For two decades after its making, Edward Yang’s magisterial A Brighter Summer Day was more an alluring legend than a known presence for American cinephiles. Passed over by festivals, including Cannes and New York, after its completion in 1991, the four-hour film gradually began to circulate in specialized venues and among critics, with the result that it was named one of the most important films of the nineties in polls at the decade’s end. Yet it was only with its first, limited U.S. theatrical run in 2011, following a restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, that it was widely hailed as a masterpiece of modern cinema as well as a defining work of the New Taiwan Cinema, which enjoyed a decade-long flowering beginning in the early eighties.
Though now decades old, Yang’s fourth feature retains an inexhaustible freshness that speaks to viewers the world over. Like a Taiwanese Rebel Without a Cause made with the gravity and epic sweep of The Godfather, the film, which has more than a hundred speaking parts, is above all a vision, in terms of both place and time. The place is Taipei, Yang’s home and the setting and subject of all seven of his features. As for time, we might consider two meanings. The years depicted are 1960–61, a particular juncture in modern Taiwanese history. But the time we witness is also that of adolescence, with all its inner turmoil, outer self-consciousness, and obsessive quest for identity.
For non-Taiwanese viewers, the world Yang conjures can have the paradoxical effect of seeming foreign yet also oddly familiar. Surely the anxieties and confusions of youth give it universal emotional touchstones. Yet, especially for viewers who recall the Eisenhower/
Kennedy era, there’s also an almost dreamlike uncanniness to the ways Yang summons a time when surly young rebels were wild for American rock and roll, Japanese comic books, and John Wayne movies. Perhaps more vividly than any other movie, A Brighter Summer Day immortalizes the moment when teen pop culture went global, forging an effervescent but lasting bridge between East and West.
Yang centers his film on a fourteen-year-old protagonist, Xiao Si’r (a nickname that means “Little Four,” signifying that he is the fourth of five children; his real name is Zhang Zhen, the same as the actor playing him, although the actor’s name is typically spelled Chang Chen in the West). Throughout, the story switches back and forth between the two worlds the boy inhabits: the realm of family and that of school and youth gangs. The film’s first scenes introduce this alternation. In the opening prologue (set in the summer of 1959), we see Xiao Si’r’s father (Zhang Guozhu) pleading with an offscreen school administrator about his son’s bad grades, which have resulted in the boy’s being assigned to an unprestigious night school the following year. Soon after, in a shop on their way home, boy and father listen silently as the names of current school graduates are read over the radio—a reminder of the importance placed on education in this Confucian society, and a litany that will have a melancholy echo in the film’s final scene.
Then it’s the next school year, but rather than being in class, Xiao Si’r and his best friend, Cat (Wong Chi-zan), are high in the rafters of a nearby movie studio, watching a scene being filmed. After a guard appears and forces the boys into a pell-mell chase, Xiao Si’r swipes his large flashlight, which he and Cat, after escaping the premises, use to briefly glimpse two smooching lovers whose identities remain unclear and, in an unexpected way, crucial through much of the story’s remainder.
The motif of light and questions of identity continue to intertwine thereafter. Yang said that one of his chief memories of the period depicted in A Brighter Summer Day was of the spotty electricity and resulting periods of little or no light. That stolen flashlight reappears throughout the story, its use alternately aggressive and defensive. Yet perhaps the most subtly potent effect of the film’s variegated lighting is the way it allows the director’s gaze to lead ours into the chiaroscuro of a haunted past, whose images come at us with the glancing mystery of dreams.
Yang’s bygone Taipei is a zone of disquiet both culturally and politically. Taiwan had been ruled by Japan for a half century before being ceded to China at the end of World War II. Thereafter, the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists on the mainland led to the invasion of the island in 1949 by the defeated Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, which then ruled as a military dictatorship until the late 1980s (when new freedoms allowed the greater historical frankness of this film and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 A City of Sadness). Called the Republic of China, Taiwan under the KMT was allied with the United States, which recognized the regime as the legitimate government of China until 1979.
The new Taiwanese of this KMT era lived a mentally divided existence, trying to adapt to their adopted home while for many years also expecting to return to China once the Communists were vanquished. The kids and families in A Brighter Summer Day are mostly transplanted mainlanders (like Yang, who was born in southern China in 1947 and brought to Taiwan as a toddler). Their culture is traditional Chinese, but it’s framed by that of the native Taiwanese, who speak their own dialect, and by the lingering Japanese influence.
There are other cultural influences at work in Xiao Si’r’s household as well. His parents met in Shanghai (they speak Shanghainese when they don’t want to be understood by their Mandarin-speaking kids) and still retain a number of their pre-1949 connections, some of which will prove problematic for Mr. Zhang, a midlevel functionary in the Confucian mold. His wife (Elaine Jin), a teacher, is a Christian, as is the second of the family’s three daughters. Xiao Si’r also has an older brother, Lao Er (“Big Two,” a nickname that can be pronounced to mean “prick,” a source of recurring jokes), whose gambling debts get him into familial hot water.
