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Canon Reformation (1): Yi Yi, Ghost World

The view from the apartment balcony in Yi Yi

I’ll keep the establishing premise brief: all articles on every platform are coronavirus-predicated for the unforeseeable future, so no need to belabor that prompt. I almost never watch movies at home: with a tiny attention span, I need the screen to be bigger than me and erase peripheral vision—and in NYC, until very recently, I had the unbelievable luxury of a plethora of big-screen rep viewing to choose from. Now I’m bunkered in a roommate-emptied apartment, pursuing my chosen viewing path for maximal self-soothing distraction: rewatching a personal canon of (mostly) obvious titles I haven’t seen in ten to 20 years which imprinted over a formative stretch.

Yi Yi premiered at Cannes in 2000, started its platformed US release that October, arrived in (my hometown) Austin the first week of the following April and ended its run (after Easter weekend!) with just over a a $1 million US box office—a big number for three-hour Taiwanese master-shot slow cinema. The original Winstar DVD release’s cover boasts “Best Film of the Year,” an endearing asterisk below attributing this judgment to “Over 10 National Film Critics”; the back actually lists them all, along with another enthusiastic quote from CBS News Sunday Morning. Since Yi Yi was Yang’s first film to receive US release (and nearly all of contemporaries Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang’s work had yet to be distributed as well), a lot of context was missing; in its absence, and because this extended family portrait could be categorized as super-sized Ozu, the hack formulation “nothing happens, yet somehow everything does” was trotted out in various iterations in contemporary reviews, which is wrong: a lot happens, not least a climactic off-screen murder, with the possibility of much more teased (multiple possible unexpected deaths, adultery, shady business deals with triad types lurking in the background). For a movie whose putative agenda is to quietly show Life As It Is, from opening wedding to closing funeral, there’s a surplus of melodramatic juicing. Each member of the family unit is triggered into crisis after grandma falls down and lapses into a coma. Mom has an existential crisis; dad runs into his first love and thinks about leaving his wife; the daughter, bridling at her demurely booksmart image, pines for romantic/sexual attention while fretting that her inattention led to Grandma’s injury, sublimating guilt into aspirant desire and getting drawn into the film’s most melodramatic strand; her very little brother, a precocious stand-in for the filmmaker (his name is Yang-Yang), is trying to understand how we can live if we can literally only see half of the world (what’s in front of us is visible, what’s behind is not).

I generally like to space revisits out over a decade+ to allow sufficient time for both me and the movie to change, but I’ve seen Yi Yi four or five times. It’d been about a decade since my last viewing, but I remembered all of it almost perfectly. I (think I) can now see everything wrong with it now, not that any of that particularly bothers me. Mom gets the short stick narrative attention-wise, bunking off relatively early to a dubious monastery to try to find meaning—she disappears for most of the running time, reappearing at the end, her interior crisis summed up in a slightly stock “life is very disappointing” variant monologue. Grandma is both plot catalyst and a convenient screenwriting trick: because her condition requires people to sit by her bed and talk to stimulate her brain, characters can enter her room and monologue their interior lives into concrete dialogue.

The most endearing character—Ota, Issey Ogata’s near-saint Japanese video game mogul—is now the oddest element. The skyscraper where dad NJ (Wu Nien-jen) works has an amazing view, enhanced by pigeons regularly flying out at pretty magical moments—a real gift to any shoot, since I can’t imagine bird wranglers were perched out of frame in a crane (none are listed in the credits anyway). Ogata comes to make his pitch, then—while NJ is conferring with his venal partners about how to wriggle out of a deal—stands patiently out of frame, until we see he’s coaxed a pigeon from the outside terrace to sit on his shoulder. St. Francis as benevolent capitalist is a big stretch, and it gets harder to suspend disbelief when NJ and Ota go to dinner and the latter delivers (one of) the film’s Big Thematic Speeches. “Why are we afraid of the first time?” he asks. “Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning.” True, and maybe inspiring; these days, though, it’s hard to forget that this clearly benignly intended character is also making a hard sell while wearing his mogul hat, and we should always beware of capitalists who say they come as friends/tout the value of risk and failure.

Relative to A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong, both shrilly/understandably angry, this is Yang in a much easier-going institutional critique mode redirected to quieter manifestations: NJ, conflicted as to whether he can participate in “business as usual,” ultimately chooses to withdraw from the company in the face of routine dishonesty and a business landscape controlled by triad elements. (There’s a smaller sublimated protest as well, when the nurse reads to grandma from a newspaper about the xenophobically-charged prosecution of scientist Wen Ho Lee. On the commentary track, Yang explains he found that incident so infuriating that he wanted to include it to make sure this particular moment of American infamy wasn’t memory-holed along so many others.) Still, we’re basically operating within a matrix of potentially ethical capitalism, with bad actors rather than a whole system to blame. Ota’s character has the potential for TED Talk facileness—but, who am I kidding, I love this movie, and the undiluted goodwill he radiates still touches me, even if I should know better. (Ogata has come back into my viewing life twice since, as Hirohito in Sokurov’s The Sun and the inquisitor in Silence—darker roles, but it’s always connotationally cheering to see him still out there.)

