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A One and a Two receives a new pair of ones and zeroes as Edward Yang’s acclaimed domestic epic Yi Yi finally gets the digital transfer it richly deserves. Brian Hu, with the help of Criterion producer Curtis Tsui, measures its significance for the budding cineaste.
There’s no cinematic image quite as eloquent as the back of a person’s head. In Edward Yang’s monumental Yi Yi, the image comes to us via the film’s philosophical conscience: an eight-year-old sage-cum-photographer who steals snapshots of friends’ backsides to reveal to them what they can’t otherwise see about their own selves.
It’s perhaps fitting that the cover of the new DVD edition of Yi Yi by the Criterion Collection -- bringer of films we can’t otherwise see -- uses that very image to represent the company’s latest entry into their acclaimed library of classic world cinema. For fans of the film, the image of the eight-year-old Yang Yang’s backside is an adorable in-joke. For the uninitiated, the image possesses a Magritte-like wonder and foreshadows the film’s gentle humor and stylishness.
Since its premiere at Cannes in 2000, Yi Yi, concurrently known as A One and a Two…, has been celebrated with rare fervor and unanimity. The three hour opus about the tribulations of a middle-class Taipei family won Edward Yang best director at Cannes and more surprisingly, the best picture nod from the National Society of Film Critics, which typically awards its highest honor to such high-profile films as Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, and L.A. Confidential.
Yi Yi became the first of Yang’s films to get theatrical distribution in the United States. I first saw it at Landmark’s UC Theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area in early 2001, and I recall the line circling the block that opening weekend. During the film, there was a shared sense of discovery among audience members as they gasped, chuckled, and cried together. Surrounding these emotions was a feeling of surprise. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott best captures the hardened cinephile’s unexpected sentimental softening: "Movies are an inherently, sometimes cheaply emotional medium, but it takes a lot to make a grown critic cry. As I watched the final credits of Yi Yi through bleary eyes, I struggled to identify the overpowering feeling that was making me tear up. Was it grief? Joy? Mirth? Yes, I decided, it was all of these. But mostly, it was gratitude."
In the six years since, award-giving and list-making critics have attempted to express their thanks, but in an environment where foreign films are now dominated by Hollywood co-productions, sensual exoticism, and apolitical content, a low-concept, high-intellect, introspective look at everyday humanity like Yi Yi is bound to get lost and go unseen. While those who admire the film quietly flaunt its glories, the film remains largely unviewed, even by film buffs. In 2002, the British film magazine Sight and Sound expressed disappointment that their international critics poll of the greatest films of all time yielded only the same canonical works as in 1992, the last time they conducted such a survey. Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and The Rules of the Game went 1-2-3, and the rest of the top ten reeked of the same arcane revival house and neglected the fact that world cinema is currently undergoing a renaissance outside of the U.S. and Europe. A few months later, Sight and Sound conducted a second, more informal poll of British critics, asking them to limit their picks to films from the past 25 years. While American and British features still dominated, Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express placed number eight. Yi Yi snuck in at number 10.
The efficacy of such critical efforts to initiate Yi Yi into the corpus of great films can be questioned. In the end, for film lovers to embrace Yang’s masterpiece, the film needs to be available on DVD shelves at neighborhood video stores. It doesn’t help that until this month, the only version officially available in the U.S. was a shoddy DVD from Fox Lorber that looks suspiciously like a VHS transfer. Look on eBay for alternatives and you’ll only find a similarly poor British version and a cheap Hong Kong DVD that doesn’t even have audio in the right channel. The acceptable DVD version by the Korea-based Starmax is sadly out of stock in all online vendors that I can find. Without a DVD transfer that does justice to the film’s exquisite framings and visual rhymes, it’s hard to imagine the film reaching out to new fans who live outside of metropolises with art houses or urbanites who simply missed the film’s original limited release.
Therefore, Criterion’s new disc, a lovingly packaged special edition with a sparkling new high-def transfer, fills in an important void and readies the film for its proper place in the pantheon of great cinema. The name Criterion itself lends the film a respectability and critical value that goes exponentially beyond the "Two Big Thumbs Up!" splattered on the cover of the Fox Lorber edition. Yi Yi now stands alongside In the Mood for Love, Taste of Cherry, The Killer, George Washington, and Rushmore as contemporary films selected by Criterion to represent a catalog made famous by its breathtaking transfers of Bergman, Antonioni, and Renoir classics. Criterion’s status as one of the most influential canon-makers ought to be challenged from a critical perspective, but it’s hard to deny the amazing work they do packaging the films they choose. It’s also hard to deny that because of their selections, rare and important films from around the world are seen by new discerning audiences in the post-repertory age.
However, getting the Criterion treatment is not as simple as being inducted into a cinematic hall of fame. It’s actually a matter of financial and aesthetic negotiations specific to the world of DVD production. Thus, while we can celebrate the release of Yi Yi under the Criterion banner, we must also notate the process it took in getting there.
When a film is "restored" by a studio or archive, restorationists make decisions based on a number of factors: historical information, director input, status of the source materials. While the production of a DVD isn’t as rigorous or time-consuming as the full restoration of a classic film, it does require similar decisions.
