A Brighter Summer Day d. Edward Yang (1991) The Criterion Collection Spine: #804 Blu-ray Release Date: March 22, 2016 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
Today marks a special day for cinephiles. Since Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day premiered in 1991, twenty-five years ago, it has never been available on home video in the United States, with only limited availability elsewhere. The first time it had a theatrical run in the United States was a relatively brief one in 1991. It remained a hidden treasure relatively few had seen, and many of those lucky enough to catch it called the film a masterpiece. I’ve heard people whose opinions I trust call it their favorite film. As its stature grew, scarcity (and perhaps its four-hour running time) caused the film become almost legendary in some circles; for as long as I can remember there have been rumors of a release from The Criterion Collection. That day has finally arrived. I’d never seen A Brighter Summer Day before, despite it being available in back channels in what appear to be absolutely terrible copies, so I sat down with great anticipation, the treasure finally in my hands. I’m pleased to say that, though no longer hidden, it remains a treasure in my mind.
A Brighter Summer Day is a dense film, with dozens of characters from a variety of backgrounds coming together in the potent political climate of Taiwan in 1960. Dense, yes, but impermeable, no. Though such a summary may seem daunting and exhausting, the film is open and surprisingly brisk because Yang knows the atmosphere and how to create it so well, and we, even if we do not know the political climate, recognize the intimate world of the family that the characters inhabit.
Indeed, the first sequence in the film involves a father talking to a school administrator about his son’s grades. We sit almost in another room, overhearing this conversation. And though we mostly see the father from the back, we sense his quiet desperation as he pleads for his son, who, due to his low grades, has been assigned to night school the following year. Not only is that a blow to his son’s prospects, but that’s where the raucous adolescents go, and he knows his son will be pushed and pulled by the street gangs.
Naturally, this is a universal theme, though often complicated by other external factors. In this particular case, this family — and many of the other characters — are dealing with a world in transition that for the adults feels like a world in limbo, many of them coming to Taiwan from mainland China only recently and waiting for the Communist regime to end. Only recently released from Japanese control, Taiwan is very different from mainland China. The cultural climate is also being affected (or infected) by the West, as seen in the number of English pop songs that one particular group performs. The diminutive Cat’s performance of “Angel Baby” was particularly poignant for me, sounding at once romantic and funereal. The film’s English title comes from Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” which to me is also nostalgic and haunting. That title, which Yang chose and which is burned onto the same film frames as the Chinese title, suggests the film’s porous border, crossing time and space and generations.
The adolescent son, and the central character in this loaded film, is Xiao Si’r. As he enters this world of the night school, there’s a constant threat of violence, a threat often carried out. The original title translates into something much less poetic than “A Brighter Summer Day”; it’s “The Youth Killing Incident on Guling Street.” For the kids, this is life, and the politics of the street are as deadly as any. This Chinese title keeps the film grounded in that desperate reality and locale.
Though Xiao Si’r doesn’t technically belong to any gang, he also gets enmeshed in there warfare due to chance encounter with one of the girls the gangs fight over, Ming (played by Lisa Yang).
In particular, Ming is known to be Honey’s girl, and Honey’s been in hiding after apparently killing someone from the other gang. When he returns near the middle of the film, he immediately starts to reassert his control, which includes crashing a concert put on by the rival gangs under a peace agreement. This central moment brings many of the relationships to a head and the film begins its long but dramatic dénouement.
Beyond the grand scope of the plot, A Brighter Summer Day is remarkable and intense for a variety of reasons. The acting, mostly done by amateurs who’d been rehearsing with Yang for a full year before shooting, is supreme. The adolescents exude their energy on the surface while confusion flits across their faces. The adults maintain control barely, suggesting oceans of regret and longing beneath the surface. Perhaps most importantly for me, though, was Yang’s use of texture and objects to bring the whole world to life around me. Whether it’s the lights flickering, the doorways obscuring, or the sheets covering, this is a world that feels real, its concerns vital. Even though it’s a few generations in the past, this is a world that affects us all, tapping into those moments when we wake up unsettled after a subtle nightmare.
It should be noted how much great work The Criterion Collection continues to do. Why, it was just a few months ago that they released their monumental restoration of The Apu Trilogy.
The Criterion Edition: This is a two-disc Blu-ray edition of A Brighter Summer Day. The film itself is just under four hours long, barely fitting on one Blu-ray disc, and, while it doesn’t have a great quantity of features, the other disc has stacked hours of supplements. I have not made it through all of them yet (though I will shortly), but here’s what we get:
- The disc with the film comes with a full-length audio commentary (meaning, nearly four hours long) from Tony Rayns. I’m very anxious to listen to this, as I understand Rayns goes into a great amount of detail. As a huge fan of commentaries in general, I’m thrilled that with this big release Criterion opted to create one.
- Our Time, Our Story: This is a long (1:53:31-minute), 2002 documentary on the background, figures, methods, and politics of New Taiwan Cinema movement, with interviews with some of its main figures: Edward Yang himself, as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Sylvia Chen, and others.
- Chang Chen: This is a new 11:17-minute interview with the actor Chang Chen, who was a teenager when he starred in the film and has gone on to have a life-long career in films that have played around the world. Though short, I have not watched it yet.
- Likely Consequences: To me the most surprising supplement is this stage performance of Yang’s 1992 one-act play, running 45:20 minutes. Again, I have not watched this yet, but I’m very excited to see Yang’s work in this other medium.
- The package comes with a fold-out insert that opens up to a Director’s Note from Yang, signed June 1991 and featuring an essay, “Coming of Age in Taipei,” by Godrey Cheshire.