A Brighter Summer Day, An Unknown Masterpiece No Longer

by |
11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

A Brighter Summer Day
Directed by Edward Yang

A Brighter Summer Day was long an unknown masterpiece, a giant shadow—237 minutes, 100-plus speaking parts—cast in the absence of the thing itself: I can count on one hand its New York screenings since I moved here, even including the 2005 series for which Anthology announced it but couldn’t get a print. But following a restoration courtesy Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation (see here review for more on Marty’s preservation efforts), writer-director Edward Yang’s seismic coming-of-age tale, set amid Taipei’s youth gangs at the dawn of the 1960s, made the repertory rounds last year, and now gets an honest-to-god theatrical run (within a Lincoln Center retro of the late Yang’s underscreened oeuvre, delightfully scheduled for your Thanksgiving weekend out of town). Dragon-chasing cinephiles will now find A Brighter Summer Day a very different beast from your Jeanne Dielmans, your Satantangos, your Out 1s: a decade before everybody started comparing quality serial television to 19th-century social novels, Yang’s film—which namechecks War and Peace—was a teeming human ecosystem of love and death, pop and politics, densely but accessibly plotted and subplotted, with on-the-nose dialogue, Chekhovian props and running gags, and tidy arcs for concentric rings of supporting characters.

As the film opens, Xiao S’ir—played by Chang Chen, maybe the Taiwanese DiCaprio, with a poetic, volatile sensitivity—is night school-bound, having whiffed his junior high entrance exams; his father lobbies unsuccessfully on his behalf, par for an upright, ineffectual man dogged by old affiliations from Shanghai and the thin margins on his new life. Xiao S’ir, his studious secret pool-shark older brother, and sisters—one devout, one fashionable—loan each other cash surreptitiously; nostalgic Mom wears her cheongsam on the bus back home from a reunion dinner. The family’s background parallels the writer-director’s: like his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang came to Taiwan as a small child, when his family fled the Chinese Revolution—though the frankly savage juvenile delinquency depicted here is apparently not autobiographical, as it is in Hou’s 60s-set 80s films.

A title card introduces Taipei’s gangs as an “identity” for teens adrift in cultural turmoil; in their khaki school uniforms, with baseball bats and later samurai swords, Xiao S’ir’s Little Park Boys battle the 217s for control over the rock performances where Xiao S’ir’s best friend Cat, a tough-talking, hair-slicking late bloomer, sings American rock tunes (the title comes from a mistransliteration of a line in “Are You Lonesome Tonight”). It’s from this at times overwhelming crisscross of power plays that Xiao S’ir seeks to rescue Ming, an absent gangleader’s girl; they walk their bikes past the Army base, and spy from a warehouse’s rafters as a movie actress henpecks her director.
The WCF restoration is splendid, sharp but sensitive to leaf-filtered daylight and bright streetlamp against deep night. Yang lets his camera run, but is brisk with plants and payoffs; he stages frantic, underlit violence and succinct grace notes, as when Xiao S’ir declares himself to Ming over the stop-start of the school band, rehearsing in a stairwell.

The lyricism is cumulative. Even with the film’s legendary elusiveness resolved, there’s something mythic to the way characters wax and wane in prominence, or poke in at the margins, wedges that could open out indefinitely—a jingoistic English teacher, a coddling military wife, an alcoholic shopkeeper—while objects like a reel-to-reel tape and crackling radio steep in meaning. A Brighter Summer Daydoes what few films can, which is to show the ephemerality of people and the permanence of places—after four hours, every classroom and courtyard, brick gymnasium and clay tennis court, feels thick with human residue.

Opens November 25