A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
[note: review originally published 1Dec2008]
A Brighter Summer Day is another of those movies I’ve been hearing about for what seems like an eternity, the four-hour masterpiece from the late Edward Yang (Yi Yi: A One and a Two) that, for some reason, has never gotten even a video release in America, much less the DVD treatment such a revered film deserves. I finally got a chance to see it recently, and I understand the praise it gets, and I agree with a lot of what others say about why this movie is so great, but it didn’t resonate with me on a personal level the way it does with a lot of other people, and I can’t quite figure out why.
The plot of the movie, supposedly based on a true story that happened in Yang’s neighborhood when he was growing up, has to do with a street murder that touches off a war between teenage street gangs in early-sixties Taiwan. The plot, however, is secondary to the scene Yang creates; his real interest here is in recreating the period of the film, the Elvis-crazy teens who could be up onstage crooning one moment (the title of the film comes from a phonetic translation of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by one of the characters) and out back threatening the members of another gang the next. It’s like Rebel Without a Cause, but with three hundred teenage James Deans running around. In the middle of all this is Si’r Xiao (Chen Chang, in his first screen appearance), and A Brighter Summer Day is really the story of Si’r’s coming of age during this time period. China and Taiwan have a long and complex history, but in the early sixties, much of the recent (at the time) unpleasantness was still fresh in the minds of Taiwan’s inhabitants; much of the film’s third hour involves a gang leader back in the country after spending time in China, and Yang also uses the film to explore the constantly-fragile relations between China and Taiwan through the eyes of his characters.
Chang Chen didn’t work much for nine years after this film was released, but since landing a part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the incredible talent he displays in this film has come to full flower, and in the past nine years he’s been one of Taiwan’s hardest-working actors, with recent credits including John Woo’s Red Cliffs films, the third installment of the mega-popular The Eye series, Kar-Wai Wong’s megahits Eros and 2046, and a whole lot of other movies. It’s hard to believe that Chen was only fifteen when this movie was released (and quite a bit younger during filming; post-production on this movie is reported to have taken more than two years). He has the acting chops of a much older, more experienced actor. He puts one in mind of Jean-Pierre Lèaud in The 400 Blows, though Si’r is a much more affable and engaging character (in my estimation; I know most probably disagree with me) than Antoine Doniel ever was. The supporting cast, which is massive (Cecil B. DeMille would be proud), are usually quite competent, but it’s Chen who really shines here; the only actor who even comes close is the guy who plays the expatriate gang leader I mentioned previously. (My apologies for not grabbing his name. I tried looking through the credits, but as befits a four-hour movie, they’re very, very long, and somehow I didn’t jot the character’s name down.)
So, yeah, as I said at the top of this review, which is rapidly becoming as long as the movie itself, I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said about what it is that makes this movie so great. Yang does a spectacular job of recreating a period in time, and if he added any absurd touches (for all I know, he made it up out of whole cloth), they don’t jar at all in the general absurdity of the scene. Crazed Elvis fans in Taiwan? Why not, they were everywhere else on the planet. And Chen’s acting is simply marvelous. Everything that critics have said about what you need to grasp about the complexity of the characters’ motivations I grasped, and as someone who wasn’t exactly thrilled with high school (nor having to attend summer school one year, the way Si’r has to attend night classes), I can certainly identify with Si’r’s disillusionment at the society around him. And yet, still, something felt off about it all. I am the first to add that the something is probably me and not the movie, given how much everyone else seems to love it, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested not only in the time period or the subject matter, but to anyone interested in film in general; Yang has crafted a stunning product here, and it deserves a much, much wider audience, especially in film-starved America, than it has previously gotten. But it’s probably not something I’m going to watch again any time soon. *** ½