Sunday Editor’s Pick: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

by on April 29, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun May 6 at 1:00 at Jacob Burns Film Center [Program & Tix]

Jacob Burns’ “The Unlimited Possibilities of Cinema: Selected by Apichatpong Weerasethakul” lets Westchester’s Thai auteur superstar in residence curate a few of his favorite things.

Says the director:

I hardly dislike any film that I saw before I was 15. Each one — Star Crash, Cujo, Earthquake, Cannibal Holocaust, and so on—became one of my alltime favorites. But things changed. The theaters in my town were demolished, and I began to have more difficulty finding good films in multiplexes. I started to distrust cinema. Luckily, the films included here sustained the love. They were my new Evil Dead. They made my heart race and made me see the unlimited possibilities of the screen.


Weerasethakul will play host for the screening of Edward Yang’s recently rescued and widely beloved film, of which he says, “Many Taiwanese films remind me of my childhood. Edward Yang’s movies are full of references to growing up and trying to survive in Asia’s hierarchic world. This movie made me nostalgic for my school years and even got me to see my past in a different light. For me, this is Yang’s best film.”

A.O. Scott assures you it is well worth the four hour investment, for The New York Times:

American pop music is a tendril from the outside world that has penetrated this claustrophobic, hectic island, and it expresses the universal longings and the specific frustrations that dominate the lives of Mr. Yang’s characters. The film, at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early ’60s, like “East of Eden” or “Rebel Without a Cause.” Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, “A Brighter Summer Day” also belongs to a tradition that stretches from “I Vitelloni” to “Mean Streets” and beyond. Colored by Mr. Yang’s memories of the world he grew up in, it is one of those movies that, by slow accretion of detail and bold dramatic vision, disclose the structure and feeling of an entire world.
“A Brighter Summer Day” is, by critical consensus, Yang’s masterpiece. And it deserves that overused designation in several specific ways. In every aspect of technique — from the smoky colors and the bustling, off-center compositions to the architecture of the story and the emotional precision of the performances — this film is a work of absolute mastery. Its imaginative authority and the scale of its achieved ambition make it not just a wonderful movie but also an essential piece of modern cinema. The forging and unraveling of alliances — and the periodic eruption of battles that are sometimes comic, sometimes lethal — give “A Brighter Summer Day” its intrigue and momentum. It is a crowded, complex crime story that is also a tale of sexual awakening and an understated exercise in kitchen-sink realism. In short — or rather at mesmerizing, necessary length — this film has everything, and is well worth a day of your life.

Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

In the nearly four-hour span of this vast Proustian memory piece, from 1991, Edward Yang meticulously delineates the anguish of young people in Taipei in 1959 and the gang violence that pervades their lives. The story, which begins with young Xiao Si’r, a wayward student who gets caught sneaking into a movie studio, opens out into a dazzling multigenerational array of characters, as well as a panoply of trenchant themes—including the paranoia of the Taiwanese military state, the woes of refugees from the mainland, the bitter memories of wartime Japanese occupation, the encroachment of American popular culture (the plot pivots on concerts by local boys covering doo-wop and Elvis), and the cinema itself, as Ming, the girl with whom Si’r is obsessed, gets herself a screen test at the studio. Yang’s methods bring a melancholy tenderness to his recollections; he films long takes of action intricately staged in real time with a rueful, contemplative reserve, and, as in Proust, the physical objects to which he pays close attention—an American tape recorder, a radio from China, a Japanese sword, a flashlight stolen from the movie studio—both signify and effect the endurance of the past.

Colin Beckett for BOMB:

One of the richest works of social realist cinema ever produced, a heavily fictionalized re-imagining of a now-obscure scandal from his childhood: the 1961 murder of a 14-year-old girl by a male classmate. With an epic run-time and a cast of hundreds, Yang reproduces the dense, minutely-variegated world of early-’60s Taipei, delineating the personal, cultural and political battles that defined his own generation while portraying scores of men and women of various ages from a range of classes, each with rich and specific detail. The most fully realized achievement in Yang’s consistently rewarding filmography, A Brighter Summer Day elucidates Yang’s commitment to unraveling the knotted strands that compose the experience of history.



