Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 07, 2012 8:33 pm 
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Youth at risk in 1960 Taipei, from a Taiwan film master

A Brighter Summer Day is one of the the New Taiwan Cinema master Edward Yang's magnum opuses, and declares itself as such by its length of 3 hours 48 minutes. It's Yang's longest and perhaps most autobiographical film. The protagonist Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen) is a 15-year-old in Taipei in 1960. The solemn, quietly intense Chang Chen, in his first role, was actually 15 at the time. 1960 is the year Elvis Presley recorded "Are You Lonesome To-Night." The title is Si'r's sister's mis-transcription of a line from the song. One of Si'r's good friends and a school mate is the little, feisty, slick-haired Cat (Wong Chi Zan), who performs Elivis songs in a soprano voice in a dance hall featuring rock music. All this signifies the main characters' alienation from their immediate surroundings. This is not in my view as warm and humane nor, perhaps intentionally, is it as richly, cumulatively constructed a film as Yang's 2000 Yi Yi, the only one of Yang's films previously released in the US and available here on DVD, but it's a complex, troubling, and powerful work. It depicts a pervasive discontent and, surprisingly since its world consists of rather frail young men, it seethes with danger and the threat of imminent violence by baseball bat, samurai sword, knife, pistol, or railway train. Its style is rich too, with the characteristic long and middle shots of the school combined with a lot of darkness struck with moments of light, putatively symbolizing a much-thwarted hope for better things to which the title alludes. It opens with a swinging light bulb, and in a violent moment another hanging light bulb is smashed. Two young lovers watch events in a dark film studio from high above.

Motifs, recurring talismanic objects brought in or stolen from outiside Si'r's still alien Taiwanese world, include a tape recorder and a crackly, broken, yet indestructible radio, and a big flashlight Si'r nicks from the film studio that picks people and objects out of the darkness. All these things are cumulatively fascinating and troubling. And there is youthful energy and ordinariness: some of the boys are very good basketball players. But one sometimes feels that Yang has indulged himself too much, or that he fails to impose an organizing instinct; that this could have been more emotionally powerful and enlightening if more firmly structured by themes and not left to accumulate so randomly and slowly. Granted the epic approach, still 20 minutes could probably have been cut without loss. Is the final climax a wonderful shock, or does it come too late and yet too suddenly to have the proper impact? Never mind, though: this is very evidently a master at work. The film has been called "novelistic," but its episodic unfolding makes it closer to an unusually intelligent and self-conscious kind of soap. On the other hand, it's really just sui generis, a style all to itself. Mind you, it requires patience, or the mindset and mood people used to adopt when they watched double features. (It has a blackout pause midway, indicating an intermission.) Note: some devotees of the film say that many interconnections appear if one "takes notes" and can be missed on first viewing.

As A.O. Scott noted at the film's belated and much welcomed US theatrical release late last year (thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation), A Brighter Summer Day has all the insularity of a story about life on a remote little Asian island, but besides being tuned in to rock and Elvis, its mood echoes the period's western teen spirit of rebellion, and fits into a genre found in other times too: "The film, at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early ’60s, like East of Eden or Rebel Without a Cause. Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, A Brighter Summer Day also belongs to a tradition that stretches from I Vitelloni to Mean Streets and beyond."

Events and chronology parallel Yang's own experience, since Si'r's family emigrated when he was little from the Chinese mainland in 1949 to escape communist rule as Yang's did. They live in Taipei as outliers, Si'r's meek father (Chang Kuo-Chu) a government functionary. Si'r joins a gang to gain a feeling of belonging. His Little Park Boys battle the 217s for control over the rock and roll dance hall where Cat performs. Yang didn't actually belong to a gang but apparently his more working class fellow New Cinema auteur Hou Hsiau-hsien did. Si'r botches an exam and has to go to a military night school where they all wear khaki uniforms. His father strikes a deal with someone to get him into a day school, but that event keeps being put off. Later because of his Mainland connections Si'r's father is arrested and lengthily, exhaustively interrogated, and his fortunes go downhill thereafter. Danger and repression are all around: military vehicles are often seen trooping by as young people chat or stroll or walk their bikes.

The film accrues in little episodes and sometimes short, sometimes longer scenes, and unfolds at an intimate and always specific level, focused on Si'r's closest friends (and enemies), his two sisters and brother, his snobbish, discontented mother (Chang Kuo-Chu), his relationship with Ming (Lisa Yang), an absent gang leader's girl with an exquisite, unapproachable look. She has, and wants, many admirers, and Si'r tries various girlfriends, whom he has a fatal desire to improve.

Though much of the conflict is just youthful bravado, slaps and insults, there are also some truly violent encountrers, one notably in almost total darkness and seen from a distance, which here works as it doesn't in fake CGI-concocted bouts like those in The Hunger Games. And there is killing. One gang leader slaps an opponent, and half an hour later he's been unceremoniously pushed to his death in front of a train. Yet Si'r hits the books hard after an expulsion from school and still seems to have a brighter summer future. Yang's film is far too complex to describe in a page -- it has over a hundred speaking parts -- but one can sum it up with the phrase, Youth at risk.

A Brighter Summer Day/Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian was shown in New York Nov. 25-Dec. 2, 2011 as part of a retrospective by the Film Society of Lincoln Center titled “A Rational Mind: The Films of Edward Yang" and subsequently appeared on New York-based film critics' 2011-edition annual "best" lists. The British Film Institute in London presented a similar series in Sept.-Oct. 2011 and likewise at Toronto's Cinematheque Ontario in Canada. Earlier showings of Yang in the US include a 1997 Chicago retrospective. Jonathan Rosenbaum's elaborate commentary on this occasion, especially on A Better Summer Day, is available online. Other Yang films we'd like to see (but may have to wait for similar retrospectives for) are In Our Time (1982), That Day, on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985) The Terrorizers (1986), A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996). Yi Yi is available in quality US DVD, and A Brighter Summer Day is reportedly coming. It was watched for this review on a DVD of a Taiwan copy with Chinese and English subtitles, mediocre image, and apparently filmed from a projection on the screen, but all there. A Taiwan DVD set of Hou and Yang (NTSC) includes The Terrorizers and Yang's episode from In Our Time, but this apparently is of poor quality and lacks English subtitles for one of the films. In short, Edward Yang is hard to find on DVD and this is a lack that cries out to be remedied.

P.s.: 2016: The lack is now being remedied. Criterion 's 4K restoration comes out on DVD and Blu-ray 22 Mar. 2016. I viewed it at Criterion's NYC HQ 27 Feb. and reported.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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