Film Review: A Brighter Summer Day

Magnificent achievement by the late Edward Yang pushes him even higher in the pantheon of great directors.

Frankly, the thought of a four-hour Taiwanese film was, in a word, daunting, but such is the artistry of the late director Edward Yang that those hours sped by unlike any I’ve ever experienced in the cinema. Originally released in 1991 but only now getting a New York theatrical showing, A Brighter Summer Day is the tale of Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen), a boy who cannot seem to be the model student his family, which has immigrated to Taiwan in the wake of the Communist takeover of China, and community wishes him to be. His fighting and insubordination forever land him in trouble and the less desirable daytime classes at his school, where the better students study at night. He is also caught up in territorial warfare between the Little Park Gang (of which he is a member) and the working-class 217 Gang. The leader of Little Park, Honey (Lin Hongming), is in hiding after a fatal accident, but his girlfriend Ming (Lisa Yang) becomes the obsessive focus of Si’r’s attention, despite the fact that she is anything but a one-guy girl.

The basic plot is a simple one, revealing the tensions in the gangs as well as Si’r’s family, who struggle for middle-class respectability. But Yang, who stated that this was an autobiographical work, gives it all a vivid sweep and detailed richness that endow it with an epic fervor. Watching it, other similarly themed films set in roiling communities of disaffected youth spring evocatively to mind, like Rocco and His Brothers (especially in the treatment of Ming), The Last Picture Show, and a whole raft of superb Italian Neo-Realist gems. What Yang has captured is feverish, complex, frustrating life itself, and the film is an absolute triumph of directorial control and conception.

Although never calling undue attention to themselves, there is a trove of strikingly populated, fabulous set-pieces, set in the school, poolroom hangout, Si’r’s home, neighborhood streets and outlying fields, which have the deep, complex beauty of everyday life itself, as perceived through the eyes of a great artist. The fights are indeed vicious, but the violence is honestly earned, never gratuitous, interlaced with truly poetic sequences like Si’r’s encounter with the returned, tragic Honey, which has a Dostoyevskian aura of nobly rueful pathos. Then there are the quieter, deliciously warm and accurate domestic moments, like the afternoon Si’r spends with his friend Airplane (wonderful little Ke Yulun), who sings American 1950s pop songs at the local club in a honeyed boy soprano, fooling around with records, while his older sister models a dress she’s copied from a magazine.

Performances are uniformly terrific, with the generous director giving each of his numerous cast members their individual memorable moments. Zhang doesn’t stint from portraying Si’r’s less attractive aspects, and makes an unforgettably complex, identifiable protagonist worthy of your empathy. His parents—the surprisingly empathetic father who backs up his troublesome son, despite his aversion to the education Pops deems so essential, and his lovely, no-nonsense mother—are beautifully played. (There’s a recurring plot device involving a precious watch of hers, eternally filched and pawned by her crazy kids, which is but one more glowingly true element here, being both simultaneously appalling and funny.) Lisa Yang, with her strikingly wide-set eyes, has the impassive prettiness of a doll and brings amazing force to her self-involved yet devastatingly alluring role—the very kind of blandly heartless girl you’d first fall unhappily in love with. Her looks get her noticed by a film director, which allows Yang to recreate the period’s bustling film industry in some wonderfully flashy scenes, involving at one point a lesbian producer. These scenes, and the poignant, confoundedly original ending, only add more elegiac magic to his masterful vision, and further regret that there will be no more films from him.