In January or February of 2005, when I first started to cover repertory film for The L, I tried to see Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day at Anthology’s Yang retrospective, lured by the description of a long-unscreened generational epic, a four-hour film with almost 100 speaking parts, made in 1991 and set in Taiwan’s gang- and pop-dominated youth culture of the early 60s. The relevant pullquote, from J. Hoberman, described “an Antonioni-ized West Side Story or a Wim Wenders remake of Rebel Without a Cause, transposed to 1960 Tapei and scored by the Fleetwoods”.
Anthology couldn’t get a print of the film, and so I waited—cinephilia needs its holy grails—and noted with interest that Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation presented a long-awaited restoration at Cannes in 2009, and twitched with envy when I couldn’t make it up to Lincoln Center this February, when Film Comment Selects screened it.
The L’s Michael Atkinson suggests that this is the pick of the WCF, and a one-film justification of the project’s existence:
Still, the Foundation’s ripest cherry bomb might still be the act of thrusting Edward Yang’s A Bright Summer Day (1991) into the international limelight it’s always deserved. Still a film more talked about than seen to any degree in this country, it’s the pivotal generational anthem song of the Taiwanese “new wave,” a social-weave time capsule that stands in sharp contrast to the minimalist voices of Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsaio-hsien. The film is set in 1961 Taipei, conjured from Yang’s own youthful memories, at that point a city clogged with Chinese emigrants on the run by the millions from Mao’s oppressions and the devastation of the Great Leap Forward. Pressurized as well by the Kuomintang martial law that wasn’t lifted until 1987, Taipei life was a welter of marginalized nobodies, bureaucratic briutality and teenage gang firefighting, sometimes performed with samurai swords left behind by the Japanese after the war.
It’s a wide canvas packed with personae, but gradually a protagonist emerges—15-year-old Chang Chen’s Si’r, the son of a displaced Chinese family, increasingly subject to the gangs’ mayhem and smitten with a gangleader’s girl (Lisa Yang), who despite her infantile puss and perky schoolgirl uniforms is a figure of stormy sexual anxiety for many people, including her school doctor. Over almost four hours, during which Yang most often shoots the action at an epic distance, never commanding our reactions, the film slowly arrives at an inevitable but still disarming peak of costly violence. Nuanced and dignified like rebel-youth movies never are, Yang’s masterpiece may be its subgenre’s Rules of the Game, and may be its nation’s definitive piece of cinematic portraiture.
Earlier this year, a couple of L contributors had the opportunity to see the film uptown, and turned in thoughtful reviews for friendly outlets. Andrew Chan, at Reverse Shot, notes the film’s bitter irony, goes into some depth about the relevant Taiwanese history, mentions its germ of factual basis in the “the first case of juvenile homicide tried in Taiwanese history,” praises future pop sensation Chang Chen’s first major role, and offers acute close thematic readings of the visual style and supporting characters.
Yang simply thrusts us in, forcing us to actively sort out the webs of interaction, as his people talk or fight their way across his rigorous medium and long shots…
But once the connections are made, the characters sorted out, the richness of the implications freights every one of the film’s exchanges with dizzying layers of significance and turns its larger set pieces into intricate nexuses of meaning. In one standout sequence, a Western-style concert in which a local band performs American pop songs learned phonetically from English becomes, in addition to an absurdist commentary on cultural influence and appropriation, the site of a gangland power struggle in which an understanding of the complex interactions of a good dozen characters is necessary to tease out the full import of the situation. Many films take historical instability as their theme and many more deal with the cross-cultural migrations of pop artifacts, but one would be hard pressed to come up with any that do it both on the scale and with the intricate orchestration that Yang manages here.