If Xiao Si’r is poker-faced and withdrawn at home, in archetypal teenage fashion, at school he’s part of a roiling set of khaki-clad boys with nicknames such as Airplane, Tiger, Sex Bomb, and Deuce. Awash in Western and Japanese pop culture, the kids obey their teachers with grim acquiescence in the classroom, but there’s tension and the hint of violence at every turn; at one point, the school bans baseball bats due to their use
Violence is also in the air because of the rivalry between two gangs that many of the boys belong to, each with its own turf, social background, and de facto headquarters. The Little Park Gang, descendants of mainland civil servants, congregates at a brightly lit, American Graffiti–style ice cream parlor, where the diminutive, Elvis-worshipping Cat sings the falsetto parts in American rock-and-roll songs with his band. The 217s, sons of mainland military personnel, hang out at a pool hall, the same one where Lao Er accrues his debts. Though he’s closer to the Little Park crew, Xiao Si’r belongs to neither gang.
He is drawn toward their antagonisms, though, by a fledgling romantic attraction, and there is nothing anomalous in this: for the boys in A Brighter Summer Day, girls are commodities to be claimed, passed around, fought over. Xiao Si’r’s troubles begin innocently enough. He’s in the school infirmary when he’s asked to escort a fellow student, a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), back to class. They play hooky instead. At this point, Xiao Si’r may already be in the first stages of a crush, but he knows not to let it carry him away: Ming is Honey’s girl.
For a long while, Honey isn’t so much a person as a phantom, a legend. He was the leader of the Little Park Gang but killed one of the 217s—supposedly in a fight over Ming—then went into hiding in southern Taiwan. In his absence, the gang is being led by Sly, his aptly named lieutenant, who’s undercutting Honey’s rule in various ways, including by striking a peace accord with the 217s that will allow the two gangs to mount a rock concert together.
Then one day, as Xiao Si’r and Ming exchange shy smiles in the ice cream parlor, Honey suddenly reappears, resplendent in the naval uniform he’s been using as a disguise, and the stage is set for three bravura sequences that compose the midfilm crescendo of A Brighter Summer Day. In the first, Honey, while seeming to “bequeath” Ming to Xiao S’ir, speaks of his life in terms of his favorite novel, War and Peace. In the second, the two gangs stage their rock show, but a challenge to their authority ends in a murder outside the concert hall. In the third sequence, revenge for that death is wreaked during a fierce typhoon, when a Taiwanese gang that had been allied with Honey swoops down on the 217s, resulting in a slaughter that we experience mostly as screams and clatter—the only illumination comes from candles, a careening lightbulb, and that flashlight.
The sequence just described, like the one that follows it, can provoke certain confusions in viewers. Who is attacking whom in this violent and cacophonous confrontation? It’s unclear, not only because of the darkness and rapid editing but also because we’ve not gotten to know the Taiwanese assailants, who are older criminals rather than school-age delinquents. If the film’s writers purposely left these characters shadowy and mysterious, it could be that their decision owed something to the example of Yang’s great contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose A City of Sadness, released two years before A Brighter Summer Day, evidenced a deliberate strategy of narrative opacity that included leaving certain key information and relationships unexplained.
Hou’s example might also be detected in the film’s visual style, which doesn’t resemble that of any other Yang work. With its concentration of long shots, avoidance of close-ups, repeated compositions in certain settings (especially in the Zhang home), use of doors and windows as framing (and obscuring) devices, and naturalistic lighting, the film recalls Hou’s A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) and The Puppetmaster (1993). Critics have seen in these the deliberate articulation of a Chinese or Asian cinematic style derived from models in Chinese literature and visual arts, as well as the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Hou has responded that his style’s genesis lay in very practical matters of shooting, and Yang said the same of A Brighter Summer Day. Yet these films undeniably share a visual mood that’s contemplative and beautifully nuanced.
Another anomaly comes in a moment just after the cataclysm of gang violence: the story shifts to the Zhang home, where the secret police arrive and haul away Xiao Si’r’s father for a lengthy interrogation over his past political associations. Why does the narrative make this sudden jump, such that we never see the consequences of the big slaughter we’ve just witnessed? One answer may be that, while the paroxysm of violence gives us a vivid symbol of Xiao Si’r’s psychic turmoil (just as it anticipates a more intimate outburst later), the scenes that follow invoke the film’s more explicitly autobiographical, and historical, underpinnings: Yang’s father was subjected to a similar humiliation, with the result that he left Taiwan on the day he retired, never to return.
This split suggests that A Brighter Summer Day has, in effect, two faces, just as it has two titles. The “outward” face is a highly critical view of a society in which all proper authority—a very Confucian concern—has been eroded or undermined, so that a young man like Xiao Si’r can be hurled into the spiral of violence indicated by the film’s Chinese title, which translates as “The Youth Killing Incident on Guling Street,” referring to a notorious crime that inspired the film. The “inward” face, meanwhile, indicated by the lyrics of the 1960 Elvis Presley hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” which gives the film its English title, has little to do with Taiwan and much to do with a condition unbound by time or place: the loneliness, melancholy, and longing of adolescence.