#804 A Brighter Summer Day
1991 // Taiwan // Edward Yang
Criterion Collection (LINK)
A Brighter Summer Day “traumatized” me years ago, even with the hazy video quality from the YouTube, I was immediately transfixed and the four hours running time just flew by, leaving a sense of emptiness and loneliness, agony as well as sadness with me. For a long time I just couldn’t shake away these poignant feeling. Together with The 400 Blows (1959), they changed my perspective on cinema remarkably, and by a boy’s “coming-of-age” story, there’s a personal emotional connection that attached firmly thereafter. Its prestige in film history and the unbelievably extended unavailability created a mythical legend that intensified all kinds of admiration beyond subjectivity. Not to mention the untimely death of Edward Yang in 2007 at the age of 59 with “merely”seven full-length features left behind. A sympathetic element was added.
Nevertheless, Mr. Yang’s involvement in the New Taiwanese Cinema was unmistakably influential, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, their works achieved the most acclaim internationally. Yang’s most ambitious work, A Brighter Summer Day, was largely unseen/unavailable except rare theatrical screening. It finally comes into light with a stunningly beautiful restoration 25 years after the release of the film. It’s like I’m watching the film for the first time all over again, I’m “traumatized” once more, in a deeper level. A Brighter Summer Day is the quintessential novel-ish drama under a modernistic direction, it transcends in the scope of time, both culturally and politically, with a feeling of epic.
The film took place in 1960 Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, a separate Chinese territory led by the “Kuomintang” (Chinese Nationalist Party) after they lose the civil war to the communist party in the mainland China. Yang’s parents were part of the “immigrants” (as well as Yang himself, he was born in Shanghai but moved to Taiwan soon afterwards), making the film itself slightly autobiographical. The Chinese title “The Murder Incident of the Boy on Guling Street” reflects on a true story happened at the same period, with Yang studying at the same school as the murderer. The incident comes as an inspiration for the film rather than having a direct connection. It’s the only film, besides the short story Yang directed as part of the anthology In Our Time (1982), that took place in the past. All of Yang’s works predominantly focused on the contemporary Taiwan, from the first feature That Day, on The Beach (1983) to his swan song Yi Yi (2000).
Therefore A Brighter Summer Day holds a distinguished position amidst Yang’s oeuvre, yet at the same time it falls under the same category of sophisticated interpersonal network (a parallel family dynamic could be found in Yi Yi), invoking loneliness and emotional void by physical space, and often ends with rebellious or self-inflicted violence as seen in Taipei Story (1985) and Yi Yi with knife, in The Terrorizers (1986) and Mahjong (1996) with gun. In addition, A Brighter Summer Day could be viewed as a companion piece to Hou’s A Time to Live And a Time to Die (1985) and A City of Sadness (1989), the former one centered on a rural family of “mainland immigrants” from a child-to-adolescent perspectives while the latter one indulged on a more catalytic period in 1947, the 228 Incident with thousands of people killed. One could easily spot out a resonant cinematic approach A Brighter Summer Day and Hou’s period works, the use of long take and medium-to-long shot, offering a more objective dissection on the history of Taiwan.
Close to a hundred speaking parts, A Brighter Summer Day was comprised with a majority of non-professional actors and actresses. Together with the technical team, a lot of them were trained under Yang before working for the film. Interpersonal connection is not only a foundation to the story itself, but also an essential part for the film to be made. For example Chang Chen, who played the protagonist Xiao Si’r (the nickname means “little four”, reflecting that he is the fourth child in his family) and Chang Kuo-chu, who played Xiao Si’r’s father, are really father and son in real life (and Xiao Si’r’s elder brother Chang Han as well). There were other filmmakers playing speaking role in the film, a characteristic that could be seen in other Taiwanese New Wave films (notably, Hou played the central character in Yang’s Taipei Story).
The story was told in a linear fashion, expanded from the eyes of an introverted adolescent Xiao Si’r (Chen Chang). His family, neighbors, classmates, associated or rival gang members, and most importantly to-be-girlfriend Ming (Lisa Yang), all together created a intermingled web of love and hate, friendship and rivalry. Xiao Si’r was not the model student nor a ruthless non-redemptive character neither. His identity was still in the process of modelling, he followed his peers as many others would. The film tried to recreate, or at least attempted to contemplate, the society and environment that led to the ultimate murder.
