Yi Yi allows us to eavesdrop on a middle-class family in contemporary Taipei during a few months when all its members -- from eight-year-old Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) to his eightysomething grandmother (Tang Ruyun) -- are going through major life transitions. The central character is the patient, emotionally inexpressive father, N.J. (Wu Nienjen), a successful computer professional whose company is in trouble. At the film's start, N.J.'s brother-in-law, the garrulous A-Di (Chen Xisheng), is getting married to the very pregnant Xiao Yan (Xiao Shushen), thus abandoning his long-time fiancée Yun-Yun (Zeng Xinyi).
The shame of this situation is probably what gives his ancient mother a stroke. Stuck in a possibly permanent coma, the old lady is moved into N.J.'s apartment, where his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), and teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), read to her in hopes of drawing her back toward life. Min-Min quickly has a nervous breakdown and disappears to a retreat for meditation.
In her absence N.J. begins to have romantic conflicts of his own, in addition to his business troubles. In fact, the pattern of the film slowly but surely becomes clear: Almost all of the characters are stuck between dual alternatives, usually two lovers. N.J. runs into his first true love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), who is now married to a Chicago businessman; some 20 years after their breakup, N.J. and Sherry have still not resolved either their attraction or the conflicts that drove them apart.
Parallel to this are the stories of Ting-Ting's burgeoning romance with the ex-boyfriend of her next-door neighbor; A-Di's attempts to balance his feelings for his old fiancée and his new wife; and little Yang-Yang's interest in a sexually precocious girl in his grade school.
Other subplots are woven through all of this: Woven is in fact the only word that really describes the film's structure. Yang intertwines the stories in ways that at first seem random; only with time do their thematic similarities become apparent and the unifying concerns of the film become clear. Yi Yi is like a well-wrought tapestry, the design of which can't be appreciated until the whole is complete.
While this makes for a moving, satisfying experience, it also entails a substantial risk: Despite a healthy number of gently humorous touches, Yang doesn't try to sweeten the experience during those early scenes in which he sets everything up. The second half of Yi Yi moves much faster than the first, not so much because it is packed with more heavily dramatic incidents -- though it is -- but because Yang's slow-paced introduction to the film's world takes so long to draw us in. Yang's visual style doesn't invite the sort of immediate character identification that might make the first half go down more easily. He favors fairly distant camera positions, often shooting whole scenes from across the street or through a cluttered window; he almost never uses tight closeups.
The result of these strategies -- and of the central character's stoically blank face -- is to keep the audience at a distance. That the film ends up being so emotionally involving suggests that the strategy is a valid one. But audiences shouldn't go in expecting a sugarcoated ride. Yang demands far more than the usual amount of patience from his viewers, and not everyone is likely to find the wait worthwhile.