So yeah. It’s been a while. Now there is some stuff coming on Easternkicks.com that has been in the old written inventory for a while, but I do realise how long it has been since I have written anything up for here. I’ve got excuses.. mostly about some workload issues in the paying job, but also maybe an attack of writers block. Anyway, I’ll attempt a couple of posts during August, and today I will tackle a film that’s somewhat intimidating to me for a couple of reasons. Last year I was somewhat exposed to a heady, creative period of Taiwanese film-making, and yet I am ashamed to say I’ve never watched a film by one of the movements’ luminaries – Edward Yang. This review makes up for that. On the other hand.. IT’S FOUR HOURS LONG!!! Now regular readers know am of the belief the ideal film length is between 90 minutes and maybe two hours. Any longer and you bloody well better make sure you entertain me. So, before this review becomes equally leviathan-length I shall cut to the chase.
“Brighter Summer Day” is set in early 1960’s Taiwan. A country still finding its’ feet after decade of Japanese colonial rule, and faced with an influx of Mainland Chinese escaping the Mao-led communist revolution. Despite the country being under an effective military dictatorship, Taiwan finds itself absorbing all kinds of cultures – from Chinese and Japanese to the music and gang culture of the USA. We take up the story of S’ir (a very young Chang Chen), a young kid whose grades have started slipping and has to attend Night School to catch up. Around him he deals with the violent gang culture that has started to fill the void of boredom encountered by the Taiwanese youth. One day he meets Ming (Lisa Yang), whom he strikes up a friendship with, even though she is the girlfriend of one of the gang leaders (albeit absent during the first half of the film). During the next four hours we concentrate on a year or two in the life of S’ir and his family, via gang fights, rock and roll, and the interrogation of his Father by the authorities. It all leads up to S’ir becoming quite alienated from his world ending in a tragic moment of madness.
Many reviews of this movie set it up as some kind of Taiwanese telling of “Rebel Without a Cause”, and I think that is a fairly good analogy. However, the James Dean film was attempting to use contemporary youth culture, whereas “Brighter Summer Day” is viewed through the mists of memory. Yang took memories and events from his youth and played them back some 30 years later through his young cast. The climatic events of the final scenes are based on something that really happened, but are not meant to be a documentarian’s attempt to retell a true story.
At four hours, this was always going to be a struggle for this particular viewer, but actually the time passed without too much struggle. The sprawling (yet still focused) story-lines and engaging cast felt more like watching a short mini-series than a cinematic opus. I sense it is a movie that might actually get better with multiple viewings, as it is hard to tell a number of characters apart (especially when they are all in the same school uniform). It also helps to know something of Taiwanese history during the early 1960’s, else the occasional rumble of armoured Tanks rumbling down the High Street could prove a little non-sequitor to the casual viewer.
It took Yang three years to make this film, with a year of it dedicated to teaching the younger members of his cast how to act. Change Chen actually plays the son of his own actor father in this, and acquits himself well. In a nice little DVD extra, the modern-day Chen talks at length about how he didn’t really enjoy or “get” acting until quite a long way into shooting. Furthermore, he explains how focused Yang was to his art – there was no improvisation, the film appears exactly as the director wanted it. Scenes were shot and re-shot until they appeared just as Yang saw it in his head.
As I said in the introduction, this is my first exposure to one of Yang’s films, and by all accounts it might not be exactly typical of his output. But the care taken over each and every scene shines through – whether it be in the set dressing, or the careful framing of every shot.
I went into “Brighter Summer Day” with an awful lot of trepidation – but in the end I enjoyed the film very much. I sense it is a film I’ll go beak to several times, and it certainly earns its reputation as a classic of Asian cinema. Highly recommended.