborhood girls, who gang up on him.

Life moves on, in ways expected and unexpected. Using a business trip to Tokyo as a cover, N.J. meets Sherry at a hotel, but instead of a nostalgic tumble into bed, he finds himself reliving old scenarios, reopening old wounds.

Meanwhile, his Japanese client (Issey Ogata), a software designer with a product he and his colleagues hope will rescue their faltering company, turns out to be a sage more interested in understanding the human heart than in padding the bottom line. Back home, Min-Min flees to the dubious security of a religious cult, Ting-Ting discovers the power of love and Yang-Yang quietly tries to make sense of it all -- and sees what the adults around him fail to notice.

There is nothing foreordained about these changes or their consequences. N.J. and his family are not special cases, but fallible human beings living in a high-tech, high-rise materialistic society, in which the self, no longer restrained by traditional values and beliefs, has little but superstition, shopping and sex to sustain it. It is in this world they must navigate, without the rudder the family matriarch once provided. But her spirit still informs their lives, offering hope of a way forward.

For all his emphasis on the shimmering insubstantiality of their world -- all the shots of windows and other reflecting surfaces symbolizing their disorientation and alienation -- Yang has made a surprisingly optimistic film.

Helped by the better angles of our natures, he seems to say, we just might muddle through. Not a bad thought to carry into the new millennium.

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