More than fifteen years ago, reviewing Edward Yang’s masterpiece Yi Yi, I wrote that I “couldn’t wait” to see a film he had made nine years earlier — another highly praised epic about generations of one Taiwanese family: A Brighter Summer Day.

Well, I did wait. And wait. And wait.

That 1991 release has remained unavailable in America, inaccessible unless you were lucky enough to attend rare screenings. But The Criterion Collection (bless their discerning souls) have at last restored the film and added it to their extraordinary library. And while it doesn’t feel right to say “It was worth the wait” — really, nobody should have to work so hard in 2016 to see a movie to see a celebrated feature from 1991 — it does feel right to call A Brighter Summer Day a masterpiece.

91nje9ah7hl-_sl1500_

Set in the 1960s in Taiwan, A Brighter Summer Day sets us down in the midst of complicated cultural tensions and life-threatening challenges. Chinese nationalists, having fled their mainland home to escape the newly installed Communist Party regime, are struggling to make this small nation their new home. But their hearts are divided, and they feel insecure. It’s a tough world for adults, who know what’s going on and understand the need to adapt. It’s an even tougher world for young people, who respond to their insecurities by arming themselves, asserting their strength through violence, and forming gangs.

As if he lived through this story himself and based these characters on his own classmates (the Criterion film notes make several direct connections to his childhood experience of emigration), Yang introduces us to a large cast of remarkably distinct and memorable personalities. We see the world through the eyes of young Zhang Zhen (known by his nickname: Xiao Si’r, a reference to the fact that he’s a fourth child). Si’r is a watchful, quiet, and insecure boy whose very soul is at stake within this survival-of-the-fittest environment. Torn between the gravitational pulls of family, tradition, Christianity, communism, sex, violence, and Godfather-like street-gang glamour, his youthful frame can barely contain his electrical storm of conflicting loyalties and the emotions stirred up by all of the unfair things required of him.

mv5bmtyxywi5owqtzjyxzi00y2ywlthhmtqtytu5zgy3odfkm2zkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_
Like father like son: Both Xiao Si’r and his father are struggling to hold themselves together while surrounded by dangers.

The great film scholar David Bordwell has written so passionately and usefully about A Brighter Summer Day that I’m not inclined to try and duplicate his efforts here. He observes,

A Brighter Summer Day began as an independent production. Eventually, as Yang’s world expanded, outside funding was necessary to keep the production going. Over half the cast and crew had never worked on a film before, and the project took three years to complete. At a period when the Taiwanese film industry was virtually dead, Yang managed to mount a film of stunning ambition.

Although it was shot as a theatrical feature, it fits surprisingly well into today’s taste for long-form TV narratives. With over eighty speaking parts, it’s a very thick slice of life from 1960 Taipei. Indeed, Tony Rayns’ commentary reports that Yang said he had developed enough story material for three hundred TV episodes. If you like soaking in a richly realized world, here’s a movie made for you.

He notes how the film emphasizes the rising influence of Western pop culture in Taipei, most evident in the way the young people of Si’r’s community embrace Elvis. (The film’s title comes from a line in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”) But it’s another unexpected cultural force — the influence of Christianity — that plays a transforming role in the narrative’s conclusion (if not in the main character’s life).

mv5bzty2yzzjmdctodu3yy00zdm4lthmntatnmu5zjmxztg0mzeyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_
Xiao Si’r’s parents are a remarkable filmic portrait of a faithful marriage under incredible strain.

My friend Joshua Wilson, one of the Looking Closer Specialists, recently watched the film for the first time and asked me what I think about the film’s surprising emphasis on the role of Christianity in Si’r’s family. I’m not sure I would say that A Brighter Summer Day is meant to point viewers to Christianity as “the answer” to such troubles, but it does suggest that Yang sensed something substantial in the influence of Christian faith.

The boy’s mother is a Christian, as is his second-oldest sister, who seeks to persuade him to seek identity and solace in Christian faith. It is an impressively empathetic portrait of Chinese Christians. While the sister’s evangelism stops just short of being overbearing, Yang doesn’t portray her as either saintly or foolish. And after all of the devastation and heartbreak we’ve witnessed and felt by the film’s conclusion, it’s a Christian hymn into which a grief-stricken character falls for consolation.

Ming — a beautiful but broken-hearted character I will never forget.
Ming — a beautiful but broken-hearted character I will never forget.

Considering how the film portrays the exploitation and abuse of young women in Taiwan — most vividly in Ming, a girl who seems to have tragically surrendered to her cultural confinement — the possibility of grace shines all the brighter for its promise.

This is an especially revealing discovery for me, as I sensed something I’d call a “Christian sensibility” throughout Yi Yi, which has become one of my all-time favorite films since I first saw it in 2001. Hearing that A Brighter Summer Day might actually be the greater masterpiece, I had a hard time believing it. Having seen it at last, my first-viewing impulse is to say that my heart’s favorite is still Yi Yi, which presents a more convincing world, more persuasively human characters, and far more beautiful cinematography.

mv5bztvkzdnhztmtztg3nc00owi2lthjowitymu5ytq3ndm1zwrlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_

But the sheer scale of this endeavor, with almost one hundred speaking roles, is breathtaking. And the way Yang patiently choreographs so many storylines toward such a shocking conclusion (one that startled me more than any conclusion I can presently recall) is nothing short of virtuosic.

I have any quibble at all, it’s that the violence in the first half of the film is entirely unconvincing — you can tell that Yang was a tender soul because these outbursts of gang violence play out as if blows aren’t actually landing. And yet, the second half of the epic brings battles that are shocking and sickening by comparison, including an all-out war staged in near-total darkness that had me holding my breath.

All in all, A Brighter Summer Day is a film that deserves all four hours of your uninterrupted attention. It deserves all of its accolades… and a much, much bigger audience. And it only increases my sense of loss over Yang’s untimely death at age 60, when he was clearly getting better and better, staging the kinds of large-cast dramas that few have ever had the ambition and stamina to achieve.

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This