One immediate consequence of being rocked by Yi Yi was trying to find copies of Yang’s other work in the pre-torrent era. I got my hands on, I believe, an EP VHS of A Brighter Summer Day and a VCD of A Confucian Confusion, via a complicated trade, something like sending over a VHS of Michael Almereyda’s Another Girl Another Planet in exchange. Brighter contains a long interrogation sequence, the-then indistinct subtitles against a gleaming white table distorted further by VHS, so I literally couldn’t read long chunks of the movie, but it was still riveting. Once difficult to access, Brighter was restored in 2009, has shown in NYC a ton since and is easily legally streamable online. I get the impression it’s become people’s primary reference point for/intro to Yang—an example of canonical hierarchy reshuffling occurring over 20 years once more access to a filmography is enabled. I still prefer Yi Yi, even if the chillier, angrier and sporadically violent Summer Day is definitely more representative of Yang’s overall work. One anomalous element within Yi Yi’s master shot total control is pretty endearing: two stolen, handheld shots of NJ and his ex in the Tokyo subway train station—a flash of rare expedience and very brief jolt of energy from an unexpected formal choice birthed by seeming necessity. (Per Paul Schrader’s dictum, “Make a rule, break a rule.”).

One thing that’s definitely changed since 2000 is that you can look up film locations on Google Street View, or at least those already in the incomplete system. I found the N.Y. Bagels Cafe which the daughter goes to a couple of times, and pieced together from the internet that this location—whose interior signage in the film claims they got their bagels from NYC’s H&H—was the first bagel spot in Taipei (opening in 1998, about a year before production started) and now has multiple locations. I couldn’t find a Street View of the apartment tower where the family lives, though I located that intersection as a satellite view. Rewatching Yi Yi, I realized that as well as I know these characters, what I really love are the views from their apartment: looking out at the larger cityscape, peering into windows opposite (both illuminated and with the curtains open, but especially when they’re opaque reflections of nighttime street/car lights), and especially the view from the balcony onto the street below, at a spot just beneath an elevated freeway. As much as Play Time or Blade Runner, this is a definitive rendition of city living, but one sculpted out of reality. As someone who’s lived in big cities my whole life (and who hasn’t left my neighbhorhood in two weeks and counting), that’s the element that moved me the most this time.

Ghost World is exactly the same as when I saw it at the precisely correct age of 15: teen angst springing in part from the (not incorrect) perception that American life is basically a banal nightmare to be escaped from, if not actively scorned, at every possible opportunity. Theoretically 18-year-olds living in 2001, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) seem less like millennials on the cusp of workplace/college entry than especially snide Gen X’ers, their disdain (and the film’s) unevenly distributed around a number of targets, some more justifiable than others.

Ghost World is a mind-meld of misanthropy between the well-paired Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, not unlike Noah Baumbach and James Murphy’s conversations about their shared disdain for Los Angeles planting the seeds for Greenberg. This was either my third or fourth time watching, and on each pass I’ve been baffled by a particularly curdled scene in a faux-Blockbuster/Hollywood Video-type store: A man tries to rent 8 1/2, only to be told by the know-nothing clerk checking the computer catalogue that in fact they do stock 9 1/2 Weeks. (The clerk is Patrick Fischler, in the first of two memorable one-scene appearances that year—three months later, he went behind Winkie’s Diner in Mulholland Dr.) The targets are simultaneously corporate homogenization’s erasure of art and the totally ignorant service worker, who really should know about Fellini’s masterpiece. One of these objects of ire is not like the other, and from a narrative perspective, the scene is essentially unjustifiable: there’s a quick shot of Enid and Rebecca walking through the aisles chatting, theoretically explaining its existence, but in practice they don’t see anything that happens. While I get that one of the underlying points—a real video store would have knowledgeable clerks—is valid, I find it hard to hate on minimum-wage slackers who took the first soul-killing service job they could find.

The movie’s volatile like that, swinging from shaded empathy for a variety of malcontents and losers to unmitigated contempt for the broader world in a sort of constant nicotine-withdrawal rage overload. One thing that hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years is how bad and obvious the anti-fine-art strand is, which Clowes and Zwigoff eventually/regrettably teased out at full feature length in Art School Confidential. llleana Douglas is a laughable video artist responsible for teaching Enid’s remedial summer art class, a space-case who praises fraudulent “found object sculptures”; the tone of condescension towards her character isn’t comfortably far enough away from Jesse Helms railing against the NEA. Douglas’s character also dismisses Enid/Clowes’s drawings as frivolous “low” art, rejecting them in favor of aforementioned fraudulent art objects. Jeff Koons aside, the trope of contemporary high artist as almost invariably grifter hasn’t aged particularly well, and the forms of “low”/marginalized culture the movie wants to elevate are all pretty respectable now. Just like comic book fans, they won the cultural war, so this instantly-tired strand of the movie has aged even more poorly than expected.

One nice small touch I caught this time: the face of the old man sitting on a bench waiting for a (canceled) bus to show up matches the color of the wall behind him, which remains true whatever time of day or night it is. Together, that unbroken color merge between man and wall makes the drab bus bench pop by comparison, a very subtle way of evoking comic book-y visuals. People were surprised Zwigoff followed this with Bad Santa, but it makes sense: both are about characters whose self-loathing is exacerbated by exceptionally crappy jobs. Bad Santa is probably better (or, at least, much funnier, as intended, and more judicious in its targets), but Ghost World remains pretty special in its old-boned melancholy. For all the purposeful ugliness and mercilessly showcased banality of Ghost World and Bad Santa, neither should be mistaken for sloppy or emotionally indifferent: That youthful spirit of resistance and contempt gets quickly worn down as people grow older and more tired, and the need for everyday kindness becomes more urgent. By the end of a forced maturation period, Enid’s exhausted; like Yang-yang says at the end of Yi Yi, “Now I feel old too.”

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