A Brighter Summer Day (1991) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A great movie never too long

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Edward Yang’s “A Bright Summer Day”, which recently happened to be released in South Korea, is a singular masterpiece to be admired for numerous reasons. On one level, it is a tragic adolescent drama inspired by a notorious real-life incident in Taiwan during the 1960s, and it is devastating to watch how it slowly but inexorably arrives in its finale. On the other level, it is also a vivid, complex social period drama which takes us right into the world inhabited by its young hero and many other characters around him, and we come to understand how they helplessly or aimlessly drift in their nervous social atmosphere filled with uncertainty and agitation. As social drama and individual drama are organically intertwined with each other again and again during its 237-minute running time, its big, ambitious picture of the Taiwanese society during the 1960s gradually emerges in front of our eyes, and this grand cinematic tapestry resonates further with its sad, unforgettable closing scenes.

The movie opens with the prologue scene set in Taipei, 1959. Mainly due to his low score in Chinese, Chang Chen (Chang Chen in his first major role), a 13-year-old boy who is usually called by his nickname Xiao Si’r (it means “Little Four” in Chinese, by the way), is going to be assigned to a nighttime school instead of a daytime school, and his father, played by Chang’s real-life father Chang Kuo-chu, tries to persuade Xiao Si’r’s teacher to do anything for changing that decision, but there is really nothing he can do about that. The teacher emphasizes to Xiao Si’r’s father that Xiao Si’r’s test result cannot be changed, and Xiao Si’r seems rather disinterested in what will be next in his future.

The story moves forward to 1960, and we soon see why Xiao Si’r’s father worries about his son being in a nighttime school. Many of nighttime school students are delinquents, and it does not take much time for Xiao Si’r and his two close friends to get involved with one of local adolescent gangs in their neighborhood. As explained to us a bit around the beginning of the film, the Taiwanese society went through a grey period of uneasiness during the 1950-60s after Chiang Kai-shek and his government fled from Mao Zedong’s communist government to Taiwan along with millions of Chinese people in 1949, and that nervous social atmosphere affected not only adults but also young people like Xiao Si’r, many of whom were prone to join gangs as wandering in their confusing search for any guidance for their uncertain future.

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The leader of the gang with which Xiao Si’r happens to be associated is Honey (Lin Hung-ming), but he recently goes into hiding for a reason not explained well in the film, and his girlfriend Ming (Lisa Yang) is not so pleased about that. After accidentally encountering Ming for the first time, Xiao Si’r comes to have a crush on her, and it looks like Ming also likes him. At one point, they have a small private time near a military training site, and we get one of the most sensitive moments in the film as they show a bit of their mutual feeling to each other.

Of course, things do not go well for them later as the conflict between Honey’s gang and some other rival gang becomes more intensified. Honey, who turns out to be a nice, thoughtful guy and does not mind his girl being close to Xiao Si’r, tries to solve this problem as peacefully as he can, but his attempt only leads to one of a few shocking moments of violence in the film, and the story gets darker when his gang later decides to have their revenge for that. While firmly maintaining its phlegmatic attitude even during that part, the movie smoothly dials up the level of tension through its effective utilization of lights and shadows, and the result is quite striking to say the least.

Meanwhile, we also observe the troubles inside Xiao Si’r’s family. Xiao Si’r’s father has a strong belief in personal integrity, but then he finds himself crushed by the government just because he is labeled as someone subversive for some unknown reason, and there is a sad wordless moment between him and his wife not long after he goes through several days of arduous interrogation. His pride is clearly shattered, and his family becomes more unstable as reflected by the following incidents including the one involved with his wife’s precious watch.

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How do all these things and many other things depicted in the film affect Xiao Si’r? The movie does not give us any simple answer, so some of you may remain bewildered even in the end, but at least you will appreciate what a rich and compelling experience it is in many aspects. Because of its frequent utilization of wide/medium shots, the movie often feels distant, but every shot in the film effortlessly holds our attention via its meticulous camerawork and precise mise-en-scène, and, as far as I could see during my viewing, there is not any single redundant or unnecessary shot during its 237 minutes. Although the movie certainly demands some patience and attention due to its rather slow narrative pacing and numerous supporting characters surrounding its hero, I never got bored and confused during my viewing, and I could accordingly let myself immersed more into its authentic mood and dexterous storytelling.

Because the original Taiwanese title of the movie is “Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street”, I guess it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that its story ends with a murder, but I will let you see for yourself how the movie succinctly and effectively delivers a dramatic gut punch to linger on your mind – and how it calmly but powerfully amplifies the resulting sadness after that. Because I read the novel version of the movie before, I knew in advance what would happen, but I gasped nonetheless when that happened on the screen, and I was both chilled and saddened as the camera detachedly observed the irreversible consequence for a while.

My late friend/mentor Roger Ebert once said, “A good movie is never too long, and a bad movie can never be too short.” “A Brighter Summer Day” is certainly a good movie never too long, and it is surely one of the most memorable movie experiences I have ever had during recent years. To be frank with you, I don’t think I understand everything in it, but I did feel during my viewing that it is a great movie, and I am willing to spend my precious four hours for experiencing it again.

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