Precisely two hours into Edward Yang‘s four-hour historical drama A Brighter Summer Day, we see an exchange between two children at school. One of them is Xiao S’ir (Chang Chen), the film’s main character and member of a youth gang that was once led by his absent older brother, Honey (Lin Hung-Ming). The other is Ming (Lisa Yang), a girl who used to be Honey’s girlfriend before he went into hiding after killing a member of another gang.
As S’ir and Ming talk, the camera remains at a distance from them, but we can hear their voices as if they were close. In the background, we can hear the school’s marching band practicing; it’s loud enough that it would certainly drown out S’ir and Ming’s voices if they weren’t amplified for us. Ming recounts to S’ir how alone she felt during the days she was bedridden with illness after Honey went into hiding. After sustaining the shot of them standing under an archway together for a full minute, the film cuts as Ming walks away from S’ir.
It cuts to Ming walking down a corridor, and we can see S’ir out of focus behind her, running toward her and eventually coming into focus. They pass by the marching band; now they and the band are close to us, and S’ir has to shout for his voice to be audible. He insists that Ming isn’t alone because he’s there for her. Just as he finishes his sentence, the band stops playing. The volume of his voice drops on his very last syllable, as if cut off by adjusting to the noise level. His next sentence is short, and almost whispered.
A lot is contained in the two minutes it takes for all this to play out. Two characters share a private conversation while the audience can see and hear the full face of the world moving around them. We hear one of them speak quietly, watching them from a distance; then, we hear the other one struggling to be heard while we see them up close, and hear his voice falter when the background noise suddenly drops out from under them. There are two responses here to the fear of being alone: one of withdrawal, the other of fighting to be heard – but in a way that leaves no answers as to what to do when you can.
A Brighter Summer Day is a dark film; so much of it is driven by fear. In it, fear manifests as all different kinds of vague paranoias; in no way is it a suspenseful or frightening film. It’s sad, violent, and yet intimate. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum compared it to Nicholas Ray‘s Rebel Without a Cause, and I think it’s a fitting comparison; Yang and Ray both carve out private spaces for their characters in their films. In A Brighter Summer Day, these spaces collapse, and we see people so horrified by this that they deliberately destroy their own futures.
The Need for a Name
A Brighter Summer Day takes place in early 1960s Taiwan, just over a decade after the old Chinese government was displaced and many people moved with it from the mainland to Taiwan. The film’s adolescent characters, then, are kids who have lived almost their entire lives under a different sense of national identity from what previous generations had.
The film opens with intertitles explaining how youth gangs formed in Taiwan because young people were struggling to attain a sense of identity. S’ir’s real name is Zhang Zhen; “Xiao S’ir” is a nickname, one of many in the film. Others include Cat, Sly, Airplane, and Rocket, all nicknames for members of the S’ir’s youth gang. They’re all from families that came to Taiwan from the mainland; the rival gang consists of people whose families had always been in Taiwan.
Though the film is full of little comments on the characters’ identities, the characters themselves are focused on the future. S’ir in particular is torn: his family is struggling financially, and his father has to seek shady favors to ensure he gets a good education. We hear of people being taken from their families by the secret police under suspicion of being Communist sympathizers. At one point, S’ir tells Ming about his desire to avoid military conscription.
It’s uncertain what the future holds for the kids who devote themselves to their gangs, but it’s not hard to see why they’re willing to take that over a seemingly inevitable future of subjection to an authoritarian government. All this will be obvious to anyone who watches the film, of course, but the film has subtle ways of accenting the situation that both enrich our perception of the characters’ lives, highlight the complexity of national identity, and imbue the whole thing with mythic gravitas.
S’ir and his friends go to see Rio Bravo in a theater; later, he dons a cowboy hat and fantasizes about being a gunslinger in a scene that visually references The Searchers. The members of his gang find old Japanese swords hidden in their houses, remnants of the long-past Japanese occupation of Taiwan. The film takes time on moments in which kids, longing to be self-assured and visible, happen across cultural objects that connote powerful moral convictions.
Compassion from a Distance
Consider again, the aforementioned scene in which S’ir and Ming meet at school. We see them from a distance, but given primacy not only because of the amplification of their voices, but because they’re framed in an archway. Just behind them, a woman running a small concession stand closes up shop, and we can see people walking about on the school grounds.
Quite often in A Brighter Summer Day do we see characters shot through doors, beams, columns, or some other kind of provisional frame. It divides space to give characters private, personal worlds. But they don’t last: the film never turns its eye away from the world outside; it can never completely be shut out, and the characters move across social boundaries at will.
They’re endlessly navigating their relationships, and the balance between privacy and agency in the world at large. It goes as much for the adults as for the kids: S’ir’s father’s efforts to secure a good education for his son take place in the dark; through a doorframe in the background, we can see a family gathering play out in the light. Things change when he’s interrogated by the secret police: he’s in the center of a large, empty room, and his exchange with the interrogators plays out in shot-reverse-shot. It’s a lonely sequence, and when the camera moves, the environment itself becomes the antagonist.
Another noticeable visual motif is light piercing through darkness in moments of instability. Characters manipulate it themselves, igniting matches or playing with flashlights. Early in the film, we sometimes see S’ir standing alone in a room, switching the lights on and off. He says he does it to test his eyes; he feels like he can’t quite see properly.
In A Brighter Summer Day, the camera’s distance and the framing of people within frames neither diminishes nor entraps the characters. It creates a landscape of conflicting needs and personalities, with dramatic touches that draw our empathy running in parallel. Though the camera rarely if ever moves in closer than a medium shot, the film is able to make its near-omniscient perspective achingly intimate.
A Brighter Summer Day ends with one character’s response to the problem of negotiating your place in the world with threats of violent futures looming over your head. They commit their own act of violence, which results in them being erased from the film entirely. They never appear in the film’s coda, and the final shot is one that highlights their absence. Violence becomes an instrument for a person to destroy their own future.
Somewhere in this sad, potentially confusing, and extremely long film are little things that attest to the capacity for change, or the scope of certain characters’ familial love. The sense of intimacy it effects speaks for itself: it looks at an entire world wracked with dire problems, and focuses both on people who managed to make it out OK and on people who didn’t. It’s something worth remembering, especially with this film’s eye for private spaces as part of a chain of relations. What’s more, it’s one of the films that best exemplifies cinema as a language, the variety of unexpected and complex functions images in a movie can serve.
For 25 years, this film was difficult to see for international audiences. That it’s easily accessible now, and with a restoration that does justice to its subtle visual mastery, is worth celebrating.
How can films make the most of depicting the past?
A Brighter Summer Day was released in 1991, is currently available for home viewing by the Criterion Collection. It is also available for streaming on Filmstruck.com.