I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it’s beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I’m speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film–Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier–I had to watch the thing, and now you’re damn well going to read about it.
While you’re getting braced, I will point out that I’m not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it’s autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe–as does Dr. King, to people who don’t look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That’s enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning–and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I’d like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone’s supposed to be rich and everybody’s going broke.
At the film’s heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that’s his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride’s advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ’s first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years’ absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. “Don’t worry,” cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. “Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen.”
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It’s only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office–an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it’s back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She’s been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. “How can I have so little?” Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door–he doesn’t want to wake the children–and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that’s frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of her lovers.
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist’s manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid’s candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother’s illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. “I want to show people things they haven’t seen,” says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose–though not, perhaps, of Yang’s. The glory of what he’s achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we’ve all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life’s muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma’s inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful–or that she’s Björk, I’m not sure which–and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga’s delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I’m forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That’s why she’s such a Stakhanovite (unless it’s the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money–just like an American!–she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous–or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it’s the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you’re in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He’s persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today’s star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier’s publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure–100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier’s pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it’s worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer–if “remarkable” is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark–a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale–the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what’s behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.