A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Director: Edward Yang
Cast: Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Huiguo Zhou, Hongming Lin
Runtime: 237 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Funny, sad, beautiful, and in the end, harrowingly tearjerking; a lost epic
Edward Yang was born in China in 1947. Taiwanese at heart, he made his first film in 1982. Over the next eighteen years he would make only seven more films, before retiring and then dying a too-young death in 2007 while staying in America. To this day, his films are tremendously underseen. One of them, Yi Yi (his last), was released by the Criterion Collection, but many of his other seven films have yet to face a public release. This is astonishing. Yang, who is one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, died young, alone and underappreciated. The film I’m reviewing today, his fifth, titled A Brighter Summer Day, is perhaps the greatest of them all.
From its incredibly warm and inviting title to its fresh characters, applause-worthy script, sensational acting and fluid direction. Yang employs many static, unmoving shots, much like the great Yasujiro Ozu, who also died at a fairly young age, and uses his camera to capture images in a simple manner, lending the film terrific realism and easy watchability. His shots also stand out as distinctly unique; one brilliant shot sees an irate woman screaming and hurling books at her ex-boyfriend. The camera does not focus on her; instead it turns and watches through a distant but large window as the boyfriend gets into his car and drives away. He also seems to rarely use artificial light; many scenes are darker than they would be in other movies, and there is one viscious sequence focusing on a gang attack that occurs in a completely dark room. We only see snippets of the violence when one of the gang members happens to focus his flashlight on the beating, but only for moments at a time.
The film is set in the early 60s in Taiwan. The film focuses on various characters in an intricate, fairly simple to follow plot that gradually gets more intense, violent and enthralling. The main character is Xiao Si’r, a nervous, detached, hollow young teenager who is talented but chooses to sulk in silence rather than express his feelings. He observes the ongoing war between two gangs, and at times dances too close to them, his actions influenced by their dangerous tension and fury. He befriends Ming, the girlfriend of a gang member, but the film does not take this plotline to any clichéd areas of “falling in love,” or “overcoming oppression.” The film is dark at times, and its ending is bleak and tearjerking. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say Ming and Si’r do not end up together, and in one of the final scenes, we see him holding her and sobbing, a long and loud outburst of pent-up emotion that is as affecting for the audience as it is for the characters. Holding back the tears is difficult, but Yang does not milk the scene for emotion; the entire thing is witnessed from a distance by his static camera, refusing to get too deeply involved.
There is a tremendous sense of place and time in this movie. There are no over-the-top references to remind the audience that the year is 1960, but we feel it in the conversation between characters, their weird 60s nicknames for each other, the way they act and the music they so obsessively listen to. Gangsters play pool, teens sing songs and impersonate Elvis, and beneath this an unbearable tension is ever-present. The 60s were a simpler time, but not necessarily a happier time. There are many scenes or simple shots of horrific emotion or physical action. In the film’s second half particularly, violence grows more common and more disturbing as bright summer days seem further away and dark clouds and endless rain bring with them torrents of obscenity. In the film’s most terrifying scene, a young man is brutally beaten relentlessly by his father, while his screaming family desperately try to stop and the unwavering static camera looks on.
But the film is not completely unhappy. There are some truly magnificent scenes of wonder, nostalgia and beauty. A particularly fantastic scene is the relatively early one which sees S’ir and Ming talk about their lives and the possibility of a future as they observe militant soldiers in a field, the politics of the country and of gangs ever-present in their lives, but not – at that point in time, anyway – bothering them. Moments like these seem so perfectly captured, and so serenely photographed that our heart leaps in admiration. These are the moments that we go to the movies for, and that remain inside us for as long as we live. A Brighter Summer Day is a long movie, at 237 minutes, but I must truthfully say I wouldn’t have it a minute shorter and I can’t wait to see it again. The film is a love affair with a time and a place, where in isolated Taiwan physical and mental freedom, as struggling as it may have been to attain, was a joyful privilege and a delight, as was the music, the culture – and even the movies – that it entailed.