March 22, 2016
“This film is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less. I hope they, the forgotten, can be made unforgettable.” – Edward Yang, director’s note for A Brighter Summer Day
A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray from the 4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.
One of the major news stories from Edward Yang’s youth in Taipei was the stabbing murder of a high school girl. Yang told Michael Berry that “every single one of my classmates and people my age remember this case very clearly. The murder had a huge impact on all of us of my generation. But no one born a few years later has any recollection of any of this. So I wanted to do something to leave behind a record of what happened.” Yang’s impulse was documentary in nature, but since so many years had passed, he had to reconstruct the period imaginatively, and he took exacting care in evoking the era. He spent nearly a year with the child actors, which numbered over sixty, in order to educate them about the time period and the manner in which they should act. This included the putative star Chang Chen (The Assassin, 2046, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), here making his film debut.
Chang plays Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao Si’r, a middle child of the Zhang family, who immigrated to Taipei from Shanghai following the Communist takeover of the Mainland (Yang was born in Shanghai in 1947, and his family moved to Taipei before the takeover in ’49). The father is a milquetoast government functionary, and his wife is a former schoolteacher who left her accreditation back in China, and can’t get a job. Xiao mostly slides under their radar – his oldest sister (Wang Chuan) is the success story, on an advanced education track with dreams of moving to the United States, while his brother Lao Er (Chang Han) is the black sheep, always drowning in gambling debts. So Xiao skates by, failing out of day school but hanging on in night school, absorbed in movies (including Rio Bravo) and comic books and dabbling with the local gangs. There is also a hopeful romance with Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful, impetuous schoolmate who screen tests for a bumbling local film director. Xiao is a bit of a cipher, and Chang plays him with dreamy reserve, his face a mask. He tries on multiple personalities and none seem to fit, drifting through Yang’s tableau compositions without direction. He seems most comfortable, and most childlike, with his stable of school friends, including the tiny Elvis-wannabe Cat (Wong Chi-Zan), who sings rock covers phonetically since he can’t speak English. He has a high lonesome voice that lends even the most rousing tunes a backbeat of melancholy.
It is a film that proceeds at a magisterial tempo, enough to absorb every element of the production design of Yang’s intricate long shots. In Figures Traced in Light David Bordwell calculated that the average shot lasts 26 seconds, where his previous features averaged 11-15. This is a film to absorb as much as to watch, and when Yang does cut in to details, it is jarringly impactful. The family radio is a recurring character, an aging antique that the father brought over from China. On the heavily censored Taipei airwaves, the radio only utters banalities, long lists of names for those who passed exams and little else. During his youth, Yang recalled that, “our favorite broadcasts were those of the basketball games. We knew that everything else was bullshit.” In the movie the radio is a lack, a box that emits meaningless noise. When Cat takes it apart and puts it back together, it starts emitting a buzz, one that is equally entertaining as the usual monotone voice that thrummed out of it.
In interviewing friends and family for the project, Yang was shocked that “out of all the people I interviewed, virtually every single one of them could recall their father being called in for questioning or imprisoned at one time or another during the White Terror.” In the film, Xiao’s father is called out at night for questioning and disappears for days, lost in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. He is forced to sit and write the story of his life, and to include every person he has ever met, it seems. The KMT interrogator acts as a sadistic book reviewer, poking holes in his prose and accusing the father of leaving out important relationships. It is all a perverse kind of torture, an attempt to tire him out until he breaks. This sequences includes Yang’s most artificial, dream-like compositions, of a man seated on an ice block, and vast industrial space centered with a single table and chair. The father is eventually released, only to return to a family that is breaking apart at the seams. Xiao gets expelled from school and descends into criminality, Lao Er continues to gamble, and the realization is dawning that the Communists will not fold, and that their hometown may be lost forever. It is a struggle to endure, but Yang patiently charts the family’s resilience, through tragedies large and small. The closing image has the mother staring at Xiao’s now-useless school uniform as if into a void. It is the end of that dream of normality, and the beginning of more brute realities to come.