ReFramed No. 11

Edward Yang's 'A Brighter Summer Day' (1991)

by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

5 October 2011

In this installment, our ReFramed team discuss a lost masterpiece from a landmark Taiwanese director that deserves more attention than it's received in the past.
cover art

A Bright Summer Day

Director: Edward Yang
Cast: Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elaine Jin

US theatrical: 1991

Jordan Cronk: I think it was somewhat inevitable when we started ReFramed that early on we would opt to cover films that one or both of us have a strong personal connection with or, barring that, one’s which we are simply appalled for as major works that have yet to be recognized as the masterpieces they truly are. And this has certainly happened (see: Frenzy and Family Plot; also: California Split). Recently, however, we’ve discussed some critically canonized works (The Green Ray; Stalker) that for one reason or another haven’t been embraced by larger audiences the same way that cinephiles tend to champion them.

The trend could be said to continue this week as we approach Edward Yang’s 1991 New Taiwan Cinema landmark, A Brighter Summer Day. The difference in this case being availability: never before released on R1 DVD (and with very few legitimately manufactured discs in any region), and caught in what’s become a year’s long restoration and distribution project, A Brighter Summer Day currently stands as perhaps our most obscure pick yet, despite its standing as one of the critically defining works of the ‘90s and perhaps the touchstone of the Taiwanese New Wave movement. But with the film’s long rumored arrival on Criterion DVD still apparently in the works (with the restored print still touring, many were hoping it would surface in 2011, but that doesn’t seem to be the case), A Brighter Summer Day stands one of the best chances yet at actually being “reframed” by a more general cinephilic audience in the very near future.
And it’s a film that deserves every accolade and new fan it accumulates: an epic in the durational sense (the film runs about four hours in total) but intimate and personal on a narrative scale, A Brighter Summer Day is one of cinema’s most absorbing, effortlessly spun tales of youthful abandon, familial bond, political turmoil, and intertwined, tragic fate. Once it’s out there it won’t be a film that needs further superlatives tossed its way, but if we can stoke anticipation for its inevitable arrival to a wider set of eyes then just maybe Yang’s masterpiece will eventually take its rightful place among modern cinema’s most beloved works.

Calum Marsh: This is also probably the least divisive or contentious film we’ve discussed in the ReFramed series to date—it may be obscure, but those who’ve seen it seem to rally behind it unanimously. But you’re right: A Brighter Summer Day continues, bafflingly, to languish in its long-standing and entirely unwarranted obscurity, unavailable to rent or buy in this and many other countries and surprisingly difficult to track down online. We’ve been waiting for its perpetually “forthcoming” Criterion release for about as long as I can remember, and although I’m confident that it’ll find the admiring audience it deserves once that disc eventually surfaces, it’s a damn shame that it’s taken twenty years for this opportunity for reappraisal to arrive.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Jordan, but I expect you first experienced Yang’s masterpiece in precisely the same form as I: there’s a severely battered, poorly subtitled torrent floating around the ether, and as far as I’m aware it’s the only halfway-watchable version of the film available anywhere. It looks like a low-res digital bootleg of a VHS recording of a cable broadcast, and of course its impact is reduced in that form. But when the choice is between watching a terrible-looking version of a masterpiece or not watching the masterpiece at all, I’ll choose the former every time—even if begrudgingly, and possibly to my own detriment. I consider myself fortunate for having seen A Brighter Summer Day at all, but we shouldn’t be forced to make a choice like that.

Cronk: Yeah, my first experience with the film was indeed with the very same bootleg. I’ve since seen the film in its restored print and it’s simply glorious—a great film revealed to be just about a perfect work of art. Needless to say, Yang’s use of the medium and long shot and his predilection for extended takes really suffers when having to squint through decades of grime and degraded tape effects. Not to mention the fact that the film is so long that the curious could potentially be turned off if they haven’t the patience to really dissect what’s going on in the frame at any given moment. It’s such a naturally sprawling film that it begs to be absorbed in all its original glory, a filmic state that hopefully a new generation will be able to experience in due time.

With Yang’s final feature before his untimely death in 2007, Yi Yi, being his only currently available (non-import) title in digital format, it’s left him in a precarious position where many believe this one flash of millennial brilliance is the only worthwhile thing Yang ever did. And while Yi Yi is an unqualified masterpiece, it’s not completely indicative of Yang’s many preoccupations, which veered from satire, to period drama, to urban thriller over the course of a twenty year career. A Brighter Summer Day, meanwhile, encompasses aspects of all three while considering the Chinese diaspora throughout mainland Taiwan in the mid 20th century, and thus stands as probably Yang’s greatest achievement and one that I hope someday I can casually recommend to those unfamiliar with the man’s work.

Marsh: It’s funny you mention Yi Yi, actually, because I have a sneaking (and possibly unjustifiable) suspicion that its overwhelming popularity grants everybody a free pass to ignore Yang’s other work. I mean, I love Yi Yi—it’s one of the best films of the 2000s, and it’s a fitting conclusion to Yang’s long and fruitful filmmaking career. But while that film is widely available and vehemently praised, the rest of his filmography remains almost entirely unavailable on any English-language format; the implication seems to be that Yang’s earlier films just aren’t worth bothering with. And as we’ve discussed in these pages before, that mentality is cyclical: the average film lover assumes that because a film isn’t available, it must not be interesting, and because the average film lover isn’t interested, the film remains unavailable. This is a very palatable system for most people—even if it’s predicated on self-deception and vague machinations of the film industry—and it’s certainly easier to buy into it then to spend all of your time hunting for unreleased obscurities.

Mind you, I support a companies like Janus Films and the Criterion Collection as much as the next guy, but we’re so accustomed to welcoming every new Criterion release into the unofficial canon that we sometimes forget that there are other things going on in the film world. We’re more concerned with upgrading our perfectly acceptable Yi Yi DVD to Blu-Ray than in seeing a great, unseen masterpiece like A Brighter Summer Day released on any acceptable format. I’m glad that this new print is making the rounds, and I’m glad to hear that it looks as pristine as I imagine it would. But we should remember that it will always be a struggle to get people to pay attention to films like this so long as they remain mostly unavailable and un-discussed.

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