(Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
Lost in the World
A strong case could be made for Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day as the quintessential Taiwanese film as it’s concerned with the residual effects of the events that shaped this modern nation state in the wake of a severe split with its motherland. Yang’s film documents this crucial period in Taiwan’s history from the perspective of the next generation. The year is 1960, and political dissidents who fled mainland China in 1949 are now raising their children on this foreign island. Yang devotes some time to these aging individuals who still must cope with that jarring displacement, but he primarily focuses on Taipei’s youth – born into exile and forced to adapt despite their parents’ recurring pitfalls. It is no surprise, then, that Yang suggests these teens turn to street gangs to find their identity and Western pop culture to fill a void where there is none. They roam the streets after dark seemingly lost in a world not their own.
At the center of Yang’s film is Xiao Si’r (Chen Chang), a young teenager on the fringes of these gangs that determine who you befriend, who you date, and where you go. For the most part, Si’r is a sad boy with only a handful of friends (each an outsider in his own way), problems at his strict school, and a troubled home life where his parents often pine for their former days in Shanghai. Yang beautifully balances these varying spheres of this boy’s life by devoting ample time to each of these peripheral characters. The plight of his parents (Chang Kuo-Chu and Elaine Jin) feels tragically real as his father is slowly ostracized from his government position due to his ties with mainland politics. His friends and siblings, fully realized characterizations featuring a stunning supporting cast, provide a much-needed relief from the dreariness of the film (namely in the character of Cat (Wong Chizan) – Si’r’s best friend who may lack stature, but never guts and has a penchant for belting American songs in his prepubescent falsetto) and alternate methods of coping with disillusionment (namely Si’r’s two sisters, the eldest (Chuan Wang) who acts as a third parent to her younger siblings and a younger one (Hsiu-Chiung Chiang) who has turned to Christianity to make sense of the disappointments of this life).
Amidst the familial strife that plagues the boy’s home life, more trouble befalls Si’r when he begins to take an interest in a fellow schoolmate named Ming (Lisa Yang) – a rather popular young girl who is claimed by the revered, yet absent gang leader Honey (Lin Hongming). Si’r attempts to cloak his feelings for Ming in a mere friendship and desire to help alleviate her equally troubled home life, but he soon finds himself in the middle of an imminent clash of gangs as tensions rise and Honey returns. Yang documents these increasingly violent skirmishes that ultimately lead to the murder of Honey and the bloody massacre of an entire gang through the eyes of Si’r who always stands on the sidelines. Several times the frustrated teenager entertains the idea of unleashing his own inner turmoil through violence, but each time his reputation of being “straight as an arrow” prevails.
There is a pervasive melancholy that looms over Yang’s film both in its near exclusive setting after dark and its heavy subject matter that explores the loss of innocence of youth. Signature long takes and intentionally shrouded shots mark A Brighter Summer Day allowing its full emotional impact to sink in. Not without a decent amount of irony, of course, given its sunny, optimistic title. Derived from the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” the title references an incorrectly transcribed lyric as Si’r’s eldest sister translates the piece for Cat to sing. Elvis sings of “a bright summer day,” but the sister’s mistake uncovers Yang’s true intention: this desperate youth experiences nothing akin to the joy implied in a bright summer day, thus he suggests they’re still waiting for a brighter one to come. It’s a seemingly hopeless notion further embodied in the film’s tragic conclusion as Si’r’s pent up emotions ultimately drive him to a horrible act of violence – one that would sting even more without Yang’s last film Yi Yi to offer a late-career glimpse of hope.
It’s a feat of true filmmaking talent that A Brighter Summer Day, in all its sorrow, isn’t a more difficult film to digest. The lives of Si’r and those around him captivate until the very end, and Yang’s film more than earns every minute of its daunting four hours. It never sags or bores as Yang approaches this work with tenderness elevating it to a poignancy not often seen in gangster cinema. Favoring static wide-shots over the kinetic camerawork typical of much of ‘90s filmic output, Yang grants us a much more encompassing view of his characters and setting that focuses on his hefty narrative. This is not to say Yang’s film is devoid of stylistic flourishes. His tendency to use wide-shots throughout the majority of the film makes the occasional close-up that much more significant and intimate. Too, his attention to lighting as he plays with the relation of light to darkness underscores the internal struggles of his characters as they teeter on the verge of right and wrong. Some of the film’s most memorable sequences involve this interplay – a singular dangling light bulb illuminating a black screen to open the film, a basketball bouncing into the light from an archway of total darkness hinting at the menace lurking within, a climactic battle between gangs shown only through the dim glow of a wildly flailing flashlight.
By now, A Brighter Summer Day is probably more famous for its unavailability than the praise bestowed upon it from those who have had the privilege of seeing it. It stands as a landmark of ‘90s cinema and Edward Yang’s impressive career, and has in recent years been lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. That it has achieved this level of acclaim with so few repeated or even first-time views would suggest a truly profound filmic statement from one of Taiwan’s greatest filmmakers. The youth that populate A Brighter Summer Day may be lost in the world with no real place to call home, but the film’s premise could also unintentionally describe the film itself – a hidden treasure begging for proper restoration and distribution so that all may partake in this beautiful cinematic experience.
(Writer’s note: This evaluation was originally written upon first viewing in 2011. Fortunately, the Criterion Collection has announced a much-anticipated restoration and release of Yang’s masterwork in early 2016.)