28th 07 - 2015 | 2 comments »

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.

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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.


16th 10 - 2009 | 3 comments »

2009 CIFF: A Place of One’s Own (2009)

Director: Lou Yi-an

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

At last year’s CIFF, among the many embarrassingly dumb questions director Mike Leigh had to field in the Q&A following the screening of Happy-Go-Lucky was one about why the characters in his films always seem to be crammed into tiny living quarters. Leigh growled that the question could only have come from an American, with our sense of limitless space. Britain, he reminded us, is an island, and the land only goes so far.

Taiwan is also an island, and Taipei, its largest city, is stuffed to the rafters with people, both living and dead. A Place of One’s Own, a deceptively rollicking film, is obsessed with housing both in the physical world and in the afterlife. Real-life political realities in Taipei—a year-long, unsuccessful protest over the displacement of about 300 people from a long-time leper colony and the demolition of their homes—provide a background for the meaning of place to the main characters whose fates intersect.

Mozi (Mo Zi Yi), a punk rock star whose fortunes have fallen after a drug bust and the rise of techno music, is having more than his share of problems. He has defaulted on his mortgage and has to peddle his new CD by hand, while his live-in girlfriend and former bandmate Kasey (Lu Chia Hsin) is a fast-rising pop star. He also has to suffer the indignity of hiring a bass guitarist who says he idolized Mozi when he was a kid.

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Master Lin (Jack Kao) builds fabulous origami houses for the spirits of the dead to live in after the houses are made incorporeal by burning; he’s just finishing one for a mobster whose son requests a gun in every one of the fabulously furnished rooms. Lin’s home and workshop rest on land his ancestors have occupied for generations but never owned. The son of one of Taipei’s wealthiest citizens comes to buy Master Lin’s home and demolish it; he intends to use the site for his dying father’s tomb because of its ideal feng shui and powerful chi. Lin refuses to sell, even though the government can simply seize the land at a lower price.

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Lin’s son Xiao Gang (Tang Zhen Gang) dresses in a tiger costume as part of his job to hand out fliers for a real estate company; he wears the costume while tooling around on his motor scooter to keep warm. His mother Yue (Yu Li Ching), who, for about $100, tends to graves for families who cannot get to the massive mountain cemetery near the Lins’ home and talks to spirits not yet at rest, tells Gang to get a real job. Gang, however, is a nerd who prefers to play computer games and whose vocabulary seems to consist only of “Oh” and “Huh.”

Master Lin must have an operation to save his life; the government will cover the cost of surgery but not of the nutritional supplements he also must have. He figures the odds for his survival and decides that instead of wasting the money, he’ll finish his own origami house. Naturally, Gang doesn’t want his father to move into his paper house. Gang sells some valuable virtual real estate on his computer game for about $2,500. He also convinces his boss to give him a one-month trial as a real estate salesman. A fortuitous encounter with the younger son of the dying mogul who will be buried on his ancestral land has Gang flipping properties the son buys, decorates, and sells for a profit. One of those properties is Mozi’s apartment.

The fortunes of these characters rise and fall based on real and not-so-real estate, and the guiding principle is the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Unlike Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, Master Lin doesn’t fight city hall. He spends months making origami masterpieces that must be destroyed in order to be useful, so he’s especially in touch with the ephemeral nature of existence. Eventually we all lose our place. Sadly, it seems that in Taiwan, one even has to fight for a place in the afterlife.

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It’s hard to believe a film that deals so directly with death and homelessness can be so much fun, but it is. Except for Mozi’s story, which is mainly a sad depiction of the concern that the film’s title coincidentally evokes—Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” for creating art—the characters are comic. Yue climbs through the cemetery talking to the air, but the plot suggests these spirits are real. Mo Zi Yi, a very nice young man who attended the screening with producer Ramy Choi, said that belief in an afterlife and its attendant notions of chi and feng shui are very real in Taiwan, so opening the story to this other dimension was nothing startling or done strictly for comic effect. Ironically, the film teems with life. I can’t begin to describe all of the threads in this smart script and how little they seem contrived. This film is reminiscent of and compares favorably to those of another Taiwanese filmmaker—the late, lamented Edward Yang.

It wasn’t always easy to understand the episodic actions until they converged, but it was a treat trying to make sense of the culture-specific aspects of the film and marvel at the way these origami houses are constructed. I really felt like I had a wonderful, enlightening trip to Taipei with people I liked through the alternately fatalistic and funny A Place of One’s Own. Make a place for it in your festival schedule.


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