First of all, the culture factors could be viewed as extrinsic or intrinsic. The former one was the effect of westernization, exemplified by the rock-and-roll music and the Christian religion. The film’s English title is derived from the lyrics of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, the music played a prominent part in the film as Xiao Si’r’s best friend Cat (Wang Chi-tsan) was a music lover, his enthusiasm in singing was nonetheless adorable. A subsequent concert held in the auditorium by the “Little Park Gang”, the gang that Xiao Si’r and his best friend Cat and Airplane (Lawrence Ko) associated with, became a step-up tool of delinquent Sly (Chen Hung-Yu) who took charge of the gang when their leader Honey (Lin Hung-ming) fled to the South after he killed a rival gang member, the 217 Gang. The concert, an escapism maybe, was a performance ground for Cat, and a power showcase for Sly and Shandog (Alex Yang), the leader of 217 gang, they teamed up for an extra bit of money in exchange of Sly’s betrayal on Honey. The arrival of Honey, which only happened one third after the film began, created a turmoil and ended unexpectedly. On the other hand, the religion factor was played out relatively subtle, with Xiao Si’r’s middle sister believed on Christianity. She tried to share the burden of her brother near the end of the film with the assistance of religion and faith, but the effort was ultimately futile. Additionally, the connection to American cinema was also recognizable, from the western film (Rio Bravo?) Xiao Si’r watched in cinema (only the voice of John Wayne was heard) to the reminiscence rather than a homage to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in the entire film. All these should be viewed as a realistic reflection of the past and a recollection of memory in my opinion.
The intrinsic factors were more complicated, involving the conflicting relationship of the local Taiwanese and the mainland “immigrants”. The obscure national identity of the local which had been under Japan’s occupation for fifty years, the Japanese style house, samurai sword, portrait of a Japanese girl and a knife found in Cat’s attic were all physical evidence of the history. Xiao Si’r’s bitter and jealous neighbor, the owner of a grocery store, was one of the handful locals in the film. From their perspective, the mainlanders were merely another ruler who occupied their island. On the other hand, the ideal of “retaking mainland” from the Kuomintang and its totalitarian control to its people, manifested as tanks appeared causally on streets, or more “surrealistically” as White Terror when Xiao Si’r’s father was took into custody by the secret police under suspicion of connection to a communist, came to the foreground in the second half of the film. The incident significantly dampened the righteous spirit of Xiao Si’r’s father, observable from the father’s different reactions upon seeing Xiao Si’r’s teachers, from a out of temper father seeking justice for his son to an apologetic wimp.
Xiao Si’r viewed his father as a hero, and the hero fell from grace and got humiliated in front of his eyes, his outburst of anger was visualized as a light bulb being busted out, presumably strikes down by Xiao Si’r, echoed the first image of the film, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling being turned on, a sudden emergence of light, then immediately turned into a red background with the appearance of the film’s titles. The light, as well as darkness, were a significant motif. Light, partially represented by the light torch Xiao Si’r stolen from the film studio besides his school at the beginning of the film. The light torch was a possession that Xiao Si’r bought along on the street, as well as a light source in his cupboard-turned-bedroom for reading and writing. In the most visually striking scene, Sly and the 217 gang were massacred in their base (a pool room), with a stormy rain outside and a complete darkness indoor as out of electricity. The violence was only glimpsed when beam of light emitted from a light torch sliced through the scene. The unseen was compensated with the roaring and mourning sound, indicated Yang was a highly stylized and calculated filmmaker. The eye-sight problem of Xiao Si’r, could be read as an allegory of “unable to view the world clearly”, “an idealized and false perception of the world”. As soon as Xiao Si’r left/forgot his light torch back in the film studio near the end of the film, he missed the true reality and made the ultimate mistake of killing the one he loved.
For Ming, she was mainly portrayed from the male’s perspective, almost like a trophy (for Sly) or an excuse to act as a protecter (for Xiao Si’r). Her true and genuine relationship, at least suggested mostly off screen, was with Honey, a role model that quickly befriended with Xiao Si’r when he resurfaced from hiding. Ma (Tan Chih-Kang), a self-assured and confident loner and the son of a General, also built up an unexpected friendship with Xiao Si’r and his friends. Ma represented the rich kid in class, the one that no need to depend on any gang’s power as he already had a prestigious status in society. His unaware self-centredness and sense of solitary were alike with Xiao Si’r which drew them close to be friend, and eventually each paid a great price when Ming “involved” in-between. The lack of father figure in Ming’s family (her mother is an asthmatic maid living in the employers house with Ming) directly associated to Ming’s need of companion.
The cruelty of the political landscape, the lack of understanding between generations, everyday injustices and the growing self-absorbed mind in multiple characters, added up together as the wrong turn at the end. Honey mentioned a book he read during hiding, the only one book that he remembered the title, War and Peace. To me, A Brighter Summer Day is the epitome of Asian/Chinese cinema as War and Peace is the epitome of Russian novel. The achievement they made deserved to be analysed over and over again. My writing here is merely a short reflection upon the third viewing (I watched the restored film back to back twice with an audio commentary on during the last time), it’s far from comprehensive. For A Brighter Summer Day, it is a new experience on any subsequent viewing. Now with the new restoration and a readily available blu-ray, I’m more than pleased to be “traumatized” repeatedly, until someday I could truly say I “understand” every bits and pieces.