A Brighter Summer Day A Brighter Summer Day …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Of course Hou
wouldn’t have been voted best anything if his films had been opening here
regularly for the past decade; most critics would have long since tired of dozing
off in them. But then, the films didn’t open in part for a very
good reason: Lincoln Center special events aside, there’s basically no
audience for them. (Ergo, they must be Art.)

This is what
happens when everything becomes hype. Hou, an important if uneven and
problematic director, finally gets a New York retrospective, and the people
who’ve been waiting desperately for a new art-film messiah go so batshit
that they lose all sense of accuracy and proportion. Critics become cheerleaders,
and susceptible audiences react accordingly; neither wants nuance or discrimination–to
distinguish between good Hou and bad, say–because their common cause is
to establish a brand name, to coalesce in the kind of worship once visited on
Godard and Fellini.

think we’d be a long way from the time when subtitles and high-toned obscurantism
automatically equated with artistic greatness, but evidently many of New York’s
art-film mavens are as gullible as they ever were, just older. There was saving
grace in all of this, however. Hou’s electoral apotheosis coincided with
the New York Film Critics Circle presenting a career achievement award to critic
Manny Farber, whose derisive term "white elephant art" precisely captures
the tendency in Hou’s work to allow inspiration to congeal into lacquered
objets d’art aimed at the precious exclusivity of Cannes, Lincoln
Center, etc.

No, I didn’t
just say that the emperor was buck naked. I merely regretted that the coverage
given him last fall was so heavily weighted toward sycophantic, boosterish puffery.
It contained no suggestion, for example, that Hou’s weakness for arid hyperformalism
might be as shrewdly market-oriented as anything in Spielberg. And given the
overriding imperatives of establishing a new cult of personality, it certainly
didn’t register that there are other contemporaneous Taiwanese films as
great or better than anything in Hou’s catalog.

Edward Yang’s
A Brighter Summer Day, for example. I’ve written about this astonishing,
four-hour 1991 film before–though it’s never had a regular run in
New York, it has played at festivals and retrospectives, including two at the
Walter Reade Theater–but I’m doing so this time with a note of finality,
as a way of bidding adieu to the last decade and the mid-80s-to-mid-90s blaze
of glory that was the New Taiwanese Cinema.

The occasion
is "The New York Film Critics Circle Looks at the 1990s," a festival
that runs weekends Jan. 29-Feb. 20 at the American Museum of the Moving Image.
Fourteen critics, including myself, Matt Seitz and Armond White, have each selected
and will introduce at AMMI a film from the last decade that we think deserves
more attention than it has thus far received. My selection, which I’ll
introduce this Sunday at 2 p.m., takes its title from the lyric of a song you
just may remember.

Are you lonesome
Do you miss me tonight
Are you sorry we drifted apart
Does your memory stray
To a brighter summer day
When I kissed you and called yousweetheart

note that the Elvis Presley tune does not radiate brightness, nor does it concern
carefree summer days. That makes it a perfect emblem for A Brighter Summer
, which, like Elvis’ 1960 hit, roils with the impossible longings
of youth, the haunted lures of memory, the ghostly echoes of separation and

Set in Taipei
in 1961-’62, the film is very much an epic of modern Taiwan. Yet it’s
also a deeply personal work for its maker, as perhaps it is for many viewers.
The first time I saw it, at the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1992, I emerged not
only overwhelmed by its artistic power and scope but also struck by a singular
impression: that this vision of a culture far distant in space and time was
somehow connected to my own memory. Like a long-lost photo album from childhood,
suddenly rediscovered in a dusty attic.

I know other
viewers, including Americans, who report the same sensation. In my case, there’s
a partial explanation in that I’m just old enough to recall the time that
Yang conjures through a universal set of icons and associations: early rock
’n’ roll, boys in white t-shirts and loose khakis, the fraught atmosphere
of the Cold War, with its talk of A-bombs and the communist menace. Yet the
movie speaks a language even more universal, and acutely personal, in its evocation
of the inner turmoil of early adolescence, a time that comes rushing at the
viewer as if from the dark recesses of a dream.

