On our Criterion picks podcast, John challenged me to write our longest Criterion review yet of A Brighter Summer Day, since it appears to be the longest film we’ve reviewed for any Criterion Month so far. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to muster up that kind of insight after being a little exhausted spending nearly four hours finishing this film in time to review it. Still, there is a lot to unpack in this film that feels both very specific to its time and place and yet as universally human as you would want any coming-of-age film to be. But most importantly, it absolutely earns its nearly 4-hour running time, as I’m not sure that the emotional catharsis it provides at its conclusion would be quite as potent if it hadn’t spent that much time building up its world and characters.
The world of the film is Taiwan in the early 1960s, when the country was still adjusting to the aftermath of being a Japanese-occupied territory, while many mainland Chinese had fled, as the opening text informs us, in the wake of the Communist Revolution in China. This created an environment where many children where brought up in an uneasy atmosphere, while their parents placed a lot of weight on them while feeling uncertainty about the future. Oddly enough, this led to many youths forming street gangs as a way of forming their identities and heightening their sense of security.
We’re introduced to a lot of troubled youths over the course of A Brighter Summer Day, but the one that stands at the forefront is Xiao Si’r (played by Chang Chen). Si’r comes from a fairly working-class family and is just trying to get by in school, while he sees plenty of violence from these street gangs all around him. However, the tender age of many of the kids in these gangs makes them seem harmless at first. Si’r finds himself becoming more ingrained in the lifestyle of these gangs, even if he never quite joins either of the two main gangs in town (the 217 gang and the Little Park Boys), as he pays more attention to a girl about his age named Ming (Lisa Yang), who has been known to hang around with some of the other gang members.
The pivotal scene in the film comes at a big concert that all the kids in town go to, where members of the 217 gang and the Little Park Boys are swarming the place. One of the leaders of the Little Park Boys is murdered by being thrown in front of a moving car, which then begets retaliation from the 217s, who brandish swords and go on a killing spree. Around this time, we see S’ir’s family start to fall apart after his dad is arrested by the secret police and interrogated for his ties to the former Chinese National Government. S’ir, meanwhile, finds himself experiencing young love with Ming, though he starts lashing out in school more and more, perhaps as a result of hanging around so many other wannabe tough guys in the gangs. Things then get even worse when S’ir is expelled from school and starts to become jealous of Ming possibly engaging in relationships with other guys, which S’ir is clearly not emotionally equipped to handle.
My main reason for picking A Brighter Summer Day to review was that a few Criterion Months ago I watched Yi Yi, and wanted to see more of director Edward Yang’s work. In addition to both being very long, I will say that Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day seem to compliment each other as being set in two very different Taiwans — each being set on different ends of the tremendous economic growth that the country experienced in the ’70s and ’80s. In A Brighter Summer Day we see a Taiwan where everyone is either living in near poverty or working for the army or government in some capacity. In Yi Yi, at the turn of the century, we see a tech-driven country thriving and prosperous under capitalism, but also filled with characters that are still often miserable.
As I mentioned a few reviews ago, I think good political films are usually never as informative as they are emotional. I would say that manages to be true for A Brighter Summer Day, since a lot of the specifics of how the character’s circumstances were formed by Taiwan’s political situation at this time was lost on me. Still, be zeroing on the daily lives of these characters, we’re able to get a clear sense of their troubles even if we don’t have a clear idea of the bigger forces that are influencing them. One device that Yang seems to employ a lot to establish his character’s surroundings is a well-placed wide shot. Some of these wide shots are used to establish how these characters act when placed in certain surroundings, and others (like a particularly gut-wrenching beating from S’in’s father) are used more for dramatic effect.
Another thing that makes this a particularly striking film to watch is how it miraculously seems to avoid so many tropes of the coming-of-age drama. Sure, most coming-of-age movies do revolve around a boy becoming obsessed with his first crush (which this story does). But there’s something about the setting, which doesn’t feel like any other teenage environment that I’ve seen onscreen, while the way its told also makes it feel quite unique. This world where teenage male bravado feels familiar to an extent, but the film’s ability to spend this much time examining these characters — inside and outside of their gangs — gives this extra layer of humanity to what could have easily been a run-of-the-mill crime drama.
What also gives the movie extra depth in this regard is that it isn’t afraid to pay attention to characters other than the young men in these gangs. Pretty much all of S’in’s family is given some screen time, while we’re also introduced to various members of the neighborhood they live in and the various teachers at their school. Obviously, this is a luxury that only a 4-hour movie has, while most movies that have this intimate of a scale don’t typically have the budget (or the studio’s patience) to spend this much time telling one story. It certainly doesn’t make for a film that I’m likely to sit down and watch again any time soon, but maybe that’s fine since the film delivers enough memorable details and an emotional punch to last a lifetime.