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A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)


    The title of Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s massive nationalist epic A Brighter Summer Day is lifted from a lyric to the Elvis Presley song “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, but near the end of the film, we find that The King, who was idolized in Taiwan, describes the country as a “little unknown island.” That Yang doesn’t see fit to have anyone argue with that depiction of his homeland seems indicative of the country’s self-image, or general lack of one, circa 1961, the year in which he sets most of the movie. By that time, the shock of the 1948 immigration of defeated Nationalist Chinese to Taiwan was fading into memory, and the country seemed to be struggling with defining its identity under Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. Even as, or perhaps especially as, citizens of a new country born out of a failed civil upheaval, the uprooted Taiwanese people in 1961 seemed to have a lot of civic pride (they’re shown standing at full attention during their national anthem), but twelve years after their arrival, Yang shows that in them there is uncertainty about their future and political present.


    As fully conceived as any political film I can recall outside of Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Brighter unfurls over a four-hour period, but almost none of it seems extraneous. Yang masterfully creates an environment in which young gangsters seem more in control of things than the sprawling bureaucratic government. Despite appearances, however, that semblance of control is just an illusion created by the Yang’s closeness to his subjects. Whenever the characters in the film step too far out of line, authority figures swoop in with shocking, almost mechanical, efficiency to set things right. The tenuous state of affairs in the country is balanced between Communist and Democratic concerns, and throughout the movie, reminders of that inherent ideological conflict crop up. Perhaps nowhere is this more gracefully conveyed than in the scene where a student points out that the Chinese character for the word “I” takes much longer to write than its English counterpart, much to the irritation of his patriotic teacher. Yang seems to be pointing out here that since it’s quite literally more difficult to conceptualize the concept of oneself in the language that the Taiwanese people use, growing pains are to be expected when shifting to a government that puts power in the hands of the individual.


    The freedoms afforded to the people as a result of their defection from the Mainland are apparent, but each one seems to come with a pitfall. Cultural artifacts from other nations, some left behind from the Japanese occupation that means next to nothing to the 1948 immigrants, can be spotted everywhere, though they lead to identity confusion for the foundling culture, filling gaps that the developing nation hasn’t yet had an opportunity to fill itself. There is a new a possibility of finding work in the private sector, though capitalism brings with its freedoms more opportunities for corruption, typified by the gangs that film focuses on. One can air a grievance with the bureaucracy without immediate fear of recrimination, though the results of doing such a thing are questionable since government still has the power to act without explanation. It’s this lack of total success in the conversion to the new order that creates the aura of uncertainty that dominates the film.


    By examining the effects that such an environment has on a vast cast of characters, and specifically the family of a 14-year-old boy named S’ir, Yang personalizes the politics without sacrificing an examination of the complexities and contradictions inherent in any political discourse. His cast is filled with plenty of variables, but each character’s plight seems equally worrisome. S’ir’s father, for example, is a civil servant who takes great pride in his high-ranking job and the accomplishments of his daughter, who attends the best government-sponsored college. Whenever one of his sons disappoints him, however, he butts his head against the bureaucracy, in hopes of getting personal favors from a system that reminds him of its has “fair”, firm, and universal regulations. The disconnect between the way that the people and the government operate is made apparent, but as soon as it seems that Yang might be simplifying things, he tosses another individualized metaphor into the stew, adding to the generally confused state of things. S’ir’s shifting morality forms the backbone of the movie’s narrative structure, but when a truly heartbreaking tragedy befalls him, the entire nation is moved by it, because the strains weighing down on him and his family seem to be epidemic in the country at that time.


    The film’s style creates something of a paradox. Using very few close-ups, Yang remains far enough from his subjects that the audience can judge them objectively, but he never moves so far away from them that the audience loses its grasp on their concerns. Without using the cinematic language that would normally prompt the viewer to identify with his protagonists, the familiarity that arises from the running time and consistent political attitudes evident in the script focuses audience concern where Yang wants it. To find so much order in so much narrative, political and emotional chaos is Yang’s grand accomplishment here. Even though he’s trudging through messy autobiographical territory, never for a moment does the expansive scope of the film’s themes seem to intimidate the director. The film is laced with nostalgia, but never at the expense of intelligence. He deftly creates a manifesto here that sums up his volatile, often conflicting, attitudes about his country’s modern history. Watching the film, with its seemingly limitless ability to examine the country, one laments the fact that every developing nation doesn’t have a storyteller as gifted as Yang probing the history of its progress. As it is, A Brighter Summer Day stands as a massive achievement, perhaps the greatest in all of modern Taiwanese cinema.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman