****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Lisa Yang, Chang Chen, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elaine Jin
script and dialogue by Edward Yang, Yan Hong-Ya, Alex Yang, Lai Ming-Tang
directed by Edward Yang
by Walter Chaw My family fled mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, just ahead of the communist takeover. My grandfather on my mother's side, a member of the Chinese military, asked his aide to fill out the paperwork necessary for their emigration. In his haste, the kids were given sequential birth dates (1, 2, 3, 4, 5...) to expedite completion of the forms so they could get on with their flight. My uncle, Fu Kun-Ning, was born on January 7, 1941, though his official identification documents say something different. I think he probably liked the chaos, the mystery represented by that discrepancy--he was nobody's man but his own. He died on March 1, 2007, when I was 33. I hadn't spent much time with him over the course of my life. I was quickly and irrevocably estranged from my family and my heritage, as are many Chinese-Americans born here to immigrant parents. I barely said anything to my own parents for thirty years. There was one visit, though, where I had a formative conversation with said uncle. He asked me what I was interested in and, ashamed to tell him the truth, I told him I wanted to be a biochemical engineer, the major I went into my first semester of college having declared.
He didn't say anything at first. This was two years after a suicide attempt I had been instructed not to talk about and that I didn't think he knew about, although, looking back, I suspect he did. I was still trying to put the pieces back together. In my pain, that reconstruction more resembled destruction: fights, rage, hurting people I will spend the rest of my life regretting having hurt. When he finally spoke, he told me a person should chase what their heart desires, because we have one life and our time to live it is fleeting. I changed majors at the end of that first semester, further alienating me from my mother and father but bringing me closer to something like authenticity in my life. I turn 47 this year, which is three years younger than my uncle was when we had our talk and only seven years younger than my father was when he died. My uncle told me at the end of the day that whatever pressures I was feeling to be something I wasn't, he accepted me for who I was. I had never heard that from an adult member of my family before. I didn't know him very well, but I cried for him when he died. I cry for him whenever I think of him.
Edward Yang's 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day is set in Taipei, 1960-61, and based on an event in the filmmaker's life that took place when he was thirteen. The picture details the frustration, the alienation, of an infusion of Chinese boys from the mainland, all escaping the Communists, all finding some support and stability through the formation of street gangs in their adopted home. My uncle was 18 the year the movie opens. He ran with one of these gangs. My aunt has pictures of him looking like a Chinese James Dean, rakish and cocksure and impossibly young. When I watch Yang's film, I can't help but look for my uncle among the extras in its crowd scenes--taking part in its rumbles, dances, and parties, lurking in the shadows of darkened soundstages, where a lot of the early part of the film takes place. (Taiwan's small but vibrant film industry has produced at least three world masters: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Edward Yang.) It's irrational, I know, this fantasy of my uncle still alive and living in this picture. Such is the power of A Brighter Summer Day that I have an implanted memory of the mean streets recreated in its Taipei of 1960, thirteen years before I was born. It's as real as the memories I formed as a child searching for a place of acceptance, which I never really found until I met my wife and started a family of my own.
The first third of A Brighter Summer Day details our young hero, Si'r* (Chang Chen), getting bad grades in school and playing hooky with his buddy, Cat (Wang Mao), by sneaking onto the rafters above a movie set to peek at the actresses changing into and out of costumes. It's on this stage that young Si'r tries to woo a young woman one evening; Yang captures him framed against an open door--the silhouette of a young man's longing against an eternal summer. There are late-night hops at a local ice-cream parlour-cum-dance hall where Cat sings Rosie and the Originals' "Angel Baby" in a lilting falsetto. The purity of it--a little off-key but full of the kind of childish yearning exclusive to kids playacting at love and loss--is piercing. Cat's okay with "Angel Baby," but what he really wants to sing is Elvis. To help, Si'r gets his older sister (Wang Chuan) to translate the lyrics to the songs they hear on a broken-down old radio they manage to coax to life now and again.
