A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Edward Yang | 3hr 57min

The fact that the title of this Taiwanese film, A Brighter Summer Day, comes from an Elvis lyric underscores a notable cultural incongruity that is fundamental to its characters. The social and political turmoil laid out in its opening text telling of how millions of Chinese Mainlanders fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party’s civil war victory sets the scene for a culture ready to adopt the idealism of the West, and thus the song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ becomes not just a symbol of hope, but an active obsession for one aspiring young singer, Cat. Through much of the film we find him translating its lyrics in hopes of eventually recording his own version, and up on his walls we even see Elvis posters plastered like venerated icons of worship. It is particularly that one line that he gets caught up on though, picking apart the melancholic recollection of some beautiful past era where young people might have thrived.

“Does your memory stray,

To a brighter summer day…”

As it is though, the teenagers of A Brighter Summer Day do not live in an Elvis song, but within the reality of 1960s Taipei, where tensions between Taiwan’s native people and Chinese immigrants run thick, splitting their young people up into gangs that offer security and identity. In this way, these groups essentially become buffers to the existential loneliness that eat away at their margins, which Edward Yang affectingly reveals in claustrophobically framed compositions.

A powerful opening frame, not of Si’r, but of his father meeting with the schoolteachers and learning of his son’s low test scores.

Though he is constructing a crime epic here as sprawling and dense in detail as The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, he is not aiming for some grand, mythological rendering of history based in legendary archetypes. The settings, characters, and relationships of A Brighter Summer Day are all extremely grounded in social realism, calling attention to those mundane lives that don’t necessarily define national cultures, but which rather slip by unnoticed right up until they inevitably make themselves known for the wrong reasons.

Strong form in returning to this school basketball court several times, a setting of competition of rivalry, but most importantly revealing the worn-out infrastructure of the school – peeling paint and ill-fitting uniforms visually rooting the film in realism.

The more personal story that Yang is exploring here is of the slow, bitter corruption of one teenager, Xiao Si’r, who comes from a family of Mainlanders yet winds up in a gang of native Taiwanese youths known as the Little Park Boys. The inspiration for this character comes from Yang’s own memories of a senseless murder that took place in his own community, though it isn’t until the final minutes of A Brighter Summer Day’s epic four-hour runtime that this event takes place. The rest of its lengthy narrative is spent seeking to understand the social, cultural, and economic forces that warp Si’r’s innocence into something ugly, all starting with his acceptance into a night school for struggling students. His father’s concerns that he might encounter some bad influences are initially brushed off by the staff, but they do serve as an ominous warning of what awaits his son just a little down the road.

As Si’r finds himself gradually absorbed into the gangster lifestyle, we discover a sizeable Goodfellas influence at play here, though Yang never lets us forget that these young men are still children, immature in their attitudes and egos. Their discoveries of emotions more complex than those from their childhoods arrive in the form of romantic attraction, sex, and hatred, and the lack of guidance they receive neglects to keep any of these under control.

Light and shadow composed perfectly through the fence slats at a train station where the Little Park Boys plot the massacre of the 217s.

The most important relationship present within this group is that between Si’r and Ming, the girlfriend of the Little Park Boys’ leader, Honey, who starts the film in hiding after killing a member from rival gang, the 217s. There is a sweet tenderness to Si’r’s support of her acting aspirations, and one movie studio set proves to be a source of soothing idealism for the two of them. As their relationship grows in affection, Yang hangs on a gorgeous frame of light pouring through the giant soundstage door into the pitch-black movie studio, silhouetting their figures as they dreamily wander the space. Above them, the wooden rafters prove to be a suitable hiding spot for these young dreamers, offering high and low angles that separate the distant worlds of disadvantaged students and successful actors.

Doorways are used to frame Yang’s characters all through A Brighter Summer Day, but few shots touch his wonderful manipulation of light here as Si’r and Ming visit a movie soundstage set after hours.

Throughout much of A Brighter Summer Day’s first act, Honey’s presence hangs in the air as an almost mythical figure, so much so that we might begin to fear what sort of fury he might besiege upon Si’r for taking his girlfriend. When he does finally appear an hour and half into the film, he does indeed strike an impressive figure, setting himself apart from the other Little Park Boys in his oversized navy coat and sailor hat, but he does not carry the same volatility as his second-in-command, Sly. Even Yang’s camera holds him in great esteem, reverently following him through a gorgeous pastel-coloured ice cream parlour and keeping his face obscured from our view, waiting for him to finally turn to us. That he only lasts twenty minutes before being brutally killed by the leader of the 217s comes as an utter shock, but it is also this murder which triggers the Little Park Boys’ massacre of their rivals, and subsequently Si’r’s total indoctrination into their violent methods.