The film encodes
that movement in both its narrative and its look. In the first scene, the story’s
14-year-old protagonist, Xiao Si’r (Zhang Zhen), and his best friend, Cat
(Wang Qizan), awaiting a class at Night School, are in the rafters of a nearby
movie studio watching a scene when a guard spots them and gives chase. Though
briefly collared by the man, Xiao Si’r escapes, taking with him the guard’s
long, heavy flashlight.

Moments later,
Xiao Si’r and Cat use the light to sneak a peak at two smooching lovers
whose identities remain unclear and, in an unexpected way, dramatically crucial
through the rest of the story; the incident doesn’t feel so important at
the time. Likewise, that flashlight also courses its way through the tale, as
an implement of discovery, a reminder of a time when electric light was weak
and erratic–and an emblem of the film’s own way of piercing the shadows
of personal and collective memory.

Fitfully illuminated
by the filmmaker’s darting gaze, the world Yang revisits is itself uneasy,
culturally and politically. Taiwan had been a Japanese possession for a half-century,
until it was ceded to China at the end of World War II. Thereafter, the victory
of Mao’s Communists on the mainland caused the island to be invaded by
millions of Nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang (KMT)
party would rule as a military dictatorship for four decades, until the late

The kids and
families we see in A Brighter Summer Day are mostly transplanted mainlanders
(like Yang, who was born in southern China in 1947 and came to Taiwan with his
family as an infant). Their culture is traditional Chinese, but it’s framed
by the native Taiwanese, who have their own language, and by the lingering Japanese
influence: As one character in the film ruefully notes, "We fought the
Japs for eight years, and now we live in a Japanese house and listen to Japanese

But a far greater
source of cultural tension emerges from a convergence of internal and external
forces. The kids in Yang’s film are, to paraphrase Godard, the children
of rock ’n’ roll and comic books. As such, they’re as distant
from their parents as Elvis is from Mencius. With nicknames like Deuce and Tiger,
Sly and Airplane and Sex Bomb, they’re recalcitrant, uniformed students
by day; at night, away from home and school, they run in gangs, fighting, guarding
turf, looking for kicks and something even more elusive–identity.

Xiao Si’r
has every teen’s Janus-like duality. He’s one person out in the world,
quite another–sulky, withdrawn–at home. The fourth of five kids (the
nickname Xiao Si’r means "Little Four"; his real name is Zhang
Zhen, which is also the name of the actor playing him), he has two older sisters,
a younger sister and an older brother nicknamed Lao Er ("Number Two,"
which is also slang for "prick" and thus the source of jokes). Mr.
Zhang (Zhang Guozhu), a low-level civil servant, and his wife (Elaine Jin),
a teacher, met and married in Shanghai; their presence, the father’s especially,
becomes increasingly important in the story’s second half.

Earlier, we
are immersed in a world of teenage passions and passing fancies. Leaving the
school infirmary one day, Xiao Si’r is asked to escort a fellow student,
a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), back to class. They play hooky instead, visiting
a remote rifle range and, later, the movie studio of the first scene, where
the director of the film in production spots Ming and asks her to come in for
an audition. Xiao Si’r, at this point, may already be in the first stages
of a crush, but he knows not to let it carry him away: Ming is Honey’s

For a long
while, Honey isn’t so much a person as a phantom, a legend, a name to conjure
with. Two teen gangs vie for this bit of Taipei turf, the Little Park boys and
the 217 Village boys. Xiao Si’r belongs to neither but is closest to the
Little Park gang, which was led by the charismatic Honey until a deadly fight,
supposedly over Ming, forced him to leave the city and go into hiding. In his
absence, the gang is being led by his shifty lieutenant Sly–the name, while
apt, could be Iago–who’s in the process of undercutting Honey’s
rule in several surreptitious ways, including striking a peace accord with the
217s that will allow the two gangs to stage a rock concert together.

Along with
the diminutive Cat, who sings falsetto parts in Little Park’s own rock
band, Xiao Si’r observes all these machinations and rivalries–with
its scores of speaking parts, the film is dense with subplots and minor characters–from
the periphery. The gangs’ menace doesn’t reach him till one night
when a group of 217s invades his classroom bent on punishing him for being with
Ming at the rifle range. He is saved, abruptly, by a new boy in the class, a
general’s son named Ma, whose notoriety stops the 217s in their tracks:
he is known citywide for having sliced up a kid with a samurai sword.

