Nocturnal Epic For a Dark Era
A Brighter Summer Day
(Gulingjie Shaonian Sharen Shijian, 1991)
Dir. Edward Yang
November 19, BAMcinématek
Edward Yang’s four-hour epic masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day impresses and intimidates with its dense texture, convoluted plot lines, and audiovisual complexities. Revolving around the lives of gang-forming teens and their communities in a “veteran’s village” over the course of a school year, the film achieves nothing less than the portrayal of a turbulent political era on the dark side of modern Taiwanese history. The time was 1959–60. The massive migration of the defeated Nationalist Party from mainland China was fading into memory; the hope of “retaking the mainland” became increasingly precarious; the uprooted emigrants and their children lived in material deprivation, political oppression, and a cosmic sense of insecurity and despair. The backdrop is a nation struggling for identity in the early stages of the Nationalist rule, after the trauma of Japanese colonialism (1895–1945), under the threat of the Cold War, and increasing political and cultural influences from the United States. The English title of the film is taken from the lyrics of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But toward the end of the film, the King calls Taiwan “a little unknown island.”
Brighter Day presents this collective existential crisis through telling details. The props become cultural tokens, and displaced ones. The veterans live in the houses left by the Japanese they defeated after eight years of war. A radio broadcasts the results of national college acceptance and news about Kennedy and the Cold War. A record player left by an American reporter during the Eisenhower visit gives the young people their first lesson in rock ’n’ roll. A samurai sword found on the roof of a privileged boy’s house attracts admiration and fear. A photo of an unknown Japanese girl becomes a Taiwanese boy’s obsession. Young people are enthusiastic about these exotic artifacts, unaware that they are just as orphaned as the dislocated objects.
In this world of dislocation and confused values, different layers of social reality clash as naturally (and as absurdly) as the national anthem before a high school rock concert. The environment is indifferent to individual emotions and yearnings, but forms an inescapable backdrop for their alienation. The result is poignant irony, as when the 14-year-old protagonist Si’r follows and declares his love to a female classmate against the blasting horns of a rehearsing military band in their militarized school. Sometimes the clash borders on the surreal. When a family takes the bus home from a dinner where old friends recall their escape from Shanghai, a phalanx of tanks runs silently beside their bus. As the secret police interrogate a former civil servant about his “dubious connections,” the suspect watches a woman officer singing a song from the 18th century Chinese novel classic Dreams of the Red Mansion. Occasionally the clashes of reality can offer an unexpected glimmer of hope, as when a young gangster uses slangs to retell a novel he read. He talks compassionately about a character that he describes as, roughly, “this dude whom everyone thinks has gone nuts,” until we realize he is retelling War and Peace.
As a cinematic epic on suppressed history, A Brighter Summer Day is Yang’s response to the international success of the 1989 film City of Sadness, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, another crucial figure in Taiwan New Cinema. Tracing the sufferings of two native Taiwanese families from the Japanese defeat in 1945 to the uprising and military crackdown of the February 28 Incident in 1947, Hou’s film threw the door open to cinematic reflections on the political turmoil and collective traumas in modern Taiwanese history. These were taboos during the martial law decades, from 1947–1987. While both films personify politics to portray broader historical reality, their stylistic difference is distinct. Hou’s perspective is often detached and even distancing. In City of Sadness, births, deaths, familial dissolutions, and political atrocities are punctuated by calm, empty shots of winding mountain roads, cedars, and palm trees, the touching lines of the sea and the sky, and a raven flying through the sky before a patriarch’s funeral. In an interview, Hou acknowledges the influence of the early 20th-century Chinese nativist writer Shen Congwen on his aesthetics: “Shen’s point of view was somewhat like looking down from above. Like natural laws, it has no joy and no sorrow . . . Because of this, it produces a generosity of viewpoint.” In City of Sadness, the detached cinematography connotes this generous, observer’s perspective that views the catastrophe as a collective trauma for both the Taiwanese and the mainlanders.
A Brighter Summer Day, in contrast, seldom loses sight of the immanent, repressing social reality, but uses long shots and deep focus staging to promote active exploration of depth and complexities. A conciliating “natural law” is absent from Yang’s world. In his memorial essay on Edward Yang, influential Taiwanese playwright and theater director Stan Lai (Lai Shengchuan) perceptively describes this absence as “vacuum of the times” and connects it with Yang’s use of chiaroscuro lighting:
Darkness and light vacillate through the montage that blends together the political, moral, and spiritual vacuum of the times, and through the bleak landscape, the luminosity of the human spirit manages to shine, somehow in Edward’s strange way, through the often senseless sorrow.
In Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island, Emilie Yeh and Darrell David also analyze darkness lit up by flashes of light as a crucial visual motif in this nocturnal film. Si’r and his buddies attend the night division of a junior high school. Two rival teenage gangs loiter and fight under the cover of the night. Murders take place against flicking lights or in dim candle light during a blackout. The deep focus staging further emphasizes the menace and hostility of the dimly lit corridors, archways, and pool hall.
Darkness conceals danger and creates fear, but light seldom brings forth knowledge or protection. Si’r complains about his sight problem and turns the lights on and off to check on his worsening eyesight, immediately introducing perception as a major theme. A flashlight stolen from the nearby film studio becomes Si’r’s “signature,” and the light source of many scenes to follow, but it blinds more than illuminates. The flashlight reveals to the adolescents sights they shouldn’t see: kissing couples, trouble-causing games of flirtation, brutal killings, and deaths. In a fatal stormy night, it reveals to a terrified Si’r the blood-stained bodies of his peers from a rival gang.
Moreover, light in the film also has allegoric, even political significance. The flashlight is first of all a janitor’s weapon to blind young intruders, a key tool symbolizing the surveillance overwhelming the society. When a character is arrested by the secret police without explanation, the bleak, artificially lit interrogation chamber defies the natural division between day and night, light and darkness. In their desperation, adults try to cling to various “light sources” for sense of control and meaning. A typical example is Si’r’s pious sister, relying on frantic prayers for the salvation of herself and her family. Toward the end of the film, Si’r also briefly hallucinates himself as a guardian of the deteriorating social justice. Yang uses the contrast between light and shadow—devices unique to cinema—to convey the collective identity crisis and schizophrenia. It’s no accident that he uses the image of a 100 Watt light bulb as the logo of his company, and that the bulb lights up to lead us into his story.
Lu Chen thanks David Wilentz for his help in this essay.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.