Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Director: Edward Yang
Writer: Edward Yang, Hung Hung, Lai Mingtang, Alex Yang
DP: Chang Hui-Kung, Li Long-Yu
Editor: Bo-Wen Chen
Producer: Yu Wei-Yen
Starring: Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, Wong Chizan, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elain Jin, Lin Hongming
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 3 hrs. 57 min.

Like in Yang’s 2000 film Yi Yi: A One and a Two, the camera in A Brighter Summer Day mostly keeps its distance from the characters, and the frame is frequently divided between spaces by doorways, objects in the environment, or light. Often the camera will remain stationary for some time, observing characters moving through these spaces while our eyes are constantly drawn to different parts of the shot. It uses long shadows and light piercing through and shifting in the darkness to expose parts the characters' identities - namely, how they present themselves to the world vs. with whom they're willing to share private space. The sound design has a similar effect, allowing us to hear the characters’ voices at a distance, but also containing constant reminders of the circumstances weighing on their lives and their apprehensions. 

The film is based on an incident Yang recalled from his childhood. From this, the film builds the story of Xiao S’ir (or Zhang Zhen), a 14-year-old boy whose family came from mainland China to Taiwan after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the displacement of the old Chinese government under the Kuomintang. The film treats on the effects of Taiwan’s political and economic conditions on S’ir’s family, as well as struggles with adolescence and the adversarial mentalities of people spending their youth in anxiety, and in proximity to violence.

The youth gangs depicted in the film are split between those whose families came from the mainland and those who always lived in Taiwan. At one point, the kids from the mainland discover old samurai swords in the attics of their houses, left behind by the Japanese presence that lasted in Taiwan until 1945; though they came from the mainland, they connect to something from before Chiang Kai-Shek's arrival in Taiwan, speaking to the generational rift between them and their parents. Even so, the swords aren't exclusively Taiwanese either, and also play a critical role in the rift between them and the people who lived in Taiwan their whole lives. 

They sing Elvis, they watch Rio Bravo, and in one scene, S’ir reenacts the final shot of The Searchers. (I personally know people who lived in Taiwan at the time and recall seeing Alfred Hitchcock films in theaters.) 

Alongside the story of S’ir and the other kids is that of S’ir’s father. Intent to preserve itself, the Kuomintang instituted authoritarian policies, prosecuting many of its own citizens. S’ir’s father falls victim to this, and it takes a toll on both the tangible conditions of his family’s life and his psyche. Visually, his are some of the loneliest scenes in the film, and in a tragic turn, he ends up bringing adversarial behavior into the kind of intimate private spaces that make up the film's most touching moments.

S’ir’s father is one of two male role models in his life, the other being his brother Honey. Honey is highly respected among the local gangs, but largely absent from the movie, on the run from the law and the possibility of military conscription. Honey’s costuming allows for one of the film’s subtlest and most affecting scenes, allowing the many concerns running through the characters’ lives to briefly coalesce in one moment.

The film is set among earthy colors without much urban development, in a Taipei that has yet to become the metropolis it is today. It evokes the emergent nature of Taiwan’s national identity in the early stages of its economic and industrial development. Change is occurring beyond any individual's control. When they face a lack of stability and a future without promise, people on all sides in A Brighter Summer Day subject themselves and others to systems of rules founded in anger and paranoia, taking on a sharp refusal to surrender to anyone or anything.

Violence runs all throughout the film because of this, and ultimately manifests as an insidious device to deny the future when a need to feel validated leads to intransigence. Some of Yang's other films have been described as rigorous explorations of certain experiences and worlds; A Brighter Summer Day offers us something similar, but slightly more straightforward, leaning more toward a sense of urgency and displacement in time.

There are testaments to familial love and the capacity for change throughout the film, for all the difficulty, uncertainty, and horrific aggression it evokes. In the end, the film speaks for itself between its belief in the possibility of positive change, its empathy, and its attention to detail in the execution of historical fiction.

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