In Yang's award-winning Yi Yi (A One and a Two), the Taiwanese city of Taipei is as much of a character as the Jian family, a typical family of four, and just as universal. "To make the subject effective," says Yang, "it's best to position the characters as very, very average. Once a certain character is too special, then the drama is too. I think it's more dramatic if some average person has some tense situation."
In Yi Yi, Wu Nien-Jen, filmmaker and acclaimed Taiwanese screenwriter, stars as N.J. Jian, the middle-aged father of two, in a family that is thrown into disarray when his mother-in-law suffers a stroke and goes into a coma. With little hope of pulling out of it, she is moved into their apartment, where everybody is encouraged to talk to her. The one-sided conversations become a catalyst for self-evaluation and change.
"I had the idea for quite a while, but I knew I was too young to treat it," Yang says of the film's structure. "I just found it a nice way to tell a life story, about family with each age group represented by a member, and somehow they're intimately related. So I let it sit and mature until a couple of years ago, when I proposed it to the producers and they all loved it. I wrote it very quickly. It's more my observation of the process, living through all these years. I tried to find the simplest things that we all share. That's perhaps the best way to communicate: basics."
Yang started his professional life as a computer engineer, but after watching Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), he realized he wanted to make movies. He enrolled in USC's film school, but quit after a semester. "I was lucky to get in, but I found that I didn't have talent," he recalls of the school which, at the time, was just a breeding ground for Hollywood manpower. He moved to Seattle, where he worked for seven years as a computer engineer. But he never stopped going to see movies, and a steady diet of alternative films inspired him to return to Taiwan and take up filmmaking again, to growing acclaim.
So in a movie about reevaluating one's life, at looking at the choices made when young (one major subplot is N.J. meeting up with his first love and talking about what might have been had they stayed together), it's telling that Yang's alter ego in the film is a computer engineer. "That's funny because when I first wrote the notes 15 years ago, the father's profession was an architect. And then, just recently, technology because all my classmates, they're all high-tech. They're all billionaires [laughs]." He goes on to criticize the fact that people who go to school for engineering are not encouraged to take classes in the humanities, which ends up limiting their perspective on life.
Perspective is something that Yang has in abundance. In Yi Yi, Yang keeps his camera at a respectful distance, sometimes even outside of the rooms where the action is taking place. Of knowing exactly where to put the camera, he says, "The thing is, it's an advantage when you're a writer and also a director. When you write, you know the purpose of the scenes, and also you know the function of how it works in and throughout the story. You know where's the best place to observe the happenings. So sometimes things happen--especially for the subject matter, especially for this film--some of the scenes are better observed from a distance."