A Brighter Summer Day screens at HOME on Sun 11 Sep as part of the Edward Yang season within an ongoing series of Taiwan film events.
One of the many remarkable achievements of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is the way it manages to be a deeply engaging drama about a teenage boy and his family, while also functioning as an expansive exploration and critique of society in post-war Taiwan. This is a film that took over three years to make, with eighty speaking roles, and all the ambition of an American crime epic.
Even the title reveals its multiple aspirations. If A Brighter Summer Day – a riff on a lyric from the Elvis hit “Are You Lonesome?” – evokes a breezy exploration of young love, its original Taiwanese title, The Homicide Incident of the Youth on Guling Street suggests a very different afternoon at the cinema. The real success of A Brighter Summer Day is that it manages to be both these films. Tied together by a brilliant debut performance from Chang Chen as Si’r – a young boy who gets involved with gangs at his night school – Edward Yang weaves together social commentary with character study. Over its four-hour runtime, this all builds in an unassuming and engaging way into a uniquely moving and provocative film.
A Brighter Summer Day takes place in Taipei at the turn of the 1960s – a time of collision between different communities. The island of Taiwan had been a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945. In this year, the second phase of the Chinese Civil War erupted in Mainland China, with the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek) losing to Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party around 1949. Following their defeat, the KMT and their supporters fled to Taiwan and set up government there. Upon establishing their rule of Taiwan, the KMT imposed martial law on the island’s population and suppressed political descent in an era known as the “White Terror” which lasted until 1992.
These broad histories are mapped onto A Brighter Summer Day’s characters and spaces. Si’r’s middle class family, for example, are among those struggling to find footing in Taipei after a quick exodus from the Mainland. These émigrés live in a Japanese house with its sliding shoji doors and rooms too small to fit the large family and their dinner table. They adorn the walls with pictures of everyone from Sun Yat-sen, founder of the KMT, to Elvis and the Hong Kong stars of the Shaw Brothers film studio. (While you’ll often find critics comparing Yang’s style to that of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu because of their shared preference for long takes, gentle pacing, and geometric framing, it is only the scenes in this house where such comparisons feel really justified).
These are all references to a changing Taiwan which Yang luxuriates in across a film which is laced with political and social significance. We see, for example, the growing popularity of rock’n’roll music with Taipei’s younger generation. Many teens spend their evenings at a local rock’n’roll club whose music seems a world away from the convoys of military tanks they pass on their late-night bus rides home. Yang said that for his generation rock’n’roll music “made us think of freedom”. The songs clash sharply with the Japanese music preferred by some of the older characters, just as the American suits and greased back hairstyles of performers contrast the traditional qipao dresses donned by many of the film’s middle-aged Chinese women.
While each of these elements explore a clashing of cultures, they also detail the gap between generations and the changing social dynamics of the day. These intergenerational differences are carried on the shoulders of Chang Chen in his role as Si’r. An actor who frequently appears in the films of directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai, you might also recognise Chang from big transnational productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Red Cliff, or his role in the recent Dune adaptation. Now a big name in international cinema, this was actually Chang’s first foray into feature film and his real-life father, Chang Kuo-chu, plays his on-screen dad in the film.
The beauty of A Brighter Summer Day is that while these social histories are explored in detail, they are included primarily to support a deeply engaging personal narrative that we can understand without a degree in Taiwanese history. Our reward for spending four hours in this world is a detailed understanding of how everything fits together on an interpersonal level. There is a lot to notice in this regard through Yang’s framing and use of space. Observe the spaces and places of repetition: like Si’r and his father walking down the same street pushing their bikes, or Si’r and his crush, Ming, spending time at the local night market. See what’s different each time we’re there: how the dinner table changes, the corridors of the night school, the corners of the neighbouring film set, or the local club. Notice too the handful of objects which appear repeatedly – a school uniform, a Japanese sword, an American radio – as we learn more about the world and its characters.
The generosity of Yang’s film-making style is that these become as personal for us as they do the characters. Yes, they allow us to read into their wider social relevance – the fragility and emptiness of opportunity in Taipei, the residual legacies of Japanese colonisation, the increasing influence of America – but they also nuance the relationship between a mother and her distant son, between jealous friends and aspirational teens, between selfish young men and their frustrated girlfriends.
Remarkably, over half of A Brighter Summer Day’s cast and crew had never worked on a film before. Yang’s films were generally rejected by audiences and critics in Taiwan because they were seen to pander to international film festivals and discard the local scene. In Yang’s own words, he was understood as “the bad guy who killed Taiwanese cinema”. While there is always more to Taiwan cinema than the work of Edward Yang, there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than four hours with his uniquely accomplished look at life, death, and everything in between.
By Fraser Elliott
Fraser is Lecturer in Film, Exhibition Curation at the University of Edinburgh and also a member of the Chinese Film Forum UK. Before moving to Edinburgh, he was a member of the film team at HOME.