A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY

(Guling jie shaonian sha ren shijian)

Directed by Edward Yang. 1991.


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After the Communist victory in the civil war of 1949, some 1.3 million refugees from Mainland China came to Taiwan. It was a time when the island was governed by a dictatorship in which all political parties other than the Kuomintang were outlawed, and political opponents were persecuted, jailed, and executed, a continuation of the White Terror campaign launched after the 2/28 incident. Uncertain about their future and shaken by the weakening of family traditions, immigrant teenagers joined street gangs like the Little Park Gang and fought against indigenous island groups such as the 217 to strengthen their sense of security.  

There have been many great films about the teenage years, but few capture the roller coaster emotions, the sudden shifts of friendships and loyalties, the insularity and the need to belong as authentically as Edward Yang’s epic four-hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day. The film about Taiwanese youth looking for their place in the world takes place in 1960, eleven years after the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in the Communist Revolution of 1949, and is based on an actual incident that occurred in Taipei in which a 14 year-old boy killed his 13-year old girlfriend, the first juvenile homicide in Taiwan’s history.  

Shot mostly in darkness, much of the action takes place at night or inside houses, schools, or dance clubs, producing a feeling of growing anxiety. As detailed as a novel, the film lasts almost four hours but nothing seems superfluous and the darkness and uncertainty build slowly towards a powerful and inevitable climax.

Young actors were recruited from Taiwan schools and trained for the film over a period of years by Edward Yang, then a teacher in the drama department of the National Institute for the Arts and the performances are impeccable. There are 100 speaking parts in the film though we get to know the characters only by their gang names such as Airplane, Sly, Cat, Worm, Animal, Underpants, Honey, Elephant, Tiger, and Ma.  

Xiao S’ir is one of five children and is considered a top prospect to enter college. Chen Chang, who went on to star in such films as Happy Together, 2046, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, portrays S’ir as a bright and sensitive 14-year old but lacking in respect for authority. Drawn into the culture of gangs, he is ultimately driven to defend what he conceives to be his honor without considering the consequences. His father (Guozhu Zang) is a civil servant who sees his influence waning and his pleas to school officials to forgive S’ir’s transgressions often fall on deaf ears. The father is arrested by the police and badgered to reveal his associates in China which brings an added strain to the already vulnerable family.  

The influence of other cultures also creates confusion. Both the use of Japanese swords as murder weapons and American music including an Elvis Presley song play a major role in the film and the family’s complaint that they fought against the Japanese for years and now are living in a Japanese house listening to Japanese songs is revealing. As the teens struggle to come to terms with an increasingly chaotic world, an offhand remark often leads to unverifiable conclusions and a chain of events that veers out of control. S’ir’s world begins to unravel when he falls for a would-be actress named Ming (Lisa Yang) who is the girlfriend of Honey (Lin Hongming), a soulful gang leader who had killed one of Ming’s suitors and gone into exile.  

When Honey is murdered by Shandong (Alex Yang), a rival gang leader, an all-out confrontation between gangs takes place in a driving rainstorm. As a result of Honey’s death, Ming becomes all too available to S’ir’s friends, a circumstance that leads to tragedy and the loss of a once promising future, perhaps a metaphor for the island itself. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day is not a political film but a work of art that shows how individual experience is impacted by the flow of time and history.  

Interweaving social and political events into a very personal experience, the film touches us with its lyricism, the authenticity of its awareness, and its genuine caring for its characters. Though sweeping in scope, it is full of touchingly intimate moments and, for all the tough talk of the gang members, the characters have an endearing sweetness and innocence, sadly lost forever in an unthinking moment. 

GRADE: A 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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