The long delay in getting Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, one of cinema’s great masterpieces, released for public consumption was getting to be as intricate and epic as the film itself. Except for scattered screenings at a city arthouse or museum, chances to see it since its release in 1991 have been rare.
The background context supplied by a deluxe Criterion set are especially welcome here. A Brighter Summer Day operates on a number of levels: teen drama, coming-of-age tale, gang/war movie, societal criticism, and sociological study of Taiwan in the post-World War II era. One can certainly enjoy the movie without knowing about the early 20th century Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the legacies of China’s Confucian education system, or the repressive atmosphere of Chiang Kai-shek’s military rule, but it’s impossible to grasp its full complexity, or the emotional underpinnings of the characters’ actions, without it. (A valuable feature-length documentary, Our Time, Our Story, tracing the rise of New Taiwan Cinema is also included in the set.)
This is a hugely ambitious movie, masked within a seemingly small-scaled study of a teenage boy and his immediate environs. It was inspired by a news story during Yang’s teen years, of a boy who murdered his girlfriend. Yang’s attempts to work back from that moment to try and think through what might have led up to the murder resulted in the core of the story. Yang’s intentions with both the storytelling and its essayistic approach to history are hinted at through several references to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s not surprising to learn that he had thought about making this story as a television show — it has the sprawling cast, love of characters, and obsession with time and place that is now familiar from many of today’s “Golden Age” of television dramas.
The film, set in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, opens with the teenage boy, Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen), being demoted to a night school, an embarrassment to his family, taken as a virtual death sentence for his possibilities to succeed in life, and an act that essentially precipitates everything to follow.
Xiao Si’r entry into the night school spins off several different strands of the story. He and his best friend Cat (Wong Chi-Zan,wonderful) get caught up in the tribal in-fighting of their classroom and eventually in larger gang violence in the community. Cat pursues a singing career with a local group, trying to get the lyrics to Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” translated. (A misunderstood lyric is the source of the film’s title.) Xiao Si’r befriends Ma, the spoiled and arrogant son of a known general, and initiates an awkward romance with Ming (Lisa Yang), the girlfriend of Honey, a gang leader in hiding. Xiao Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) attempts to get him back into day school by getting involved with political machinations at which he is inept and ill suited.
Though Rebel Without a Cause was an influence for this film and the portrait of the characters, Yang goes further than Nicholas Ray in capturing juvenile delinquency. The teens are awkward, posturing, easily cowed by a parent or authority figure who arrives in their world, yet capable of serious violence in their naivete, impulsiveness, and need to demonstrate their seriousness and maturity.
Yang achieves an incredibly natural rapport between the young actors resulting in a complex interplay between the characters in group scenes. This was Chang Chen’s first film (he has since become a star as an adult); in an interview included on the disc he says that he had few moments in the filming where he felt like he was truly acting and inhabiting his character. Yet Yang takes advantage of his open sensitive face, an ability to project the half-aware existence of a young teenage boy who is mediocre in his studies, more often going along than asserting himself.
That all of the narrative strands, patiently laid out, are leading to the gradual dissolution of Xiao Si’r and his killing of Ming is not immediately apparent. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crack-up it happens “almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.” On my second viewing of the movie, the murder, or something equally tragic, seemed almost preordained and inevitable. The atmosphere of fear and repression under military rule gets subconsciously picked-up on and reflected and vented through the forming and violence of the youth gangs.
Their “play” gets more militarized and reflective of class tensions between Taiwan’s native, Japanese, and newly arrived Chinese populations, with the fighting progressing from fists to bats to guns. Through the adult characters, primarily Xiao Si’r’s father, we see how vulnerable and cowed they are to the whims of an authoritarian regime. At times, characters address themselves to someone standing behind the camera which, coupled with intricately choreographed crowd scenes, lends the presentation a subtly documentary dynamic.
The boys are both victims and perpetrators of the violence, while the young women in their orbit struggle to define themselves. Within the world of the gangs, they are relegated to the role of the moll or floozy, traded between the boys, mocked, and abused. Their one chance of agency is to purposely flit from boy to boy, toying with their affections, for which they are attacked and blamed as the source of the gangs’ conflicts.
Ming is obviously the greatest victim and also the most indistinct character. She is shy, Lisa Yang was an American actress not fluent in Mandarin, which gives the character a natural distance from the other characters and her relations to them. In Xiao Si’r’s final outburst with her, probably the most harrowing and ironically “genuine” seeming between the two characters, he attacks her as being an actress who “cries and laughs and makes it all seem natural.” But she doesn’t strike me that way in the performance or presentation, and I can’t tell if it’s a fault of the movie or the fevered vision of a teenage boy.
Edward Yang certainly works in complicated ideas of point of view. A director who took total, detail-obsessed advantage of his films, in A Brighter Summer Day he and cinematographers Chang Hui-kung and Li Long-yu play skillfully use lighting as a thematic device. The lights are continually flickering on and off, being shut off during a crucial gang fight, playing off the contrast between the night school and daylight. Xiao Si’r steals a flashlight early in the movie and it becomes a recurring tool used by the boys. He complains that the night school is making his vision blurry and the night school as a whole becomes a metaphor for a society being kept in the dark.
That a movie is created by exposing light to film makes the movie itself, and the act of making it, a representation for shedding light on the world, into the “brighter summer day”, that the characters strive towards. In notes by Yang, from 1991, included with the set’s booklet, Yang says that the film “is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less.” Art, he says, can help to “somewhat reconstruct the truth and restore our faith in humanity.” This extraordinarily tender yet epic and incisive portrait of Taiwan is one of film’s great fumblings towards this elusive truth.