The cultural drift of Western influences is seen as a pollutant to the romanticized tranquillity of Taiwan's recent, pre-divorce past. Dealing with how Western culture has become the most powerful colonizing agent in the history of this planet is something common among films from China, Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea. The relationships are always fraught, ambiguous, openly racist, and often more hostile than either side would like to admit. In A Brighter Summer Day (the title itself a lyric from Roy Turk and Lou Handman's 1926 song "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"--popularized, nay, immortalized by The King in 1960), Western influences are a divisive force driving a wedge between the older generations and the current one. You see them in everything from the music to the West Side Story chic favoured by these gangs: white T-shirts, jeans (when you could get them), cigarette packs rolled up into short-sleeves. Taiwan is a way-station and America is the destination. That's how it was for my parents, who came to the United States as students in 1971--and for my uncle, who followed in 1976. The Chinese call America "美国," a pictogram comprising two characters that together mean "Beautiful Country." "Taiwan" itself means a "station on the bay."
In effect, the generation gap in Taiwan in this period shared outward manifestations with the United States. Rock-and-roll and Elvis were the boogie-woogie will-o'-the-wisp luring kids into the faerie wood on the wings of sock hops, rumbles, and drag races off cliffs overlooking the ocean. The brilliance--at least in part--of A Brighter Summer Day is its bracing universality. Emotions are never as crystalline and painful as they are at this time in your life. Neither is the yearning to break free from the roots that begin to suffocate. Yang draws together two intrinsically disparate cultures into this one moment that is perhaps the only time everyone here, and everyone there, thrummed to the same specific currents of a tumultuous zeitgeist. Si'r's struggle towards adulthood mirrors that of Jim Stark (James Dean) from Rebel Without a Cause: a foreign element represented by these young men facilitating a collective nervous breakdown. A Brighter Summer Day's obsession with the act of making movies is tied into its ability to transcend time and space. I think of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. and its gag of walking into a movie's reality when I watch Yang's films. I stood up once during a screening of his Yi Yi because I had a moment of ecstatic madness where I desperately wanted to, and thought maybe I could, join it. Si'r and Cat want to be part of a greater narrative than their own small lives and bitter humiliations. The girl Si'r tries to woo, Ming (Lisa Yang), wants the same. So do the other boys in the picture, each playing at being either someone else entirely or maybe what they dream they will become when they get older. I think the pull of A Brighter Summer Day is so powerful because it's about the security of inclusion, the lure of acceptance.
There are few things I ache for more than to be able to go into A Brighter Summer Day to meet, as an older man, my uncle when he was a young man and to maybe show him the same simple love and acceptance that he showed me when I was that age. A cloud hangs over A Brighter Summer Day, black and ready to burst--and burst it does. I have another uncle who has since lived in Taiwan since 1949 and still thinks of himself, nationalistically, as Chinese. He likes to talk about how Taiwan will be reintegrated into China in time. For the Chinese, time is measured in generations, not hours. A Brighter Summer Day is so thick with longing it develops the existential disconnection of reunions held in eternal abeyance. I'm reminded of the lovers tortured by one another's proximity in Dante's idea of Hell: close enough to see and hear, but never close enough to touch. Torture isn't pain, it's hope. A Brighter Summer Day is a love letter--and like every love letter, it's a wish written on smoke.
The film opens with Si'r's dad (Chang Kuo-chu) trying to explain his son's poor exams to an unfeeling bureaucrat who can barely feign interest in a conversation he must have often. Education is competitive in Chinese systems: your child's achievements are sources of pride and their failures of great shame. There's possibly nothing more terrible for a young man than to have humiliated his father by being an academic disappointment. You expect the dad's pleas to work on the administrator and for Si'r, moved by this defense, to buckle down and nail that all-important placement exam. He's a good kid and all he needs is a second chance to prove it. In another movie, this is how the road to uplift begins. Yang isn't interested in manipulating audience response in this way. Si'r's dad's pleas fall on deaf ears, and Si'r is relegated to a night school for delinquents. Si'r's failure is humiliating for both of them. A shopkeeper says something to the dad, and the dad loses his temper again, this time in public before an audience of strangers. Because Si'r can't do better, he does worse. To regain some moral authority (a gesture made too late in the proceedings), the dad tells Si'r that it's a dangerously amoral man who would apologize for something he didn't do. He says this because he's too proud to admit he's led this boy astray by placing too much importance on all the wrong things. He teaches his son pride when what each of them needs is humility.
