Monday, November 21, 2011

Edward Yang’s Masterwork: A Brighter Summer Day

In 1961, Chiang Kai-shek was still firmly in charge of the Republic of China, but Elvis Presley was the King. Enormously popular in Taiwan, Edward Yang imagines the singer from Tupelo had a soft spot for free China that actually fits quite well with what we know of him. Presley’s small gesture to a fan takes just a fleeting moment of screen time, but it says much of Taiwan’s ever deepening inferiority complex in Edward Yang’s nearly four hour masterwork, A Brighter Summer Day, which finally starts its belated legitimate New York theatrical run this Friday at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

According to Yang’s preface, many Taiwanese youth joined gangs out of desire for stability in their lives. By the early 1960’s, most of their parents have started to accept the obvious fact they shall not be returning to the Mainland anytime soon. Lives that were meant to be temporary become permanent. 1961 also witnessed Taiwan’s first juvenile murder, on which Brighter is based.

Xiao Si’r father is a government bureaucrat too honest for his own good. Vying with his older brother for the title of family black sheep, he has fallen in with his neighborhood Little Park Gang. A so-so student, his academic underperformance has relegated him to night school (as opposed to the more prestigious university track day classes). His own ambitions are rather ambiguous. However, he is quite interested in Ming, a beautiful classmate from mean circumstances, with a rather dubious reputation. She was formerly involved with Honey, the respected leader of the Little Park gang, who disappeared after reputedly murdering a rival for her affections. Perhaps Xiao Si’r is not mature enough for a serious relationship yet, but kids prowling the streets of Taipei at night grow up quickly.

Indeed, it is almost never daytime in A Brighter Summer Day (which takes its title from a mistranslated Presley lyric), despite the fact its major characters are young teens. Obviously, they are influenced by American youth culture, but their adaptations are darker and more existential, whereas their ever shifting alliances mirror and even outdo the adult political machinations of the era (that Xiao Si’r’s father is so ill-equipped to negotiate).

Brighter is a fascinating period piece, depicting general living standards considerably below what we would now estimate for Taiwan. It is also a richly complex epic, cutting across social strata, but focusing on its more marginalized characters to an almost Dickensian extent. While the rumbles and romantic tribulations of junior high students might seem like small beans for such an ambitious film, it quickly becomes clear we are watching the future soul of a country grappling with itself. Under Yang’s firm hand, it all follows together quite logically and frankly rather economically.

At the time, Yang was directing a cast of hundreds of largely inexperienced young actors. However, Chang Chen would go on to international acclaim in the films of Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the remarkable but underappreciated 2046. There is something profoundly unsettling about his performance as Xiao Si’r. While acutely sensitive, he clearly projects something erratic about the boy, keeping viewers on edge as they wait for the expected shoe to drop. Though apparently little was seen of her afterward, Lisa Yang is also quite affecting, conveying great vulnerability, while also keeping the audience guessing about her ultimate intentions.

Yang masterfully creates an eerie twilight milieu, perfectly suited to the murky moral drama. Somehow, he steadily builds to a culmination we intellectually anticipate, yet it shocks us nonetheless. Arguably, more cineastes will recognize Brighter by reputation than have actually seen it because its 237 minutes are so beastly hard to program. It does require a greater investment of time, but it also constitutes a real bargain for the ticket price. A powerful film by any aesthetic measure, Brighter’s week long run is the perfect centerpiece of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current Yang retrospective. Highly recommended, it screens twice a day from Friday (11/25) through Thursday (12/1).