Ryland Walker Knight for MUBI:

I was ready to be let down after hearing so much praise for so long, but this film’s reputation doesn’t do it justice. For one, you cannot summarize or condense the growing rings of significance that accrue as the four hours tick past, no matter how simple a story we have here. But it’s not just the “modern novel” structure that so impressed me (though it did) as much as how the film was shot, and lit. It’s not flashy, it’s not even as outright gorgeous as many of Yang’s colleague Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films (some of the best-looking films ever), but the film’s interest in light far outstrips pure compositional-aesthetic pleasures. That is, light—when it shines and how and what is illuminated at which hours—carries its own thematic weight. Sex is often shrouded, violence often spot-lit. But it’s never so schematic; which is, of course, the beauty of the film’s construction: giving something like “realism” a porous form. (If I was a better scholar of the cinema I might be able to trot out a good Rossellini example.) However, I did not take notes during the film so I cannot tease out all those overlaps in this little paragraph. Which leaves us with the title as our guiding metaphor; the title, we’re reminded, comes from an Elvis ballad; it’s a daydream, a lonesome lover’s fantasy and plead for a time he’s never known, some utopia away from this dark muck we traipse through for most of the feature, which is nothing but the riot of adolescence’s confusion complicated at every turn and right angle.

Nelsom Kim for Hammer to Nail:

An amazingly rich, layered work of historical reconstruction—it’s set during the early ‘60s, when Yang himself was the same age as the mostly teenage characters. A Brighter Summer Day springs from what we can only assume must be very personal, even autobiographical sources, but the events depicted are viewed from a detached, adult perspective. Many of the characters are the children of expats who fled Mainland China following the Communists’ 1949 victory (as Yang himself was); they live in Japanese-style houses, sing along with American pop songs on the radio, and fight with the children of the native-born Taiwanese. The continuities being traced here are clear: even when summoning the ghosts of his past, Yang was always looking forward to our modern world of perpetual displacement and unsettled, ever-shifting identity.


Christopher Bell for The Playlist:

Watching this treasure in a theater completely unbroken is the way to do it — the director’s greatest asset is his use of filmic time, the way every minute feels lived in and experienced by both the characters and the viewer alike. It’s an absorbing venture, a tale that feels more than just a story well told.
As one becomes more acquainted with films, the general magic of many begins to fade, revealing the blueprint and making every beat a cinch to spot. Of course, some of our favorites either manage to retain that illusion or are still fun regardless, but Yang is one of those rare cases who opts for a different road all together. Similar to “Yi Yi,” ‘Brighter Summer’ feels birthed from a dense piece of literature rather than a script, a film moving at its own pace and logic as opposed to following tried-and-true screenplay elements. With plenty of screen time to work with, the filmmaker is able to successfully evoke the life of that period, and the end result gives the impression of a luminous personal memory. Some details and names are likely to be lost and forgotten over its duration, but such is life, and despite these minutia slipping from our grasp, the entirety is felt — Yang is more interested in the experienceLight and identity are also topics the filmmaker is fascinated with. The movie’s cinematography is deceptively simple, lacking any elaborate movements or flashy visuals, instead confidently capturing the action in few shots with minimal cutting. He’s more interested in where the light moves or what it does to his characters, from the selective shine of a flashlight in the late hours to the all encompassing day-time sunlight breaking in a home. Yang shines a light on how these people at least strive to find some sort of understanding of themselves, be it through rock & roll or gang-life.
Some have been as bold to stick “A Brighter Summer Day” with the mighty “m” word, a weighty label that we can’t dispute given its achievement in creating more than just a masterly crafted movie. Here, Yang has erected a temporal experience, a completely immersive world that few artists in any medium could ever hope to do. If you love cinema, you’ll love this movie. That’s a promise.



Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Loosely based on a 1961 incident from the filmmaker’s childhood (a highly publicized case that had also led to the prosecution of the first juvenile trial in Taiwan), A Brighter Summer Day is a sublimely understated, insightful, and richly textured chronicle of the social uncertainty and cultural fracture of transplanted Chinese as they attempt to rebuild their lives in a newly created nation after being relegated to an unforeseeable life of perpetual exile. Recalling Hou Hsiao Hsien’s cinema of alienated history, most notably in the magnum opus A City of Sadness, Edward Yang similarly implements predominantly medium shots, deliberate pacing (that enables detailed observation), and episodes of darkness (that also serve to illustrate the country’s constant struggle with intermittent blackouts and unreliable utilities during the transitional period towards self-reliance) that betray the characters’ sense of estrangement and disorientation behind the veneer of control and internalized order. Yang further incorporates episodes of surrogacy and substitution that convey a sense of pervasive displacement: the young gang member, Cat’s requested English transcription of the Elvis Presley’s song Are You Lonesome Tonight? (from which the titular lyrics were culled) that reflects the younger generation’s assimilation of borrowed culture in the absence of their own sense of lost ancestral history; the family’s occupancy of a reclaimed Japanese house, Juan’s (Wang Juan) payment of Lao Er’s (Zhang Han) debt to redeem their mother’s watch that is subsequently mirrored in his own attempt to reclaim the same watch that Xiao S’ir later pawns; Ming’s pragmatic opportunism that has led to a succession of often disreputable liaisons. In the end, it is this resigned sentiment that is reflected in Ming’s embittered and ultimately damning words “I’m like this world. It will never change.” – a desperate search to find some semblance of an elusive, impermanent inner peace within the hollowed and broken psyches of a dislocated people.

Mark Asch for The L Magazine:

A Brighter Summer Day was long an unknown masterpiece, a giant shadow—237 minutes, 100-plus speaking parts—cast in the absence of the thing itself. Dragon-chasing cinephiles will now find A Brighter Summer Day a very different beast from your Jeanne Dielmans, your Satantangos, your Out 1s: a decade before everybody started comparing quality serial television to 19th-century social novels, Yang’s film—which namechecks War and Peace—was a teeming human ecosystem of love and death, pop and politics, densely but accessibly plotted and subplotted, with on-the-nose dialogue, Chekhovian props and running gags, and tidy arcs for concentric rings of supporting characters.
The lyricism is cumulative. Even with the film’s legendary elusiveness resolved, there’s something mythic to the way characters wax and wane in prominence, or poke in at the margins, wedges that could open out indefinitely—a jingoistic English teacher, a coddling military wife, an alcoholic shopkeeper—while objects like a reel-to-reel tape and crackling radio steep in meaning. A Brighter Summer Day does what few films can, which is to show the ephemerality of people and the permanence of places—after four hours, every classroom and courtyard, brick gymnasium and clay tennis court, feels thick with human residue.



Andrew Schenker for The House Next Door:

The most significant exception to Yang’s concern with the present day remains the much lauded but rarely seen A Brighter Summer Day. Set in Taipei in 1961, the film builds its vast, finely detailed canvas out of the experience of growing up in an uncertain historical moment. Caught between the traces of their homeland’s occupied past and the impossibility of imagining a better future, teenage S’ir and his friends flirt with involvement in the youth gangs that dominate the urban landscape, pursue petty squabbles and romantic encounters and skirt expulsion from school for bad behavior. Eschewing the reams of exposition of a Balzac or Tolstoy (though War and Peace, humorously referenced in the movie, is not a bad analogue for its initially overwhelming presentation of vast numbers of characters), Yang simply thrusts us in, forcing us to actively sort out the webs of interaction, as his people talk or fight their way across his rigorous medium and long shots. The warmth and easy comprehensibility of Yi Yi (neither of which are meant as a knock on that film) are largely absent from Summer Day; instead, Yang plunges the viewer into a state of dislocation that mirrors his characters’ tenuous positions.
But once the connections are made, the characters sorted out, the richness of the implications freights every one of the film’s exchanges with dizzying layers of significance and turns its larger set pieces into intricate nexuses of meaning. In one standout sequence, a Western-style concert in which a local band performs American pop songs learned phonetically from English becomes, in addition to an absurdist commentary on cultural influence and appropriation, the site of a gangland power struggle in which an understanding of the complex interactions of a good dozen characters is necessary to tease out the full import of the situation. Many films take historical instability as their theme and many more deal with the cross-cultural migrations of pop artifacts, but one would be hard pressed to come up with any that do it both on the scale and with the intricate orchestration that Yang manages here.



