Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is the War and Peace of Taiwanese juvenile-delinquent movies. It is also part of a tradition of films that use the process of a character slowly learning a single song as a narrative-building device. In that tradition, the song might originate with volcanic major characters, like Ally in the 2018 version of A Star Is Born, who spontaneously composes “Shallow” in a supermarket parking lot and later sings it in a full arrangement on stage. (This shows her love interest—and the audience—that she is a star.) Or it might be handled by quieter secondary characters, like Tim and Annie in Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, who learn a four-hands piano version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” on a living-room upright. (This shows that they are allies on the perimeter of a roaring family drama, and that they need relief from it by diving into the rigors of bebop.)
In A Brighter Summer Day, the song is the Tin Pan Alley waltz-ballad “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” written in the mid-1920s and made most famous by Elvis Presley. Does the song contain a secondary meaning or introduce a guiding metaphor? Does it stand in for the main character? Does it explain the film or illustrate its setting? Is the song worthy of its role?
Yes and no; a lot and a little. It is never heard in full during the multinarratived, hundred-charactered, four-houred bonanza. It is not sung or even particularly cared about by the film’s main character, Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Si’r (“Four”) and played by the actor Chang Chen. The fourth of five kids in a government worker’s family in Taipei in 1961, Si’r is a perfectly rendered young teenager—sensitive, feckless, neither good nor bad, nice to his parents but close to the boil with his teachers, full of fears and rages he can’t name.
Instead, the song is sung by Cat (Wang Chi-tsan), who is a universe unto himself. He looks about ten, but he’s probably older. Small and intense, he’s not content to play the mascot in his social cohort. A lot of his friends seem gullible or deluded, as if they’re playing some dumb role someone far away has written for them; Cat presents as savvy by comparison. He sings with a rock-and-roll band at the local ice-cream parlor. He’s put up a gallery of Elvis pictures around his desk at home but doesn’t explicitly identify with his hero; he doesn’t look, walk, or talk like Elvis. No Elvis songs are played during the memorable gig scenes in which Cat has to stand on a chair to sing harmonies into the microphone with his taller bandmate.
Nevertheless, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” returns and returns again in Yang’s movie as a strange totem, a kind of moon rock.
Around the middle of the film, one plot arc peaks and one begins. During a summer-evening typhoon, Si’r is out of the house and up to no good. He’s been drawn into the periphery of the Little Park Boys gang, who are waging a bloody sword attack on the 217 gang, to avenge a series of events that began with a dispute over a girlfriend. Meanwhile, Si’r’s older sister, unnamed in the film, and his older brother, Lao Er, are sitting at home.
As a favor to Cat, Si’r’s sister carefully transcribes the lyrics of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” from a Presley record. (For some reason, Taiwanese bootleg labels pressed a lot of American music on red vinyl; these records were abundant in American secondhand stores into the nineties.) She works through the song slowly, arriving at the lines in measures 13 through 15: “Does your memory stray / to a bright-ah summer day . . .”
“I could swear he sings ‘a brighter summer day,’ ” she says, confused.
Lao Er looks upward to the corner of the room, thinking. “But is that grammatically correct?” He tries it out to himself in English. “Brighter. Bright summer day.” He strokes his chin.
Maybe he is thinking brighter than what? Maybe he is thinking that summer’s day is a more common phrase in poetic English, or that the words brighter and summer sound like two comparative adjectives in a row. We don’t know what he’s thinking. He doesn’t know what he’s hearing. The question won’t be resolved. This, in a way, is what the song has to do with the movie.
Si’r and Cat are junior high schoolers, deeply bored, totally thwarted, hungry for an identity or a cause that makes sense to them. All their schoolmates separate into government-family kids or military-family kids. They wear blue jeans and tennis shoes; they listen to American rock and roll or sing Christian hymns in church; their movies, journalism, and television are full of authoritarian propaganda. It’s been fifteen years or so since their parents were among the million-plus partisans of the anti-Communist Kuomintang government who moved to the island of Taiwan, set up the Republic of China, and established martial law, claiming status as the legitimate China in absentia.
They belong to the China favored at that time by the American government, living in houses built earlier by the Japanese. They’re adrift in depression and paranoia. The silences are long and portentous. Many conversations are had outside of the film’s frame, where the viewer can’t see them, or outside of the narrative, where the viewer can’t hear them. Yang’s tempo conditions you in such a way that ten straight seconds of nothing but the sounds of chickens or bicycle wheels generally tip you off that something bad is coming.