According to the producer of the new Yi Yi DVD, Curtis Tsui, the trade-off between brightness and detail of the film’s image presented the greatest challenge. "We were noticing that if we did it as bright as the film print, we would lose a lot of detail. So we had to make a judgment call if we wanted to make it as bright as we were seeing," says Tsui. The result is indeed a darker image than fans are used to, but I agree with Gary Tooze of DVDBeaver who notes that since the brightness is consistent throughout, the viewer quickly gets accustomed to the darker shade. In the end, the clarity of the image trumps all other considerations. Yang’s meticulous mise-en-scene is among the few in the world where details as minute as dots convey significant narrative and emotional material. As in many of Yang’s films, reflections across glass surfaces juxtapose and flatten various planes of action, dramatizing pathos at a philosophical distance. At several moments in Yi Yi, outdoor cityscapes at night are reflected over glass windows which reveal the sadness within. In one such moment, a husband consoles his crying wife in their high-rise apartment bedroom. From our point of view outside the building, we see the Taipei traffic superimposed on their bedroom window.
In the Criterion DVD (above), the dots in the reflection are clearly identifiable as headlights. The multiple layers of lights are crisp and sharp. In the Fox Lorber DVD (below), the dots are larger and fuzzier; they don’t immediately look like headlights but rather appear like abstract patches of light rather than the urban reality at the heart of the wife’s malaise. When the camera is placed so far from characters separated by a translucent glass surface, clarity of image is especially crucial. Compare the silhouettes of the couple’s heads, compare the shape of the two lamps, and compare the four dots on the wife’s face to see just how powerful these minute details are in conveying a sense of cold stillness and deep solitude. [Note: these images have been shrunk to fit on this page. At the original image size, the differences are magnified. You can link over to DVDBeaver’s DVD comparison for additional evidence of Criterion’s superiority.]
According to Tsui, another issue with the image came up in the production of the Criterion DVD: "There were portions of the film that were extremely shaky. They were present on the other DVDs and the interpositive which we made the master from. We wanted to correct that but we wanted to make sure that was something originally in the film."
A barrier in deciding how to solve both the brightness and shakiness problems came about by the fact that director Edward Yang wasn’t available to Tsui and his team for comment and approval. "I was able to get Edward Yang’s email and get in touch with him, but he didn’t respond to me. I got a note from his sister who asked me to send a tape to her." But her thoughts could not be deemed definitive. "She looked at the master and said that the shake was probably something that happened in the lab. But we still couldn’t get Edward Yang’s opinion."
Not having Yang available for a "Director Approved" edition proved to be a problem too in obtaining special features. Tsui says that he would have loved to include the online flash animation series Miluku, Yang’s sweet but satirical take on contemporary Taiwanese families which Yang produced after Yi Yi, but without the director’s involvement, that would be impossible. Yang also wasn’t available to record a brand new audio commentary, so his excellent conversation with critic Tony Rayns from the British DVD was used instead.
The participation of Rayns (a frequent Criterion collaborator) ultimately filled in the gaps left by Yang’s absence. Says Tsui, "Tony Rayns was always highly involved. He tried to get Edward Yang involved. If we didn’t get Yang’s participation, it was not for lack of trying." The most tangible result of Rayns’s involvement is a strong, short video feature called "Everyday Realities" in which the always eloquent and insightful Rayns discusses the New Taiwan Cinema movement of the '80s and early '90s. "I thought it was important to give a little bit of history and background to see where Yi Yi and Edward Yang came from," says Tsui, and in fact, while the interview lasts only 15 minutes, it is for my money the best, most concise introduction to the groundbreaking film movement available anywhere, in print or video. The interview benefits from Rayns getting straight to the main points: the movement’s preoccupation with history, its innovative use of sync-sound, its key films and makers, its long takes, its intellectualism, its demise.
The video also benefits from the use of still images and publicity materials from classic Taiwanese films, a rhetorical strategy not so easily done in print form. However, "Everyday Realities" could have benefited greatly from more video clips; the sections on sync-sound and long takes especially could have been more tangibly illustrated. On this issue, Tsui adds, "When you need footage there are always licensing issues. In terms of those cutaways, it’s regrettable. I would have loved to have been able to show clips."
According to Tsui, those licensing issues are the main restrictions governing the way Criterion selects films and produces its DVDs. "A lot of sales agents are asking for truly exorbitant fees, especially if they have deals tied in with the majors." This has had an especially detrimental effect on the number of contemporary Asian films that Criterion has released, especially now that Asian cinema has proven commercially viable in both mainstream and art house circuits. "Take Chungking Express -- I would have loved to do Chungking Express but Miramax had it. The intention of the company was to do more Asian films -- more than just the Ozus and the Kurosawas."
Would the financial success of Yi Yi on DVD mean more contemporary Asian or Taiwanese cinema in the Criterion catalog? Not necessarily, Tsai argues. "I don’t think Criterion has ever made those decisions based on those numbers. In the end the decision is always based on whether or not that film deserves a place within our catalog and whether it was something that defines a filmmaker’s work or film movement."
And whether or not Criterion can snag the rights. "Films like [Yang’s previous] The Terrorizers and A Brighter Summer Day definitely would fit within our catalog. It would be purely a rights issue. I think we really want to do it." But the high costs and legal/political complexity of modern independent filmmaking means that the copyrights of films like Yang’s are often owned by several companies and individuals, making licensing especially complex. With Yang busy preparing his new feature, The Wind, not having the director’s participation makes sorting through the legalities even more difficult.
With this luminous new DVD transfer and brand-name label, Yi Yi is now on the verge of greater mainstream visibility. More importantly though, the Criterion package does more than give the film the digital treatment it has long deserved. It raises the possibility that the right people will start looking into what it would take for other Taiwanese classics to get the same treatment and enter popular discourse; after all, Yi Yi is but one in a long line of masterpieces to emerge from the island since the early 1980s. "I sent a copy to Edward Yang," says Tsui, confident that his Criterion transfer will impress the director. "So hopefully this Brighter Summer Day situation can get sorted out!"
Date Posted: 7/13/2006