Friday, March 3, 2017

Classic Movie Review: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

A Brighter Summer Day
Directed by: Edward Yang.    
Written by: Hung Hung & Mingtang Lai & Alex Yang & Edward Yang.   
Starring: Chen Chang (Xiao Si'r  aka Zhang Zhen), Lisa Yang (Ming), Kuo-Chu Chang (Father), Elaine Jin (Mother), Chuan Wang (Eldest Sister), Han Chang (Elder Brother), Hsiu-Chiung Chiang (Middle Sister), Stephanie Lai (Youngest Sister), Chi-tsan Wang (Cat), Lawrence Ko (Airplane), Chih-Kang Tan (Ma), Ming-Hsin Chang (Underpants), Chun-Lung Jung (Bomber), Hui-Kuo Chou (Tiger), Ching-Chi Liu (Hefty), Ching-Hsiang Ho (Animal), Hsiao-Tsui Tang (Jade), Hung-Ming Lin (Honey), Bosen Wang (Deuce), Hung-Yu Chen (Sly), Tien-Hsiang Yang (Worm), Alex Yang (Shandong), Ming Hsu (Wang), Ming Cho (Uncle Fat). 
Edward Yang’s 4 hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day had a reputation that grew steadily in the 20 years between when the film was made, and when it was finally able to be seen (at least legally) in North America. Yang wasn’t quite the venerated modern master he is considered now when he made the film in 1991 – which is perhaps away aside from TIFF (which takes a lot more than most), the major film festivals of the world passed on the film, and it never received proper distribution in North America in 2011 – four years after Yang’s early death at the age of 59. Now, alongside his 2000 masterpiece Yi Yi (which is even better), A Brighter Summer Day represents the cornerstone of Yang’s reputation.
The film is somewhat autobiographical for Yang – who set the film in the years between 1959 and 1961 in Taipei – and focused on the life of Zhang Zhen (Chen Chang – in his film debut), a young teenager during those years. The film blends together his home life – and his life at school, where youth gangs are on the rise. The film is both a coming of age drama and an epic crime story that can feel somewhat like The Godfather or City of God. It is a very specific portrait of Taiwan at this moment in history, and yet its theme seem universal – further proof that specificity in the key to making something feel authentic, and thus universal. It is a brilliant, sad, violent tragic film that builds, for four hours, into a shattering climax.
The film opens with Zhang Zhen and his father at the military school that Zhang attends – his attitude and grades are getting him demoted, from the prestigious day school to the much less prestigious night school – which is essentially the place where the juvenile delinquents go. At first, it seems like Zhang isn’t as far gone as some of his classmates – he isn’t part of the either of the two big youth gangs – the Little Park or the 217, who have been feuding, and he and his friends kind of skate down the middle, trying their best to remain unseen. When he’s supposed to be in school, he instead – alongside his friend Cat – sneaks into the neighboring movie studio to watch them film – stealing a large flashlight in the process, which will become a recurring symbol throughout the movie in this area of Taiwan plagued by blackouts – and on the way out, sees two shadowy figures making out – a sighting that will haunt the rest of the movie. . Zhang starts down a more troubled path though almost by accident – while in the principal’s office, he’s asked to walk Ming (Lisa Yang) – who injured herself playing basketball – back to class. The two instead ditch school – and are seen together. This is a problem because Ming is Honey’s girl – and Honey is the leader of the 217 gang, who has been on the run since killing a member of the Little Park gang, apparently over Ming.  Honey eventually returns – and is far from angry with Zhang – although as the first half of the movie comes to its violent climax, intercut brilliantly with a band performing Elvis songs at a dance, the trouble is just starting.
To describe the entire plot of A Brighter Summer Day would take far too long. This is a film with over 100 speaking parts, and while they don’t all become three dimensional characters, a surprising number of them actually do (or, at the very least, in their few moments, tell you everything you need to know about them). In addition to the inner workings of the youth gang culture – heavily influenced by both American and Japanese culture at the time, the film is also a portrait of Zhang Zhen’s family – especially his proud, bureaucrat father, hauled in a humiliated by the Special Police, over his previous contacts, because of favors he does for a friend, who is supposed to help him back, and yet never really does. The film keeps its various narrative threads going throughout – and juggles them brilliantly. That the film could be a coming of age drama, a crime drama and a family drama at the same time (and more) is amazing. Yang’s visual style here is more observational than in a film like Yi Yi. Here, Yang prefers long, unbroken shots and doesn’t have a lot of close-ups – he takes his time with his characters, and doesn’t hurry them from one plot point to the next, and his camera is the same way. His film exists mainly in the shadows – the light never quite wholly illuminating everything.
Looking back now, it seems almost unthinkable that a film this brilliant was overlooked by most at the times of its release – that film festivals like Cannes (and everyone else) would turn the film down (Cannes did finally host a screening of the film in 2009). And yet, it also makes a certain degree of sense – four hour films are a hard sell, no matter who is directing – and Yang was hardly the internationally renowned auteur at the time that he would become. Besides, what really matters is that the film has taken its rightful among the great films of its era. This is a masterpiece – a complex, novelistic film that greatly rewards the patience it requires.

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