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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Brighter Summer Day, A  


A Brighter Summer Day

Reviewed by sieteocho

Chinese Title: Guling jie shaonian sha ren shijian
Director: Edward Yang
Writing Credits: Yan Hongya, Lai Mingtang, Yang Shunqing, Edward Yang
Cast: Zhang Guozhu, Elaine Jin, Wang Juan, Zhang Han, Jiang Xiuqiong, Lai Fanyun
Genre: Romance drama
Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Year Released: 1991
Runtime: 237 min
Rating: ***** (out of five stars)

A Brighter Summer Day is one of the outstanding landmarks in Taiwanese cinema over the last 15 years, and one of my favorite movies.

In a scene where the main protagonist, a 14-year-old high school junior, Xiaosi (fourth in the family) meets the charismatic gangster head of the "Garden Park" gang, "Honey". Honey tells him about "War and Peace" by Tolstoy. Here Edward Yang states his intention to make a movie as richly detailed as a novel, with a huge cast of characters, detailed social situations, nuances, every event drawing Xiaosi nearer and nearer toward the murder, every conflict shedding new meaning on the eventual murder that takes place.

Chinese moviegoers will also find much to identify in the film, from the secret societies, to the academic elite who makes up the government bureaucracy, to the tyrannical buffoonery of the discipline masters, to the lively school chatter.

In Chinese culture, it is of extreme importance for the children to do well and gain a good place in society. Only in this light can we understand the significance of the movie opening and closing with a radio reciting monotonously a list of pupils who made it to the university. That the anonymous quality of the name list conjures to mind a person reading a list of casualties from a war memorial is no accident. This movie is most like "400 Blows" because it depicts the struggle of a young boy coming to terms with his harsh existence. Clad in military-style uniforms of the nationalist republic, the students of … high are most like soldiers, the early adolescents like a war in which they have to battle the bullying of secret society members, the loneliness of living amongst a hostile social scene, the insecurity of their future. Add in the lack of strong role models, the uncommunicativeness of the adults, and you have a very difficult adolescence in the works.

Edward Yang, the director and writer, once said that "The bombs planted in us are ticking away." If you had to summarize the plot of the movie in one sentence that would be it. Teens coming to terms with the world occupy a special place in the movie. Early in the movie, Sly, and aspiring gangster leader attempts to coerce two gang member wannabees into beating a rival gang member on the face with a brick. When they refuse, he makes a demonstration in a shocking act of violence. Rather facilely, he calls upon the person to stand up after he has been floored, eerily foreshadowing Xiaosi’s immediate reaction after the murder. It seems like such an unreasonable request, getting a person to stand up like that after you’ve done such a horrendous thing. It’s a very childish thing, and mainly it’s grisly because the perpetrator does not acknowledge the damage done. He just wants to vent his anger, but does not want to know about the consequences.

Teenagers lead a very tough life in this film. It doesn’t excuse them from committing such acts of physical and emotional violence, but at least it shines a light on why. Most of the perpetrators of violence in this movie are teenagers, who act rashly, without full understanding of the consequences. Honey’s rash taunting of a rival gang leader leads to his murder, and henceforth unleashes a terrible act of revenge by the "Garden Park" members. Xiaoming’s later betrayal of Xiaosi is foreshadowed both by her firing of a gun at him (which narrowly missed) and Xiaosi’s acting dead near an army training ground. Playing with life and death seems like child’s play at first, but foreshadows a more grisly version. Xiaoming would also be what you’d call a "careless driver".

Props take on a life of their own. The flashlight that Xiaosi steals from a filming site starts off as the object of a theft, but throughout the movie serves as a form of a Promethean flame, or the eye of an adolescent starting to make sense of his universe. It pries on lovers kissing in a park, it serves as a searchlight in a prelude to a gang fight. Knowledge for him serves as a light that illuminates his otherwise dark life, and it is also a wry commentary on our experience as a viewer. In other words, it serves the same function that Yang Yang’s camera serves in "Yi Yi".

When Xiaoming and Xiaosi walk down the hall with the school band playing it almost looks like a wedding march. When he volunteers to be the one to love Xiaoming, it almost seems like a nuptial vow. There are not many scenes of the lovers together, but the way they open their hearts out to each other stands in stark contrast with the shadowy and duplicitous maneuvering of the gang world.

In one scene, Xiaosi whistles loudly to call Xiaoming down from her classroom, but is heard by all her classmates. Later on, when they meet up during a physical education lesson, they tease him by whistling back. The camera doesn’t show Xiaosi’s face at this point, but you could feel the glow of pride and joy that would overwhelm a teenager as he basks in this acknowledgment of his budding love affair.

Xiaoming’s name is significant. Perhaps this is a consciously cultivated image, but she always has this appearance of innocence, which stands in stark contrast with her harsh circumstances. She’s had to work and study at the same time, and her mother, her only relative is falling ill. It’s not surprise that she would want to seek solace in many boys (as well as to probably use her good looks to her greatest advantage to secure herself a more secure future). I wouldn’t say that she is a bad person but she was extremely insensitive to Xiaosi.

The murder is the central aspect of the movie, the Chinese title of the movie is "The Youth Murder incident at Guling Street". Xiaosi has been expelled from school, but is willing to work hard at his studies in order to fight for his life back. It is also rather apparent that Xiaoming is still the focus of his life, and that it’s the hope that she would stay with him that drives him on. However, behind his back, Xiaoming decided to see his friend, Xiaoma and cheat with him. Xiaosi is enraged and meets her in a street to murder her with the samurai knife that Xiaoma found in the false ceiling.

The murder takes place at night, just like all the gang fights that end in murder. In a blackly humorous moment, Xiaosi drops his knife because he is so nervous about the affair. They meet, and after a short conversation where Xiaoming is explaining to him that they cannot be together any longer he stabs her repeatedly, with tears on his face, berating her for lowering herself by being a philanderer. The stabbing scene is a curious one, it looks half like a murder, and half like an embrace, and of course it’s unreal, it’s pretty apparent that he’s not fully aware that he’s killing her and still harbors hope of continuing the affair.

The emotional impact of the tragedy is further enhanced by the relative naivete and the youth of the teenagers, especially when you think about what the future holds for Xiaosi. His is an act of a kid not fully with his senses, and hardly what we expect of the caring boy that he was in the earlier part of the movie.

The song "Are you lonesome tonight?" casts a specter over the film. Nominally, it is a teenage paean of love, but its emotional impact goes deeper than that. It’s not an accident that a song with such strong gospel undertones was chosen. It is more a fervent prayer for happiness, for a "brighter summer day" that, tragically for Xiaosi ended horribly. It comes from far away, from a foreign culture (which also produced "Rebel Without a Cause") and similarly the children in the movie are equally far away from ever achieving it.

Everything that takes place has an element of fate in the movie. The portentous voice that reads the names of the students opens and ends the movie. The Chinese title reveals the ending, so it’s not the murder that is surprising, but rather the exposition of the movie that forms the backdrop to the title. This is a classic, a must watch. There is enormous historical weight in this movie, as though writer and director Edward Yang were narrating about his youth. It puts "Rebel Without a Cause" in the shade: James Dean and Xiaosi may be symptomatic of their generation, but whereas James Dean’s story was his own, Xiaosi’s is that of the entire society that he was living in. Besides, James Dean never had to do anything as horrible as murdering Natalie Wood for cheating on him.

[This review first appeared in sieteocho.]