Imagine a painting by Bruegel. Hushed, balanced, with somewhat faded colors, multiple ideas that coexist, bizarrely intertwining on one canvas. To watch Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is to witness a whole world coming to life and moving like ripples on water – in all directions from one of Taipei’s streets in 1961.
A Brighter Summer Day was first shown in Taiwan in 1991. For a long time since, it has been almost impossible to find it in good quality and its full, 4-hour version. The short edit in CAM-rip quality travelled from hand to hand in the community of cinephiles who described the film as a lost masterpiece.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project rediscovered and digitized the original film. Finally, 30 years after its release, the ambitious project of Edward Yang can boast the original quality of image and sound. Ukraine saw a theatrical premiere only at the 5th Kyiv Week of Critics in 2021.
Why is A Bright Summer Day a big deal not only for film critics, but also for all film connoisseurs?
Reason #1: It’s a rare insight into the making of world cinema
Edward Yang. It was his Moby Dick, a small indie film that grew to become an epic picture with more than a hundred speaking parts. All actors were carefully hand-picked by Yang. He opted for people who felt right for his characters over those with more professional experience. Yang was convinced that he was discovering actors who would become the future of Taiwanese cinema. And he was right. The boy who once played Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen) most recently portrayed Doctor Wellington Yueh in Dennis Villeneuve’s blockbuster Dune.
Reason #2 It’s an exceptional glimpse at convoluted Taiwan history
The events of the film take place in the extraordinary space of Taiwan in the 1960s. Having been under Japanese rule for half a century, the island returned to Chinese control after World War II. At the time, Mao Zédōng and his Communist Party had just overthrown the previous ruling nationalist Kuomintang party. The defeated nationalist government and its followers were forced to move to Taiwan.
A little over a decade later, when the events of A Bright Summer Day take place, the migrants were beginning to realize that they would never return to mainland China. Their teenage children, who grow up in limbo between the unreachable world of their parents and an uncertain future, turn to street gangs in search of protection and their own identity. 1960s Taipei is a city not yet overtaken by war but in constant imminent danger of one breaking out. Even though one of the longest impositions of martial law is now over, the threat of war is far from waning.
Reason #3 It’s a true-crime film
A Brighter Summer Day is a true-crime film based on events that shook all teenagers in Taiwan at the time. Edward Yang does not reconstruct the events of the real murder of a schoolgirl from Taipei but raises a vision of the society he lived in as a teenager. The intertwined storylines of the film clash around the key conflict between two mostly male street gangs, the 217 Gang (in white T-shirts) and the Little Park Gang (in school uniforms).
From the first shots, it becomes clear that the confrontation is motivated by more than just testosterone. Taiwan at the time was an arena of class inequality. Most families fleeing the Chinese communist regime belonged to either the middle class (dissident intellectuals) or the lower class (military).
Reason #4 It’s a teen gangster film
A whole generation of Taipei teenagers comes alive on screen through one school year in the life of a 14-yer-old Xiao Si’r. In Chinese, ‘Si’ means “four” – the boy is the fourth child in the Xiao family, and by the time end credits roll you will know better than your own neighbours. The boy goes to night school, falls in love, and finds himself in a whirlwind of violence.
In many ways, Si’r fits well into the classic set of gangster films’ tropes: he’s not a bad guy nor a model student. He loves movies with John Ford, reads comics, and does not consider himself part of any gang that runs the streets of Taipei. It is his longing for love and belonging against the backdrop of class struggle and cultural contradictions that cause his downfall.
Reason #5 It’s a mirror of the cultural ambiguity of 1960s Taipei
The two trends converge in the style and values of most kids that appear on-screen. First, their belonging to Chinese collectivist traditions inherited from their parents, and second, American pop culture, which bursts into the impenetrable darkness of Taipei night with rock-n-roll and Elvis hairdos, blue jeans, baseball bats, pool games, and individualism.
Yang manages to highlight this duality through mis-en-scène with admirable skill. For example, American troops have an elephant-in-the-room presence: military machines come in and out of frame, some unlabeled soldiers are training on the city outskirts to no surprise of Taipei citizens. And then every night-school student wears a pair of sneakers – another poignant detail that shows Taiwan’s fixation on the West and the central role of western culture to Taipei teenagers.
That’s why Edward Yang’s decision to give his film two different titles, one in English and one in Chinese, is particularly clever (Gǔ lǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn – Youth Homicide Incident on Guling Street).
Reason #6 You can teach film lighting solely on A Brighter Summer Day
Yang’s work with light, shadows, and darkness is fascinating. He finds techniques more often used in theater than in the movies, directing the viewer’s attention within wide master shots to specific events in this epic world. All kinds of natural and artificial lighting come into play in A Brighter Summer Day for more than just aesthetic reasons. There’s a very intimate logic to why the light is present or absent in the shot, it functions as a way of punctuation in the story flow. Even the light’s flicker is intentional.
In the 21st century, we are not used to seeing complete darkness, so we underestimate the power in the hands of a light-bearer. At the beginning of the film, Si’r steals a flashlight from a movie set near his school. The vision-impaired boy takes the flashlight to help him read at night, but he ends up using it for so much more than that. Follow that light.
Reason#7 The soundscape of the film is remarkable
There is no music in the movie, but its editing is musical, jazz-like. Its repetition and improvisation cycles grow more and more familiar as you move through the 237 minutes. Halfway in, you’ll have the melody of Yang’s editing etched into your mind. He manages to create drama without melodrama – he avoids close-ups at times of the greatest tension and utilizes almost “documentary” sound (which lacks behind-the-scenes music, voice-overs, or exaggerated accents on noises). Pain, tears, and kisses also often elude the camera’s eye – we see the causes and consequences of pivotal plot moments or the hints of it in the dark or shadows. Even death and torture are shown remotely, distancing the viewer from the movie space and letting the bigger picture stand out even at the height of tension.
Reason#8 It shows Yang’s perfect command of film language
The camera movements are as interesting to follow as the plot development. Some scenes are minimally edited, with long shots in which some characters leave the camera’s field of view entirely, freeing up space for others. Others have the camera witness the unfolding of events from a fixed point of view, from the beginning of the event to its end in real-time. The filming and editing techniques tools Yang uses parallel the interconnections of individual storylines with grace, letting the film language shine.
For instance, Yang manages to show the Bressonian way in which Si’s personality dissolves in the roles he tries on throughout the film entirely through the way he positions the camera In the concluding scenes of the movie, we slowly lose touch with the boy; first, his face is concealed in the shadows, then he is only shown from behind, and then the shot of the crucial events in Si’s life omits him entirely.
Reason #9 The script took more preparation than most period films
Edward Yang is a meticulous scriptwriter. When the director was developing the story, he wrote both the past and the future for each of the more than 100 characters of the film. As critic Tony Rayns recalls in his commentary for the Criterion Collection edition of A Brighter Summer Day, Yang liked to joke that should he be asked to make a 300-episode series, he’d already have enough material.