A Brighter Summer Day is a cinematic soul search, a hulking beast of a film that can only meagerly be described as epic. With a four hour run-time, this masterpiece from Taiwan is almost indescribable in what it accomplishes. Rejected by China’s communist regime, the film’s characters have been displaced by history. Infighting among youth gangs play out like a cultural trial by fire, left to fend for what remains of their dignity. A Brighter Summer Day is a burning indictment on defining a national identity forged from those left in the dust of modern history. Edward Yang, the director of the film, is a forerunner of the Taiwanese New Wave Cinema. A film movement that did for Taiwan what I can only imagine Ozu must have done for Japan, or neorealism for Italy.
Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day takes place in a small village, a living space that would seem almost idyllic if not overrun by gangs of sullen, disillusioned students, who impose their dominance through acts of aggression and horrific violence – as shown in an earlier scene, where a young affiliate of a rival gang gets a brick smashed against his face, despite his pleads. The opening notes – which provide the film with a greater historical context – say that the gangs are a direct result of the adults’ uncertainty toward Taiwan’s future, and that through consorting with this crowd would provide any young man a sense of identity and security. Among such gangs is the student Xiao Si’r (played by Chang Chen, who today is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese/Taiwanese cinema), a delinquent who falls for Ming (Lisa Yang), a student who happens to be affiliated with a rival gang – a dramatic quandary that implies a Shakespearean tragedy, but amounts to so much more.
If the village in A Brighter Summer Day is a model of Taiwan, it is a broken one. Yang seems to have disassembled the state, and only by reassembling it does he seem to have developed a greater appreciation for the disparate parts that make it whole. It is a deliberate appreciation, one that can be mistaken for excess in its four hour run-time. But Yang is careful, every dimension of his film is explored thoroughly to create his vision of Taiwan, no minute is wasted on superfluous spectacle or superficial drama. It is challenging cinema to say the least, but inside four hours Yang puts every minute of his film to good use, not a single image is taken for granted or set-piece used without purpose.
Ingrained into the film are images of military procession, tanks flowing down streets as the villagers make their way home recur throughout the film. They serve as a backdrop for the characters, whose lives have become literally surrounded by an ongoing conflict. The adults in the film fervently capture this climate, labeling their enemy as “communists,” never really providing more insight on the conflict themselves. The students, whose own lives become an unending conflict of alliances and feuds, are the ones to do this. Each student’s identity is supplanted by a broader collective, the gangs which they affiliate have become their identity, and to the eyes of your enemy gang, you are nothing more than that. Yang was onto something, it’s easy to fight your enemy, if you continuously dehumanize him.
The adults are no better, the teachers are strict authoritarians, whose disciplinary practices seem to indicate that every student is a born derelict. The system further de-emphasizes their identity by forcing them to wear khaki uniforms, reminding us why the students recede into gang life. Xiao is like a misunderstood, James Dean-type, a juvenile imbruted by a society who refuses to acknowledge him as a person. Yang breaks this cycle when Xiao meets Ming, the lover of rival gang member. Both are objectified in their own way. Ming is the pride of any guy she dates, but the two are kindred spirits. They have an innate fondness for each other’s company, but more importantly, they find a deep-seated identity in one another, denied of them.
Easy to appreciate in A Brighter Summer Day are the film’s long takes, which are used for dramatic effect over style. Not taking anything away from the photography, but the actors really make the long takes something special, their free flow, organic performances are the film’s center of gravity, pulling the camera with them wherever they move. Another more impressive technique employed for effect – but not as widely acclaimed as the long take – is how Yang purposely holds a shot on a character’s reaction before revealing what they’re reacting to. It first feels like a gimmick, a way to generate some suspense, but the protracted shots of the character’s reaction become something more, a bedrock of atmosphere found in their facial expressions and subtle movements. Yang has created a rare symbiosis with each of his actors, whose relationship with the camera is as deeply realized and profound as their relationship with the script – a quality of dynamism truly lacking in cinema today.
Watching it on the big screen, I found the 4K digital restoration impressive, affirming a timeless appeal, already established by Yang’s penchant for compelling drama. With its release on the Criterion Collection, hopefully A Brighter Summer Day will find its audience in a wider, international community. Edward Yang has directed a triumph, a four hour case study that risks an impersonal, overtly political approach, but the man has made it indelibly his own, a passion project that’s epic and grandiose, but intimate. It’s a touchstone of Taiwanese cinema, perhaps a defining film for the state. A Brighter Summer Day is a letter from Taiwan to the rest of the world, spoken in a familiar, cinematic dialect any of us can understand if we’re willing to listen.