Si'r sleeps in a closet at home. This has been interpreted, when it's mentioned at all, as a necessity of a large family forced to share a small space. I used to sleep in my closet, too, with a sliding door. I had a Pac-Man sleeping bag, and I decorated the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars. I made constellations I had read about in books I'd taken out of the school library. I learned the myths behind their names. When I had a daughter in 2003, I would hold her in my arms when the weather was warm and we would gaze up at the sky together--the same sky inside my closet: there, Cassiopeia; there, Orion's belt with his shield and bow; there, Pegasus. I slept in my closet because it was small in there, close, and I could explore the limitless within my tiny, controlled space. I still sleep on the floor sometimes, when my self-loathing and fear are too large for me. I get low. Si'r sleeps in his closet, and I get that. The world is immense in the extent that it does not care about you. Your father can't protect you from yourself--he can't even defend himself from his demons. You're alone. Yet you're too stupid and stubborn to die. And when you hold on, bobbing there in the middle of the ocean of your despair, suddenly the moon rises, a whale breaches, and, like Joe in Joe Versus the Volcano, you thank the god whose name you no longer know, if you ever did, for your life.
There are two gangs in A Brighter Summer Day: the 217s, sons of military personnel from the mainland stationed in Taiwan; and the Little Park Boys, whose fathers are mostly civil servants, à la Si'r's miserable middle-management dad. (I have to say that of all the films A Brighter Summer Day evokes, the one that would fit most comfortably in a double-feature with it would probably be Scorsese's Mean Streets.) Though Si'r doesn't formally belong to the Little Park gang, his friends defend him anyway against the 217's occasional attacks over perceived slights to territory and property (girls). There's violence between the groups, bad violence. When it feels like the tension might finally be easing up around the boys' shared love of music and partying, the Little Parks' absent leader, Honey (Lin Hong-ming), suddenly returns from a term of exile he imposed upon himself following the murder of a rival leader. Ming is Honey's girl, the girl Si'r's tried to woo and has fallen in love with--a bad problem exacerbated by Ming maybe loving Si'r back.
The second third of A Brighter Summer Day deals with the power imbalance Honey represents as he clashes with Sly (Chen Hung-yu), the lieutenant who's been leading in his absence. Sly forges a tenuous peace with the 217s so they can perform at a dance. Maybe Cat will finally get a chance to croon a little Elvis. I don't know if Honey doesn't want peace or if he merely resents appearing powerless, but he materializes outside the dance, and someone dies. Punctuating the end of the film is a ferocious storm, a typhoon that lashes the island as these children expend their rage on everything. This sequence stuns for Yang's refusal to provide a release from it. In place of an accounting of the dead and injured, Yang turns our attention instead to the arrest of Si'r's dad by the Taiwanese secret police for questioning of some suspicious past dealings back on the mainland. These two events--the massive conflagration and the individual's interrogation--are intertwined as existentially violent acts. They're life-changers: elemental, metastatic. The island as a body seems to be rejecting these invaders en masse, a social immune system galvanizing itself against a virulent infection. Still, A Brighter Summer Day, in the midst of this chronicle of disaffection, uncovers those piquant periods of belonging where individuals are bound together by mysterious electricity, just as the film itself connects us to a pregnant moment in time: humming forever with our potential before we knew that it, and the world, was finite.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project played an instrumental role in the 4K restoration of A Brighter Summer Day's original camera negative, the end result of which made its Blu-ray debut as part of the Criterion Collection in 2016. The 1.85:1, 1080p presentation is revelatory, showing heretofore-unseen details in the shadows and boasting breathtaking dynamic range. (A lot of this movie happens at night or in darkness with minimal artificial light.) True, there's some light crushing in the blacks now and again, but nothing that compromises the cinematic quality of the image. The warmth and vibrancy of the colours left me speechless. Initially restored by Cineteca di Bologna in 2009 and subjected to further clean-up by Criterion, the attendant LPCM centre-channel audio, in subtitled Mandarin with occasional forays into the parents' Shanghai dialect, is clean and shockingly expansive for a monaural track. To my ear, it's as good as it gets.
