A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Edward Yang

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.

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The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.

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The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.

Honey

The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.

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Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.

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Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.

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Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”

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Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.

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The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.

  • michaelgsmith spoke:
    10th/08/2015 to 11:15 am

    Just belatedly caught up with this insightful review, Marilyn. Great job discussing the events in the film within the wider socio-political and historical context of mid-twentieth century Taiwan. Criterion should use this for their liner notes!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/08/2015 to 12:09 pm

    Hi Mike, and thanks for making this assessment possible. I would do something completely different for Criterion in the unlikely event that they asked me, but thanks for the compliment. BTW, I haven’t forgot about our interview. Just looking for the right time to post it.

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