Thursday, March 21, 2013

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Edward Yang, 1991)

Feral youth, tragic lives. Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day tries to coax a coming-of-age story full of innocence and wonder from its premise, but the turbulent currents of the times in which it is set -- Taiwan in the 1960s -- will not allow such a rendering. Early in this sprawling, but masterfully orchestrated film, an engrossing but lacerating 237-minute tome, the image of its main character summoned before his school's headmaster for frightening atrocities is established. This is the heartbreaking refrain in the young but troubled life of Si'r, a young Taipei teenager, and while we are afforded glimpses of blissful moments that befit his age, we realize that the rites of passage he is meant to negotiate are far from the normal, the blissful.

Epic in its scope and sweep, novelistic in its details, as Jonathan Rosenbaum once described it, A Brighter Summer Day sets the tone with a portentous preface: its story is set at a time of a great social upheaval, it encompasses a relatively short span of time but is nevertheless an uncompromising saga of those who escaped the civil war in mainland China in 1949, particularly their children who are brought up in an atmosphere of insecurity and must struggle for identity and direction. They comprise the clean slate -- rather, the rapidly smearing and smudging register -- that mirrors the new country and its growing pains.

As the 1960s unravel, Taiwan is in turmoil. Many of those too young to remember their parents' mass emigration nevertheless reflect the unease of their parents who fear the specter of the old country, Communist China. These directionless, disoriented youth form gangs and claim the streets as their own. But if these rebellious youths are portrayed to be capable of crimes, they do not appear to be the hardened kind, incapable of turning their lives around. Si'r, for one, is not without hope, who, although embroiled in gang activities for the most part, attends a night school in downtown Taipei. With his Elvis-singing diminutive friend Cat, and a samurai-wielding, general's son named Ma, they ricochet from one juvenile paroxysm to another. Yang suspends judgment on them, allowing their lives to unfold freely, by shooting them from long shots, an uncritical distance. But there is a tug-of-war of fate at work, a Manichean color scheme: the pitch-black and dangerous cover of night contrasts with light, almost white, colors of the background in daytime scenes.
Much like anyone their age, music, movies, girls and other youthful interests figure prominently in the lives of these juveniles, but so do their gang activities, the control of their territories, violence. No  one is spared, not their elders, not their teachers at school, there are few authority figures to speak of. More ubiquitous than authority figures are baseball bats, pistols, samurais. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien's autobiographical 1986 film, A Time to Live and A Time to Die, Yang's  film incorporates scenes of gang violence, but avoids sensationalism by elliptical reference and, in one crucial scene, by shrouding an act of revenge by samurai-wielding gangsters in the cover of night at the height of a typhoon. As if to reflect this youthful cataclysm, Yang sets some scenes against ominous backdrops: the rumble of armored tanks and the arrests of Secret Police are a constant, ominous presence, giving strong, unmistakable impressions of a militarized state. All the throwaway details and the ethos of 1960's Taiwan are painstakingly recreated by Yang, something that can only be rivaled by another Hou film, City of Sadness.
Si'r, his family and his gangmates are a reflection of the Taiwan of those times. They seem helpless at the crossfire of outside influences. We see and hear many references to Western influences, mostly those of Americanization: the movie title itself derives from Elvis Prestley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Movies like Rio Bravo and The Misfits play in the local theaters; Si'r sister is a convert to Christianity and transcribes English lyrics for Cat, and Honey, a legendary gang figure in hiding for killing a rival, recounts his favorite novel to Si'r, Tolstoy's War and Peace, just days before the enemy gangs catch up with him. From the hollows of ceilings, a wealth of Japanese weapons and other leavings come pouring down. In any other movie these details may be left out of the reckoning, but these details are the fine threads that are weaving the fabric of this new society in a cataclysmic transition.
Si'r's own fate swings uncertainly from one apex of the pendulum to the other. Forces -- both evil and good -- are bargaining for his soul. At one moment, he either shows pious love or waxes poetic and earnest with his feelings for a girl. The next moment, he shouts down his teacher and bludgeons another with a baseball bat.His fate hangs precariously in the balance. It seems to hinge on a young but earnest love with a seemingly pure teenage girl named Ming. It seems to hinge on finishing his immediate education. It seems to depend on avoiding his sometimes mercurial aggression -- to a large degree an influence of the violence around him. But his elders are preoccupied with their own dilemmas. Everything around Si'r is breaking his heart: he has no remaining refuge, not his friends, not his family, not his young, pure love. 

reviewed: February 6, 2007

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