Meeting Honey in the pastel-coloured ice cream parlour sets him apart from every other character right away, and then the staggering of actors in shots like these go further to draw our eye to him.

From there, it is only a descent into even deeper emotional isolation for the young gangster, his aggression growing with Ming’s revelations that she is seeing other men, leading to further violent outbursts and eventually expulsion from school. His own disconnection from his family often manifests visually in the placement of a wooden beam slicing meal times right down the middle, severing his connection to his parents and siblings. In this way, we begin to see how the careful arrangement of Yang’s mise-en-scène around him lets that isolation take hold, closing Si’r within halls and doorways directly reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s own geometrically precise visual style.

Yang slicing Si’r’s family dinner with a wooden beam, creating division.
Si’r’s father faces his own troubles being questioned by authorities for past connections to the Chinese Communist Party, and so he too becomes the subject of Yang’s isolating imagery in this superb arrangement of the mise-en-scène, stretching across the whole depth of field.

It isn’t just that Yang’s characters appear so tiny and shrunken within these barriers, but the frames themselves tell vivid stories of each environment. From the peeling green and white paint outside Si’r’s classroom, to the grid of elegant window glazing bars looking out to his family’s garden, and the wooden cased opening in Ma’s house opening onto a display of elegant painted flowers, Yang’s sheer attention to detail remains consistently remarkable between each composition, masterfully reflecting his characters in rich visual designs.

It isn’t just enough for Yang to insulate his characters in their staging, but the detail of the frames within which they are caught are just as important.
A grid of glazing bars opening Si’r’s family home up onto the garden, with a door opening right in the middle. Yang returns to this many times to create perfectly Ozu-like shots in their precise geometry.

Then there are those shots which let the camera drift entirely away from Yang’s characters altogether, letting their disembodied conversations continue while the worn-out architecture swallows them up. At one point, a close-up of a lacquered, white door catches just enough light for the reflected silhouettes of Si’r and Ming to bounce off its surface, reducing them to indistinct shadows within their school grounds. Through the lens of a Taiwanese society that pushes the issues of its youths off to the side, this is the visual manifestation of their neglect, robbing them of the physical space they inhabit.

Squint and you can catch the two silhouettes of Si’r and Ming reflected in this lacquered door, holding a conversation.
Another conversation carried out with one person out of frame entirely, simply represented by his voice.

There is often a distinction though in Yang’s cinematography when he begins to shoot them in larger groups, building out entirely organic environments with a marvellous depth of field reaching across layers of the frame. Even in those instances when the personal drama of primary characters is allowed to unfold in the foreground, the ensemble can often be found in the background playing games and occupied with other tasks, refusing to let the broader world fade from view. It is also in these thoughtfully composed scenes that Yang occasionally lets tones clash in jarring contrasts, particularly when Ming and the Little Park Boys mourn the recent death of Honey to the backdrop of their school marching band playing obnoxiously bold tunes. Eventually they are forced to shout over the music just to be heard, being denied the proper time and space to grieve their deceased friend.

Stories playing out in the background entirely independent of our characters in the foreground, building out a world where they aren’t the only people with fully vivid lives.

With the exception of the slow, methodical pans and dollies interspersed through the film, Yang largely comes at A Brighter Summer Day with a largely static camera, resisting the urge to cut to conventional close-ups on key emotional beats. The choice to maintain this distance is carried out with great formal rigour, leading us to the most impactful shot of the film in the seconds that immediately follows Si’r stabbing Ming in an outburst of anger. Yang sits at a wide of the Taipei street for almost an entire minute, centring a blood-soaked Si’r standing above Ming’s crumpled body, gradually coming to the realisation of what he has done. Behind him, locals conduct business as usual along a row of city storefronts, until one by one their heads turn to face the tragedy, projecting little more than confused intrigue in their expressions. The society that has failed to reign him in is there to bear nonchalant witness to the consequences of their neglect, seeing several lives destroyed in a single flash of violent anger.

A devastating culmination of two character arcs, witnessed by nonchalant strangers in the background.

Without the four hours of A Brighter Summer Day that preceded this scene, Si’r’s full, heartrending transformation simply would not be felt as acutely as it is, especially given how much it is tied to the social strife and degradation present in virtually every frame, whether explicit or implicit. Yang’s clear mastery over his craft as a cinematic realist is absolutely essential to the profound authenticity of this piece, carefully examining his nation’s overlooked adversities through a lens that seeks genuine understanding of its aching shame and sorrow.

Shame and sorrow in a single image, hiding their faces from view.

A Brighter Summer Day is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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