Saul Austerlitz for Senses of Cinema:

A shared trait of all Yang’s films is a complexity resistant to quick summary or explication. Each of his films possesses a difficulty and depth that requires multiple viewings to parse. Even elements of plot and character development are not always clear on first viewing. Within this context, Yang’s fifth film, A Brighter Summer Day, is an interesting development, simultaneously more and less accessible than his previous films. A Brighter Summer Day‘s plot is more accessible on first contact, but the film, set in 1960, maintains an essential distance that is similar to that of Yang’s previous films. It is as if Yang prefers to create a film world where no character demands too much (or much at all) of the audience’s sympathy or attention. What is astonishing about A Brighter Summer Day is its capacity for deep feeling copresent with an aesthetic distanciation from the film’s world. Yang’s film is deeply affecting in a way that Taipei Story and Terrorizer, while brilliant, never are. Zhao Si’r is a teenager in early-1960s Taipei, forced to attend night school. His alienation extends beyond this perversion of schedule to include a general dissatisfaction with contemporary Taiwanese culture (or lack thereof), and his membership in a youth gang, the Little Park gang. Si’r and his friends spend their time listening to American rock ‘n’ roll and planning future showdowns with their rivals, the 217 gang. Within this framework, Yang presents a large-scale vision of Taiwanese life in the early 1960s, with Si’r and his family and friends coming to represent all the tensions and complexities of the time. The adolescent gang culture provides a simplicity, an easy-to-understand demarcation in a world of gray areas. In Yang’s subtle mise en scène, his Taiwan is a country dominated by the detritus of other cultures, from the Japanese house the Zhao family lives in to the American tape recorder that serves as a talisman of sorts for Si’r and his friends. Yang’s use of music in A Brighter Summer Day is a nod toward the theses of his contemporary films, with the youths’ love for American music an early foray of Western culture into Taiwan, displacing an earlier, more traditional cultural practice. Yang’s understanding is that there never has been an indigenous culture in Taiwan-it has always been an amalgam of its various conquerors’ cultures. In this, Taiwan is ahead of the curve in experiencing the contemporary global hybridity of culture, a fact that explains the remarkable universal relevance of such master filmmakers as Yang, Hou, and Tsai.


A Brighter Summer Day is dominated by misery, hopelessness, and death, but nonetheless never succumbs to lifelessness. The film is alive with the promise offered in the title, even if such a respite never manifests itself. The haunting title song comes to stand in for much that is left unsaid in the film, acknowledging many of the private hopes and desires of the film’s protagonist. The sharp contrast between the pitch-perfect renditions of swooningly romantic American songs and the singers’ violent, callous behavior when offstage is the perfect encapsulation of Yang’s film. Si’r’s on-and-off girlfriend, Ming, unifies the personal and political, revealing one as a reflection of the other, when she finally, and brutally, tells Si’r off: “You’re just like all the rest.I’m like the world, I’ll never change.” A Brighter Summer Day‘s final two scenes gather the force of all the accumulated tragedy, so tightly reined in for the majority of the film, and scatter it to the winds. The characters’ motivations and hopes are so well-known to us after 3+ hours that these semi-oblique scenes convey their message perfectly, carrying the crushed dreams of the younger and older generations without veering into sentimentality. Si’r’s friend receives a letter from his hero Elvis Presley, who expresses surprise at learning that his music was so beloved in “this unknown place.” A fitting coda to Yang’s second-best film, and first genuine masterpiece.