Through all
of this, the drama’s spiraling fascinations are matched by the film’s
mounting visual spell. It’s impossible to see A Brighter Summer Day
without recognizing it as the product of a unique–and perhaps uniquely
Chinese–stylistic language. In part this stems from Yang’s dark palette,
his pervasive use of master shots rather than closeups and his use of camera
movements only to follow characters. All three techniques tend to draw the viewer’s
eye into the image, with a subtly mesmerizing effect. But even more subtle,
and more crucial in eliciting our complicity in that language’s creation,
is that Yang almost entirely avoids the most basic component of Western film
grammar: cutting from a person looking to the look’s object, especially
when that object is another person’s gaze. You know: He looks (at her);
cut; she looks (at him).

In virtually
every movie you see, the device is used 40 times before the end of the first
scene. In A Brighter Summer Day it is used, in the full classic sense
of matching two closeups, only once–the first time Xiao Si’r and Ming
really seem about to connect, smiling at each other across a table in Little
Park’s ice cream parlor. But here, rather than being normal, the matching
cut seems to produce an effect that’s literally uncanny; a split second
later, a phantom named Honey strides into the film. And everything changes.

There follow
three bravura sequences that comprise the mid-film crescendo of A Brighter
Summer Day
. In the first, Honey, while tacitly "bequeathing" Ming
to Xiao Si’r, describes his life in the romantic terms of his favorite
novel, War and Peace, a soliloquy that effectively predicts this romantic
hero’s own imminent demise. In the second, the Little Park and 217 gangs
stage their collaborative rock concert only to find their detente challenged
by Honey, whose knowingly futile stab at reasserting control ends in violence
and death in the street outside the concert.

In the third
sequence, revenge is wreaked. Two gangs who had been allied with Honey, accompanied
by Xiao Si’r and others, swoop down on the headquarters of both the Little
Park boys and the 217s. The attackers arrive on a rainy night in rickshaws and
hoods, wielding samurai swords. The cataclysm that ensues is made all the more
stunning by the fact that we experience it mostly as screams and clatter–the
only flickers of illumination come from candles, one dim and wildly careening
light bulb and that flashlight.

Then, something
really strange happens–and doesn’t happen. We never hear of the gang
slaughter again. Instead, the Secret Police arrive at the Zhang home and haul
Xiao Si’r’s father off for what turns into a long and humiliating
ordeal of interrogation over his past political associations. This certainly
is the personal heart of the film: the same thing happened to Edward Yang’s
father, who remained so embittered that, the day after his retirement, he got
on a plane and left Taiwan forever.

If that seems
an ill-fitting autobiographical intrusion on the film’s drama, consider
that the drama’s entirety is a meditation on an essential Confucian question
that has hardly been rendered irrelevant by the turmoil of 20th-century China:
the question of proper authority. In their different ways, Honey and his father
represent that to Xiao Si’r. But since both live in a world of illegitimate
authority, they inevitably fall. Where that leaves Xiao Si’r, as the story
wends toward its dark conclusion, is in the midst of usurpers, like Sly, and
pretenders, like the aristocratic samurai-boy Ma, who not only snakes Ming (or
so Xiao Si’r thinks) but also offers his friendship on terms that are full
of homoerotic (and misogynistic) undertones.

Yang made a
subsequent film called A Confucian Confusion, but the title could also
fit A Brighter Summer Day. Bereft of any beacon of proper authority,
Xiao Si’r spirals off into a darkness where he commits a crime that’s
no less horrific for being so ill-aimed, so fundamentally confused. After the
deed removes him from the drama in its final minutes, we are reminded again
that it is women who pay the heaviest price for these confusions. We see Xiao
Si’r’s mother, her back turned, staring at the shirt of her lost and
doomed son. You can almost imagine her hearing the second verse of that old
Elvis song–as if the ghostly voice singing it were Xiao Si’r’s:

Do the chairs
in your parlor
Seem empty and bare
Do you gaze at your doorstep
And picture me there
Is your heart filled with pain
Shall I come back again…
Are you lonesome tonight?