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Movie Reviews

A Brighter Summer’s Day



Released: 1991

Directed By: Edward Wang

Starring: Chang Chen


Reviewed By: Eternality Tan

I am absolutely amazed by this film. A Brighter Summer Day is arguably the greatest of Edward Yang’s films, a masterpiece of Taiwanese cinema, and a treasure for all cineastes to behold. Running at an uncompromising four hours in length, this ambitious epic dissects 1960s Taiwanese society through the eyes of its youths, many of whom were embroiled in street gangs as they attempted to search for a collective identity and find individual meaning in a new land besieged by the ramifications of major social and political changes caused by the civil war defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949.

Based on a true incident in which a teenage son of a civil servant murdered his girlfriend, A Brighter Summer Day makes use of that incident not as a stepping stone to explore the ills of Taiwanese society, but as a powerful exemplification of the culmination of all the social unrest and civil strife till that point that releases itself in one fatal, inevitable swing of a knife, an action that becomes immortalized in Yang’s deeply affecting picture about the coming-of-age of an entire generation of “rebels” that defined Taiwan in the 1960s.

A Brighter Summer Day stars Chang Chen in his acting debut, playing the teenage son in question. Flanked by tens of young, non-professional actors, he gives a composed performance that portrays his character, Xiao Si’r, as a quiet and innocent night school student, forced into circumstances that slowly erode his worldview into one of perpetual darkness. Ironically, the English title of the film sounds optimistic and to some extent, idealistically utopian. But really it is a strong juxtaposition to what occurs in the film, of which Yang’s provocative visuals successfully reveal to us the violence and crime that plague the streets of Taiwan.

Yang’s strong attention to detail and perfectionist style make A Brighter Summer Day a joy to watch. He uses the camera creatively, employing unorthodox angles shot from, for instance, the point-of-view of characters under a bed or looking down onto a stage. Occasionally, he would pan the camera to a plain wall as characters converse nearby, letting viewers imagine their facial expressions. The use of light (or lack of it) is also superb, most evidently in the violent confrontation between separate gangs shot in almost complete darkness.

The film’s cinematography switches effortlessly from being gritty in portraying the rough nightlife of youth troublemakers to poetic when Xiao Si’r and his girlfriend, Ming (Lisa Yang), spend time together. One particular scene is etched in my memory – that of Xiao Si’r and Ming enjoying each other’s company in the countryside as soldiers in the distance practice their drills. An old bicycle with a rusty metallic bell is placed prominently in the frame – a subtle reminiscent of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) if you will – suggesting a blissful romance that may or may not blossom.

Despite its length, A Brighter Summer Day engages tremendously through Yang’s darkly comic dialogue that not only pulls in a fair share of laughs, but also, and more importantly, showcases his astute observation of human interaction, be it in a family setting or in a wider social environment. While Yi Yi (2000) remains to be Yang’s most lasting legacy, well, at least in the eyes of those who know this surprisingly under-appreciated director, it is this rare four-hour director’s cut that is his masterpiece. A film of such breathtaking scope that is still unmatched in contemporary Asian cinema, A Brighter Summer Day is one of the greatest films that you would probably never get a chance to see.

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