But something bad is always coming. Immediately after the quandary of the Elvis lyric, the secret police stop by, looking for the father of the house. They interview him outside the doorframe; you can’t hear the conversation. Polite, smiling, they won’t let him go. They bid him to come with them to the station. Nobody knows what’s going on. Most everyone wears a worried face. This is the general vibe of the film.
There has long been confusion surrounding measures 13 to 16 of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman, and copyrighted in 1926, it had been recorded by a number of singers—including Charles Hart, Vaughn De Leith, an old Al Jolson, and a young Jaye P. Morgan—before Elvis. Various versions published on the internet render the lines as “Does your memory strain / to a brighter someday?” (This from one of many different Elvis songbooks published by Hal Leonard.) Or “Does your memory stray / to a bright, sunny day?” (Genius.com.) Or the generally favored “Does your memory stray / to a bright summer day?” And finally, per Elvis’s famous studio version, “Does your memory stray / to a brighter summer day?”
“Brighter”? Or just “bright” with an added “-ah” on the end, a little grace note allowing the mouth to open momentarily so as to clamp on to the “s” in “summer”?
Presley recorded his version in April 1960, during his second session after leaving the army; the single was released in November of that year. He wasn’t yet competing with the Beatles—that was still four years away. He had an open road toward transcending rock and roll. He recorded the song, with the softest guitar accompaniment and the air-cushion harmonizing of the Jordanaires, at four a.m. with the studio lights off. The song is the sound of someone who knows much of the world is prepared to listen to him closely. You can hear the air in the room, his proximity to the microphone; you can hear all the way around each syllable.
He sang “bright-ah” exactly the same way in his 1968 comeback TV special; in an infamous live version from 1969, when he laughed his ass off for nearly three minutes over Cissy Houston’s backup trilling; and in the version heard on the 1977 Elvis in Concert. Whether he’s ending with an ornamental “-ah” or simply “-er,” he sings it nearly identically each time.
It’s a tiny detail, this phantom syllable. It doesn’t figure into the critical literature around Presley. It doesn’t really matter, unless you listen as closely as he was bidding you to, and then it might bloom into a different meaning, in the way that anything or anyone appears different upon closer examination—Si’r; Cat; the disputed girlfriend Ming; Taiwan itself, which hoped to be the destiny of China, until the wind blew otherwise.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” emerges again in later scenes, as Cat is depicted at home singing it into a reel recorder on his desk, for purposes unknown, while Si’r looks on, distracted by several different troubles. In the film’s coda, Si’r is in jail for an atrocity far beyond basic fecklessness. (Even after spending most of four hours with him, the viewer may be surprised.) We do not see Si’r again. There is no closure there.
But we do see Cat, approaching a guard at the jail’s front desk. He’s got a small reel-to-reel tape; he wants to pass it on to Si’r. The first front-desk guard gives him trouble. Cat won’t take no for an answer. The first guard wanders away, and Cat appeals to another. “Mister, didn’t you say you accept tapes?” he presses. “Do you or don’t you?”
“Who’s it for?”
Cat twists a big ring on his left hand, which we haven’t seen before.
“Just leave it and go!” the guard tells him.
And then the song begins in the background, with Cat singing. Cat’s letter to Si’r, enclosed with the tape, is read as a voice-over, mimicking Elvis’s cornball recitation in the middle of the song. This time we get further into the song than we had before; we get all the way to the line right after the disputed one—“when I kissed you and called you sweetheart”—and then it cuts off. You hear the voice of the first guard, returning from whatever he was doing, picking the tape up off the desk.
“Hey! What’s this thing?”
Guard One passes his verdict on the tape and tosses it in the garbage can. In a way, the movie has just turned: suddenly it appears that it might have been about Cat, not Si’r, all along.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is, perhaps, a morbidly pathetic, manipulatively sentimental call out of the shadows: our relationship wasn’t what you thought it was; I’m not who you thought I was; we could imagine ourselves into a different version of the present. Elvis flooded it with urgent, confidential presence and made it heroic. So the song could be about Si’r’s confused love for Ming. And of course it could be the collective soul of the Taiwanese singing to the Chinese nation and identity already slipping out of their grasp—let’s get that interpretation out of the way. But it could also be the anthem of almost anyone feeling sorry for themselves for any reason, a bit deluded but reasonably wanting a second chance from the world. Look! It’s me! You remember me, don’t you? You can assess the integrity of my soul, can’t you? To which the most mature answer will be: son, that bus has left the station. Tell someone who cares. Tell Elvis!