British film critic Tony Rayns, author of books on Seijun Suzuki and Wong Kar-wai, records an ace commentary for the film, going into detail on its biographical elements (Yang's father was submitted to a similar humiliation in Taiwan, leading to his family's departure from the country) whilst providing almost all of the information I have about the youth gangs of that period. He goes deep on the real-life event the picture fictionalizes--the Chinese title of the film is Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, which translates as "The Youth Murder Incident on Guling Street"--and even delivers a good overview of the Taiwanese movie industry, its history, and its impact on society. The film is nearly four hours long and Rayns makes the most of all 237 minutes of it. He's exhaustively prepared, and this is an exceptionally gratifying listen. Launching the second disc of special features is a 2014 interview with Chang Chen (19 mins., HD), most recognizable to Western audiences perhaps for his turn as Zhang Ziyi's lover in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He talks about how his father, also an actor, was friends with Yang, who happened to be looking for a 12-year-old boy to play the lead in his new film when Chang was that age. I was deeply moved by how his experience on the film helped him to forge an understanding of his father. You only ever wish that your kids will come to know you in time for who you are.
Chang recalls how exacting and specific was Yang in terms of blocking and sticking to the script--astonishing to me, given how naturally his movies seem to flow and how disarmed his actors appear. Chang notes the influence of James Dean on his performance as well, and I was gratified to have this suspicion, however obvious, confirmed. He says the moment Si'r rails against the universe in grief over the girl he's murdered was when he understood the power of this thing that was to become his life, i.e., acting. In watching A Brighter Summer Day this time, I noticed that in that scene Si'r is barefoot and that his foot, strangely long in the way a 12-year-old boy's foot looks when it's growing faster than the body it's attached to, looks like my own son's foot. Anyway, I love this featurette.
Our Time, Our Story (113 mins.) is a feature-length documentary on Taiwanese filmmakers, complete with voluminous clips from key films of the New Taiwan Cinema and interviews with major figureheads of the wave, including Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and actor Ko I-Chen. It offers a historical and political context for the movement that is gold for guys like me, who have spent most of our lives in deliberate ignorance of our heritage and want now in middle age to play catch-up. While the piece is precisely what you think it's going to be in terms of biographical overviews of moments like this, the subject is fascinating and worth the time investment. For my part, I kept a running list of films I need to see, accompanied by no little shame that I knew the complete works of John Hughes but almost nothing about the films of Sylvia Chang. I also learned that the Edward Yang segment of the anthology vehicle Our Hope, Our Time was a big influence on the flashback bath sequence from Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory.
Likely Consequence (46 mins.) is a March 20, 1992 video recording of a stageplay co-written and directed by Yang that unfolds as a series of exchanges on a bare set between a married couple after the wife has accidentally killed a man in their kitchen. It's funny--until it's not funny--and Yang carefully, delicately dissects their relationship around traditional gender roles and cultural expectations. Like all his work, it's about navigating change and finding air in the diving bells along the way. The husband tries to fill in the blanks. His wife is empathetic, a nice person, a real softie, so of course she let this stranger into their kitchen. But where does her kindness end and something else begin? Was this an accident or the unfortunate byproduct of an adulterous affair gone awry? Likely Consequence is ripe for a re-translation and resurrection--powerful stuff that hasn't lost its lustre in the intervening decades or the journey across cultures. The video quality is VHS-grade and the subtitles are sloppy, but it's well worth your time just for the scenes of the wife's remorse and silent apology to the corpse, the latter of which looks a lot like someone clinging to a piece of shipwreck to keep from drowning.
The enclosed liner notes feature a lovely essay by my friend Godfrey Cheshire, in addition to a production note from the late Yang written in June of 1991. Therein, he thanks his collaborators and mentors and reveals not only that most of the cast and crew were first-timers, but also that he spent over a year in rehearsals with his young cast to get them into the right headspace. In concluding the piece, he writes: "[A Brighter Summer Day] 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." Anyway, this is the eulogy I never wrote for my uncle, Kun-Ning. ("Cunning." I like that. He would've liked that, too, I bet.) I love you. Thank you for my life.
237 minutes; Not Rated; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); Mandarin/Min Nan/Shanghainese 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles; 2 BD-50s; Region A; Criterion
* Si'r is "Xiao Si'r," by the way--not a name but "little four." The Chinese will call multiple siblings by the chronological order of their birth. Si'r's name is the same as the actor playing him, though he's seldom referred to by it. He's every kid in this place at this time. It shouldn't pass without note that A Brighter Summer Day is Yang's fourth film, just as Si'r is his family's fourth son. My uncle was the fourth son of his generation as well. He was "Si'r JioJio," or fourth uncle, to me. Four, in Chinese, is a homonym for the word "death." Because of this, there is often no fourth floor in Chinese hospitals and hotels. There's less of a good reason for there not to be a thirteenth floor in many buildings in the United States, but we all have our things.