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

NI have no doubt that the 230-minute version of A Brighter Summer Day belongs in the company of key works of our era: Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome; Bela Tarr’s Satantango; Kiarostami’s Close-up, Life and Nothing More, and The Taste of Cherry; and Hou’s trilogy — City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, and Good Men, Good Women. (I should add that, ironically, A Brighter Summer Day may also be the easiest of Yang’s features to follow as a narrative — even easier than the markedly different 202-minute version Yang was forced to create in order to find a distributor.) Indeed, Yang’s film surpasses these other masterpieces in its novelistic qualities, richly realizing a physical and social world as dense with family, community, and other personal ties as any John Ford film, and furnished with more sheer physical presence (including characters, settings, and objects) than any other fiction film I know of from the 90s. It took Yang four years to prepare — much of the time apparently spent training his superb cast, which is mainly composed of nonprofessionals. In fact, this film is so uncommonly good that Yang’s other very impressive works pale beside it.
A Brighter Summer Day was inspired by a true incident, a touchstone from Yang’s youth (though reportedly he’s transformed the event to the point where it bears little relationship to the original): the killing of a 14-year-old girl by a male high school student in Taipei on June 15, 1961. Yang frames the film with recitations over the radio of the names of students graduating from the same school in 1960 and ‘61. (The school, which still stands in downtown Taipei, is one of the film’s central locations.) The title comes from the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”–lyrics phonetically transcribed by the hero’s sister so that a younger friend, Cat, can learn to sing them. (Readers planning to see the film may want to skip the remainder of this section.)
The Elvis song is only one of many cherished artifacts belonging to the film’s characters that come from somewhere else. A samurai sword found by the hero, Si’r, in his family’s Japanese house, left by a former Japanese occupant, becomes the murder weapon, and a tape recorder left by the American army in the 50s records Cat’s version of the Elvis song. An old radio that for most of the picture doesn’t work because Si’r took it apart long ago, when his parents bought it, eventually broadcasts the list of graduating students (in this case the emblem comes from a different time rather than place). And a flashlight Si’r steals in the first extended scene from a film studio next to the school, where he periodically hides in the rafters to watch movies being shot, makes a fascinating progress through the film as intricate and various as that of any character.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

It’s only natural that Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day begins with a shot of a barely lit light bulb. On the set of a movie, a director reprimands an actress for harping on the color of her dress. “This is a black-and-white film,” he says, one of many references to the symbolic darkness that overshadows the film’s milieu. A Brighter Summer Day is itself in color, but it may as well be monochrome as much of its action takes place at night or inside dimly lit interiors, and it’s not unusual for the characters to be confronted by light and its almost political implications. Some of the film’s finest images (young boys staring at a rehearsal from a theater’s rooftop, a basketball bouncing out of a darkened alleyway) pit light against dark—a fascinating dialectic meant to symbolize a distinctly Taiwanese struggle between past and present. From weapons to watches, objects similarly speak to the present, and like the light, these objects are constant reminders that the past can’t be ignored and must be used to negotiate the present.
In what is arguably the film’s most memorable scene, a young kid in military school asks his teacher, “What should I do?” The emphasis on the “I” is important and indicative of Yang’s concern for the country’s oppression of its people and the limits of their personal freedom. Because Yang’s compositions are so unadorned, it’s easy to dismiss the director as a better storyteller than visualist, but that’s to ignore the remarkable way he uses his camera to posit all sorts of emotional and political confrontations. It’s in his generous, objective use of long shots and spare but startling close-ups that we see once again the influence of Robert Altman in Yang’s aesthetic and the struggle of the Taiwanese people to accept their history. In essence, Yang uses his aesthetic to bring into the light that which is dark.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →