(A Brighter Summer Day)
Director: Edward Yang
Production: Yang and His Gang Filmmakers; colour; running time: 237 minutes.
Producer: Yu Weiyan; screenplay: Edward Yang, Yan Hongya, Yang Shunqing, Lai Mingtang; photography: Zhang Huigong, Li Longyu; editor: Chen Bowen; assistant directors: Cai Guohui, Yang Shunqing; production design: Yu Weiyan; sound: Du Duzhi.
Zhang Zhen (
); Lisa Yang (
); Zhang Guozhu (
); Elaine Jin (
); Wang Juan (
); Zhang Han (
); Jiang Xiuqiong (
); Lai Fanyun (
City Limits (New York), 23 February 1989.
Rayns, Tony, "Taipei Story" in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1989.
Variety (New York), 2 Septemer 1991.
Jousse, T., and Y. Umemoto, "Plus de lumière" in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1992.
Bassan, R., "Tragique jeux d'adolescents" in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1992.
Ciment, M., and others, "Edward Yang" in Positif (Paris), May 1992.
Rayns, Tony, "Lonesome Tonight" in Sight and Sound (London), March 1993.
Charity, T., Sight and Sound (London), April 1993.
* * *
Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day comes out of a unique set of circumstances. In the late 1980s the Taiwan film industry almost ceased to exist after its most powerful producer, distributor, and exhibitor—the Nationalist Government-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation—drastically scaled down its activities. Consequently, technicians and actors sought their livelihoods elsewhere in the boom economy. Thus the New Cinema movement, in which Yang had been a leading figure with his three feature films, That Day, On the Beach ( Guangyin de Gushi , 1982), Taipei Story ( Qingmei Zhuma , 1985) and The Terroriser ( Kongbufenzi , 1986), was left in disarray.
In these 80s films, Yang developed a multi-character narrative style of interchanging story lines that was logistically demanding. In the new circumstances, an epic on the scale of A Brighter Summer Day , involving more than 80 speaking parts, ought to have been unimaginable. But Yang used his position as a teacher in the drama department of the National Institute for the Arts to train most of the cast and crew himself. It is one of the immediately impressive aspects of the film that the craft skills on display are superb at every level.
Furthermore, the youth and freshness of the cast proved highly appropriate for a film set in 1960, when the director himself was 13, and built around a tentative love affair between two adolescents: Xiao Si'r, the 14-year-old son of a civil servant, and Ming, the girlfriend of a charismatic gang leader. Their tryst's tragic outcome is hinted at by the Chinese title which translates literally as "The Boy in the Murder Incident on Guling Street." The story was derived from a real incident remembered from Yang's school days. In the three-hour version of the film, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1992 Tokyo Film Festival, this relationship, with its echoes of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause , predominates over the carefully wrought social observation of subplot and mise-en-scène. In the released 127-minute integral version, however, the desire to explain a moment of historical crisis through the minutiae of ordinary lives is paramount.
Families who fled to Taiwan from mainland China with Chiang Kai-Shek found that much of the strict tradition of family life was also uprooted. While parents were absorbed into the militarised island's ruling elite, their children grew up under the double sway of a martial atmosphere and a promise of greater freedom inscribed in the products of the Chinese Nationalist's American backers. Many of these children became involved in gang warfare against the indigenous island youth. Yang describes this bitter period of highly conflicting values and tensions in terms of coolly-distanced melodrama, distanced not so much by a refusal to depict the expression of emotion, as in Fassbinder, but more by a determinedly stand-back camera style of deep-focus, wide-angle group shots that gives each character equal weight.
Thus Yang has Xiao Si'r drawn into the conflict between Honey's Little Park Gang and the indigenous 217 gang not only through his fascination with Ming, but also because of the pressure of academic failure which has condemned him to a less prestigious night school and to the disdain of his ultra-correct, fatally passive father Zhang Ju. Xiao Si'r himself remains a passive observer, but not as a conduit of the audience's point of view. His story provides the turning action of a kaleidoscope of quiet desperation until his inevitable emotional breakdown leads him to finally act violently against the person he idealises most.
In Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause , James Dean's rage and anguish is similarly set against a passive paternal figure who won't intervene in the mechanical processes of institutional authority. But Ray's film plays complicit games with the narcissism of its lead character, making it primarily about a crisis of individual conscience. Instead Yang offers a position of involved critique, forcing the viewer into an analysis of Xiao Si'r's motives even before he acts.
While the macrocosmic dilemma of an entire generation of Taiwan inhabitants unfolds, the film remains mostly within Xiao Si'r's home turf. Its nocturnal, pressure-cooker mood is circumscribed by the night school, the club house run by the Little Park gang, the bookstores of Guling Street, the pool room and garage used by the 217 gang and the homes of Xiao and his friends. We see Ming's boyfriend Honey, the charismatic leader of the Little Park Gang, return from exile only to be betrayed and murdered. A revenge raid on the 217 gang's headquarters is chaotic and indiscriminately bloody. Zhang Ju's loyalty to the state is rewarded by his arrest and interrogation on suspicion of having communist connections. Xiao Si'r discovers that Ming has been the lover of several of his acquaintances. Every move on the claustrophobic island seems to produce a self-inflicted wound.
Contrasting these apparently fatalistic results of political inevitability is the ethereal balm of Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" as mistranslated by Xiao Si'r's sister (the film's English title comes from Presley's delivery of the line "does your memory stray, to a bright uh-summer day) and performed by the Little Park Gang's rock 'n' roll band. However, the semblance of transcendent hope that America represents for the protagonists is itself a chimera, presented with considerable irony by Yang.
A Brighter Summer Day shares the breadth of ambition and distanced, objective point of view of Hou Xiaoxian's 1989 allusive social panorama A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi) , which attempted to capture the earlier moment of historical crisis of the 1949 influx. In all other respects, however, it is an utterly unique achievement, one that realises hidden resources of scale and complexity that have been untapped by filmmakers for some years.