Buried in Netflix CEO Reed Hastings‘ unfortunate announcement of “Qwikster” (a separate entity for DVD rentals that never actually was, but brought to light the profound musings of Prophet Jason Castillo) was a tragic and too-confident statement. “…nearly every movie is published on DVD,” stated the entrepreneur in an effort to prove the worth of his disc service. While he saved himself with a carefully placed “nearly,” it didn’t stop from producing a catastrophic movement of cinephile eye-rolls. A film doesn’t have to be avant-garde, experimental, foreign, independent, or made in 1905 to be unavailable on DVD (just ask the directors of any misfires, mostly comedies, made in the late 80s/early 90s); it doesn’t even have to be bad. Sometimes we’re just that unlucky. Take Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, part of the new wave triumvirate consisting of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming Liang, but the only one whose output is impossible to acquire (unless you’re a pirate) stateside. His final opus, the incredibly moving and tender “Yi Yi,” was thankfully adopted into the Criterion family but the same could not be said for the rest of his kin. The unavailability (save for the occasional revival screening) gave his other works a great reputation; the few who were lucky enough to catch them gushed endlessly, most specifically for his 1991 effort “A Brighter Summer Day.” Thankfully, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation has been toiling away at a proper restoration and is now giving the entire four hour director’s cut a limited engagement at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A DVD release is imminent, but watching this treasure in a theater completely unbroken is the way to do it — the director’s greatest asset is his use of filmic time, the way every minute feels lived in and experienced by both the characters and the viewer alike. It’s an absorbing venture, a tale that feels more than just a story well told.
Yang grew up in Taipei, and while calling this a fond remembrance of 1960s Taiwan is quite a stretch, his recreation of the urban society and dedication to the community’s relationships (even those thrown into the background feel necessary — the way their presence suggests an opinion, emotion, and life make their inclusion more than just an effort to have a location look realistic) contains so much soul that its sad, ironic, and critical look at the country never feels like a pessimistic slog even despite its heavy duration. Chen Chang (“Three Times,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“) makes his first appearance on screen playing Xiao Si’r, a stoic little boy struggling in night school and running with a local gang. His father makes a shady deal to secure him enrollment in a much more prestigious daytime academy, but the child finds his time occupied by main squeeze Ming (Lisa Yang, who regretfully holds a single acting credit next to this) and gang turmoil due to the disappearance of leader Honey. The latter’s source of constant conflict (not to mention the lurking military presence which find tanks and soldiers in the backdrop of numerous scenes) is hardly comforting, and some of the only solace in the area is found in amusing performances of Elvis Presley songs by younger buddy Cat (Wong Chi Zan). But eventually the bad gets worse, and the reemergence of Honey sparks much more violence and affects both Si’r and Ming in profound ways, leading to a completely devastating finale culled from an actual incident that rattled the nation.
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As one becomes more acquainted with films, the general magic of many begins to fade, revealing the blueprint and making every beat a cinch to spot. Of course, some of our favorites either manage to retain that illusion or are still fun regardless, but Yang is one of those rare cases who opts for a different road all together. Similar to “Yi Yi,” ‘Brighter Summer’ feels birthed from a dense piece of literature rather than a script, a film moving at its own pace and logic as opposed to following tried-and-true screenplay elements. With plenty of screen time to work with, the filmmaker is able to successfully evoke the life of that period, and the end result gives the impression of a luminous personal memory. Some details and names are likely to be lost and forgotten over its duration, but such is life, and despite these minutia slipping from our grasp, the entirety is felt — Yang is more interested in the experience.
Within this slow-moving story, ideas and characters are allowed to grow and flourish organically. Still, the director doesn’t employ these assets for mere character connection and bonding, or even in an attempt to provide answers for a person’s questionable behavior. Instead, he goes for something more complicated. Si’r, for example, is introduced as being rather quiet and unresponsive. As we follow his progression through relationship confusion, trouble-making, heartbreak, and gang violence, the boy slowly transforms from a soft kiddo into something more hardened. The change is convincing, but still the final act of brutal violence mostly feels nonsensical — it’s something we can’t relate to, and Yang keeps a distance from it. Earlier moments containing murder were, relatively speaking, more digestible: one was a product of rival clans, the other revenge. But while Si’r is a product of his environment, slapping an explanation onto his crime feels too easy, reductive, and more or less misses the point. It’s an idea that Yang continuously returns to, that despite his exhaustive study of this boy, there’s no particular thing that caused him (and specifically him, as the director looks at many others that are either similar or worse off) to commit murder.
Light and identity are also topics the filmmaker is fascinated with. The movie’s cinematography is deceptively simple, lacking any elaborate movements or flashy visuals, instead confidently capturing the action in few shots with minimal cutting. He’s more interested in where the light moves or what it does to his characters, from the selective shine of a flashlight in the late hours to the all encompassing day-time sunlight breaking in a home. The latter provides one of the movie’s stranger moments, where a scene between Si’r and Ming is covered by framing their blobby shadows on a door. It’s eerie and unsettling, despite their conversation being relatively innocent. Stripped of all the things that make us recognize them as human, we’re again reminded how little we understand (or identify) people. It appropriately ties into Yang’s study of identity, which finds most of the characters searching for something they can latch onto and make their own — take Cat’s obvious Western influence, or even Si’r attempts to emulate Honey with the assurance and cool nature he adopts towards the latter portion of the flick. Being themselves — as in, building off their own traditions and growing with the community — seems impossible given the country’s own struggle with identity (even today there’s a strained relationship between China and Taiwan, with the former always hoping to reclaim the latter). Yang shines a light on how these people at least strive to find some sort of understanding of themselves, be it through rock & roll or gang-life.
Some have been as bold to stick “A Brighter Summer Day” with the mighty “m” word, a weighty label that we can’t dispute given its achievement in creating more than just a masterly crafted movie. Here, Yang has erected a temporal experience, a completely immersive world that few artists in any medium could ever hope to do. If you love cinema, you’ll love this movie. That’s a promise. [A]