Inspired by films like Rebel Without a Cause about teenage outsiders, and narratively tethered to a love of rebellious American icons like Elvis Presley, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day nonetheless inverts Western narrative trends by broadening its focus beyond individuals, to home in on the wider social forces that shape their lives. Budding couple Si’r (Chen Chang) and Ming (Lisa Yang) are at the center of the film, yet their feelings and frustrations are sublimated into larger conflicting dynamics of family, street gangs, and Taiwan’s nationalist government. These influences contextualize the inherent restlessness of the film’s young characters and their search for identity, confounding any easy interpretation of their delinquency.
The film commences with Si’r being banished to night school for his plummeting grades, but the punishment only exacerbates the crime by placing him in contact with the gang members who corrupted his educational and behavioral propriety in the first place. The change in class time isolates the film’s early scenes to a constant shuffle between strict, military-run classrooms and darkened school halls that are lit by strips of pale moonlight. Yang’s angular compositions also give these scenes, which depict kids milling about school grounds and anticipating territorial skirmishes between gangs, an added level of menace. No one ever seems to walk anywhere alone at night for a reason, as the ruthless control exerted by the gangs is such that even a non-member like Si’r get caught up in their fights.
Yang’s tendency to constantly place his characters among larger group activity, privileging background activity as much as the story’s central action, presages the film’s gradual expansion in scope. This collective orientation contextualizes individual behavior with more complex, social motivation, the most scrutinized of which being how Chinese nationalism shapes Taiwanese identity. Even when Si’r does the right thing, as when he deliberately messes up the answers to a test to prove his romantic rival, Sly (Hung-yu Chen), cheats off of him, he incurs the wrath of the appointed schoolmasters, and the sins of the son are visited on the father when Si’r’s father (Kuo-chu Chang) is eventually taken in for questioning and re-education.
Though there are frequent eruptions of violence throughout A Brighter Summer Day, no beating or murder seems to move people beyond listlessness. And whenever an individual’s emotions do begin to rise to the surface, whatever sense of anguish threatens to erupt from within them is swallowed by national anomie. When Si’r’s father stands up for his son for revealing the cheater in class, his wife hisses, “This isn’t the time for principles!” She’s right, as principles require some bedrock of objective cultural regard, some agreed upon sense of right and wrong. Early in the film, Si’r lays out the agonized theme of the narrative when he asks a teacher, “Sir, what about ’I’?” in a writing lesson where only group nouns are being taught. The teacher promptly orders him to write the character for “I” a hundred times, immediately obliterating its meaning as punishment for this insolence.
For years, Edward Yang’s magnum opus could only be seen on horribly sourced bootlegs. Even a home-video release directly sourced from the film’s negative, and without a single touch-up, would have been considered a major event, but Criterion’s 4K restoration is revelatory. Gone are the smudges and compression artifacts that pockmarked so many of the film’s VCD releases; in their place are warm, natural lighting schemes and a crisp palette of reds, ambers, and pale grays. Black levels are deep and textures sharp, so that even the long shots pop with clear detail well into the background. The mono track is a modest one, but impressive in comparison to the muffled, crackling sounds that were abundant on the aforementioned bootlegs.
Critic Tony Rayns provides a feature-length commentary track, and by his own admission he offers more plot summary than usual. Then again, the film is so large, so culturally specific, and so inundated with speaking roles that the moments in which Rayns simply explains who people are and how they relate to each other are as useful as his deeper analysis. There’s also a new video interview with Chen Chang and a 2002 documentary on the Taiwanese New Wave that contains interviews with numerous figures from the movement. Most fascinating of all, however, is a taped performance of one of Edward Yang’s plays, Likely Consequence. Given the paucity of Yang’s filmed output before his death from cancer in 2007, the chance to see some of his stage work offers an unexpected opportunity to explore a fuller range of his art. Finally, an accompanying booklet contains a note on the film that Yang wrote to accompany its screening at the 1991 Tokyo International Film Festival, as well as an essay by Godfrey Cheshire that, like Rayns’s commentary, is rather plot-centric, but still helps to shed light on the film’s structural complexity.
Held up for years, Criterion’s home-video release of Edward Yang’s four-hour masterpiece makes up for the wait with a superlative A/V transfer and one of the best packages of extras the label has fielded in years.