ReFramed No. 11: Edward Yang’s ‘A Brighter Summer Day’ (1991)

[5 October 2011]

By Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

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.

Unlike Hou Hsiao-hsien or Tsai Ming-liang, Yang worked in a more traditional storytelling mode.

Cronk: Very true and, yes, it’s a real shame that nothing much can be done about it. With regard to A Brighter Summer Day in particular, though, it’s doubly tragic because like I mentioned earlier the film is just so endlessly, effortlessly watchable. And I think this has to do with Yang’s preoccupation with the West and his early studies abroad. His films, despite being—with the exception of 1996s Mahjong—spoken entirely in languages other than English, are very American in style and narrative. As opposed to his New Taiwan Cinema contemporaries, Yang’s films are palatable and easy to digest from both a narrative and aesthetic standpoint.

Unlike, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien or Tsai Ming-liang, who’s rigorous formality, concrete mise-en-scène, and at times difficult subject matter which is just inevitably not for everybody, Yang worked in a more traditional storytelling mode (the Rohmer or Chabrol to their Godard or Rivette, if you will). There’s an interesting anecdote on the recently released import Blu-Ray of Yang’s 1986 classic The Terrorizer where Yang collaborator Wu Nien-jen tells of a time when Yang asked him, “In what language do you think?” Wu, having never really stopped to consider this, replied, “I guess I think in Mandarin or Chinese.” Yang’s response, tellingly: “I think in English.”

Marsh: Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s hard to believe that a four-hour epic about teenage gangs would be both accessible and traditional, but you’re bang-on: A Brighter Summer Day is plainly enjoyable and, yeah, “effortlessly watchable”. And for a film that features over a hundred speaking parts and at least a dozen lead characters, it feels remarkably brisk. Despite its length, I think you could even call it classically well-constructed, and, at least for me, its four-hour running time breezes by. This quality alone suggests that Yang is more indebted to the forms and conventions of Western cinema than somebody like Hou Hsaio-hsien, whose intellectual rigor is distinctly opposed to accessibility of this kind.

But Yang’s formal association with Hollywood only runs so deep, and his thematic interests are resolutely Taiwanese. A Brighter Summer Day is essentially a film about self-identity, after all, and about the struggle to define oneself in relation to others—to friends, family, institutions. That it’s a product of a place struggling to self-identify as a “nation” is crucial, and that’s why it’s impossible to imagine this film coming from anywhere else.

Cronk: Yeah, his films are distinctly of (and about) the East while still largely informed by the styles of the West (let us not forget that the film itself is named after an Elvis Presley song, which is played numerous times throughout). Even Yang’s persona was of the West, his most common outfit usually a t-shirt and baseball cap, which is also something his friends and collaborators have often mentioned in interviews. What’s unique about his work and this film specifically is that no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy the film on a base, intrinsic level. He always put character first.

Of course, there are multiple levels to wade through for those interested in the societal and historical implications of the period, but that’s mostly left up to the viewer to explore if they so choose. You can’t really say the same thing about, say, Hou’s The Puppetmaster, which is so dense and elliptical in both narrative and thematics that from an outsider perspective things can look a little intimidating. I’ll stop short of saying that Yang courted an audience more openly then his contemporaries, but the fact remains that his small body of work is unusually accessible coming from a movement so intellectually charged.

Marsh: I suppose you’re right, though I don’t think the film’s flirtations with state police and an oppressively bureaucratic school system could be overlooked entirely. Even if you’re only passingly familiar with Taiwan’s tumultuous political history, A Brighter Summer Day should offer a pretty clear portrait of life in the country during that period, which is important in and of itself. But it’s true that character comes first, in this film as much as in any of his others, and the characters are so fully realized (and well-acted all around) that the power of the human drama is what you walk away with more than anything else. I realize that it’s a bit of a cliché to compare films this long to novels, but you really do come to feel as immersed in the world of this movie as you would in the world of a great book.

I think this is probably at least partly the result of Yang’s visual style, which is so self-effacing that you hardly notice its effects—as you’ve already mentioned, he relies on both long shots and long takes, offering a view that’s distanced but totally naturalistic. One of his most interesting devices is his use of visual and aural repetition, perhaps on loan from Ozu, which he employs throughout the film for dramatic (and sometimes ironic or comedic) effect. Sometimes this is so subtle that you aren’t even aware of it, except maybe subconsciously. But that’s a testament to the film’s richness and to Yang’s skillfulness as a director.

Cronk: Right. I didn’t mean to suggest that there is nothing to learn historically from this film. Far from it—in fact, I hold this film rather close for the era it depicts, a time not often captured on film. I just think the uninitiated can get involved with the narrative so thoroughly that any historical gray areas that may arise from cultural unfamiliarity can at least partially be filled in with a bit of perspective and common sense. But we’ve been talking about the lighter and more accessible aspects of the film for so long here that I think it’s important to note that this and many Yang films end in tragedy. His 1985 film, Taipei Story—perhaps the most analogous work to Brighter—ends with a violent act not far off from the tragic climax of this film, while The Terrorizer, while working in more of a traditional genre framework, peaks with the most violent montage of Yang’s career.

I find it interesting that he had such a fascination with these unexpectedly violent conclusions. Of course, in A Brighter Summer Day, violence is lurking around every corner, boiling under the surface of the film for so long that you almost come to expect it. What’s ultimately jarring is who the violent act is perpetrated upon, which lends the film a unique gravitas with devastating implications for the characters and their families. The way Yang decides to close the film is even more heartrending, as these characters have become so intimate and have been so finely drawn that the once-nostalgic feel of the voiceover eventually turns tragic, rendering the experience unforgettable.

Marsh: Oh, man, it’s almost too much to handle. And what’s odd is that, perhaps because Yi Yi is the film with which he’s most commonly associated, Yang’s reputation pegs him as something of an optimistic humanist, which is not at all the impression you leave with after seeing A Brighter Summer Day. It’s not a bleak film, exactly, but it posits some hard truths: hope is hard to hold on to, redemption is pretty much impossible, and the universe is indifferent to your personal problems. Institutions fail these characters, and when they complain that it’s unfair, nobody listens. Yang even regards love with skepticism: to quote Andrew Chan at Reverse Shot, “where Yi Yi affirmed the intuitive strength of the father-son bond, A Brighter Summer Day mourns the limits of what one can do for the other, even as they both travel similar trajectories”. It’s pretty heartbreaking stuff.

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