Director: Edward Yang
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Taiwan, 1960. Rival gangs of youths, notably the Little Park Boys and the 217 compete for territory and respect. The Little Park Boys play truant from school, hang out at film studios and pornographic stores and play pranks, whilst lying to their parents about their extra-curricular activities. S’ir, a 14 year old boy and his family have lived in Taiwan since 1949 having fled the Communist government in China. He befriends Ming, a young girl known as the girlfriend of a rival gang member when she is offered a screen test and he is warned by others about the danger of associating with her, given that Honey, her boyfriend, is in exile for murder.
Intimidated by another pupil into allowing him to copy his work, S’ir is disciplined and warned, although his father insists S’ir was set up and believes him to be a model pupil. The father’s pleas for leniency against his son are ignored. S’ir is then picked out of school by rival gang members for his friendship with Ming though he is saved by the intervention of Ma, a fellow pupil and also the son of a general. Honey returns and prevents any harm coming to S’ir. A changed man, he finds he no longer commands the respect he once did. Honey soon dies, described as an accident by the press though others suspect it was the 217 gang. S’ir’s father is interrogated by the secret police because of his links to various people he knew on the mainland. Though released, others distance themselves from him. S’ir’s behaviour at school results in expulsion despite his father’s pleas. Arguing with Ming, S’ir stabs her and she dies.
The late Edward Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-Liang revitalised Taiwanese cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, and all four have since become internationally well respected directors since. Yang’s final film ‘Yi Yi’, for which he won the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2000 was a subtle exploration of contemporary middle class life in Taiwan. More explosive was ‘A Brighter Summer Day’, which tackled the concerns and instability of Taiwan in the formative years of the Nationalist government. The film was made during an increasingly liberal political climate so Yang was able to consider issues that only a few years prior would have been taboo – proof of this sea change was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s award-winning ‘City of Sadness’ (1989), which described the White Terror of the late 1940s, in particular the massacre of thousands of civilians in the 228 incident of 1947. Like Hou, Yang explores this era of paranoia and fear, as the Nationalist government that had decamped from China after the Communists seized power exerted its considerable force in order to maintain power. Most significantly, Yang shows great skill in viewing the political climate through the personal perspective (S’ir and his family).
The main focus for approximately the first two thirds of the film are the gangs of youths that roam the streets of Taipei, before Yang begins to address the powers exercised by the authorities in monitoring those citizens whom they suspect of undermining the security of the country, however spuriously. The Taiwan of the early 1960s was a country that experienced instability and faced an uncertain future – its citizens had been uprooted from their own country just a decade previously. Yang shows the regular blackouts, the ominous tanks that regularly pass by and the rigid Taiwanese bureaucracy. This was a country trying to distance itself from its past and seems to wholeheartedly embrace an American culture. The title of the film is taken from the Elvis Presley song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ and youths regularly perform American rock and roll songs of the age or hang out at pool halls. The behaviour of these youths, joining gangs for a sense of brotherhood and empowerment, is surely born out of Taiwan’s indeterminate future. These gang members might feel like big shots within their own milieu but they’re thwarted by their elders whenever things step out of line, except for the final, tragic act of the film.
Although the tragic death of Ming seems to be the consequence of gang rivalry, it’s also firmly rooted in the wider political context. As S’ir’s father becomes increasingly persecuted by the state because of his mainland associates, S’ir’s own psychology becomes frailer, eventually culminating in his rash actions. S’ir’s father might have been a respected civil servant on the mainland, but this means nothing in this brave new world, and Yang demonstrates how the stock of the family is in continuous decline. S’ir’s father has invested much in the future success of his son but finds himself frequently humiliated trying to defend his son by school administrators who warn him that maybe S’ir isn’t the model student he thinks he is. S’ir has his own domestic pressures, trying to live up to these expectations and also living in the shadow of an older sister who attends one of Taiwan’s most prestigious universities.
The interrogation scenes indicate perfectly how a secret police designed to weed out potential traitors operates. S’ir’s father is initially requested for informal co-operation – when he asks whether it can wait until morning, he’s told it’s better to clear it up right away – no hint of what’s to follow. Yang then reveals that after the initial pleasantness, the methods become more psychologically exhausting; no let up in the questioning, questions about everyone you’ve ever met, no matter how tenuous or previous the relationship, ignorance taken as guilt etc. What happened to S’ir’s father no doubt happened to several thousands others during this time and it’s probably that a large proportion of these were innocent of what they’d been accused of – they’re victims of a paranoid and concerned state.
‘A Brighter Summer Day’ is regarded by many as a masterpiece and I could easily think this to be the case. The film requires more than one viewing, I should think, to really appreciate what Yang is doing as well as an understanding of the political context. As a noted appreciator of the cinema of Antonioni, Yang mostly uses medium and long shots, using hundreds of characters, many of them nameless and making fleeting appearances. We don’t really get that close to any of the film’s protagonists; perhaps not even S’ir, whose murder of Ming comes out of the blue. Yang deliberately distances himself, trying to objectively reflects events that he recalled as a youth (the film was based on a real life murder – the first teenager charged with murder in Taiwan). ‘A Brighter Summer Day’ is an epic achievement, and like ‘City of Sadness’ (regarded on the same level as amongst the greatest of Taiwanese cinema) merges the personal and political to reflect a traumatic age for an entire nation.