Unlike the work of his peers and countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, assessing the output of the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang presents some considerable problems. Whereas after earlier issues of unavailability, the films of Hou (at least from 1993’s The Puppetmaster on) and Tsai are now a Netflix click away, Yang’s oeuvre remains damned by inaccessibility, his 2000 masterpiece Yi Yi—recently confirming its place in the canon by appearing at or near the top of many best-of-the-decade lists—proving the sole exception. Still, Yang, along with Hou, is widely considered to be the key player of the Taiwanese New Wave that emerged in the early ’80s, when lessening of government restrictions allowed for the establishment of a new artistically viable cinema. Not surprisingly, given Taiwan’s fraught recent history, which saw the island exchange a foreign occupation (Japan) for an oppressive nationalist government, the films of the new directors were concerned largely with exploring the country’s knotty past as well as the present-day displacements that resulted. While Hou’s films focused largely on historical subjects (most significantly in his late-’80s/early-’90s trilogy of City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Good Men, Good Women), Yang devoted his work to tracing the contemporary consequences of those disruptions. (The younger Tsai, who began making films in the late ’80s, is concerned exclusively with the present, which, in his films, seems ever more cut off from any understanding of the past.)
The most significant exception to Yang’s concern with the present day remains the much lauded but rarely seen A Brighter Summer Day, which screened at last year’s Cannes Festival in its uncut 237-minute version and which Lincoln Center is now reviving (at the same running time) as part of its Film Comment Selects series. Set in Taipei in 1961, the film builds its vast, finely detailed canvas out of the experience of growing up in an uncertain historical moment. Caught between the traces of their homeland’s occupied past and the impossibility of imagining a better future, teenage S’ir and his friends flirt with involvement in the youth gangs that dominate the urban landscape, pursue petty squabbles and romantic encounters and skirt expulsion from school for bad behavior.
The son of a civil servant who, like many of his generation, fled the mainland following Chiang’s defeat only to find himself living under an equally oppressive regime, S’ir’s world is defined by the fingerprints of the past. Living in a Japanese house (his bedroom is little more than a closet partitioned off with a sliding door) apportioned with a radio and tape recorder scavenged from the leavings of American soldiers, he is everywhere reminded of his precarious historical position, a state of uncertainty which manifests itself in much of his actions, whether it’s his involvement in violent activity or in his misguided determination to “protect” and thus possess his would-be girlfriend, the latter desire resulting in the film’s final tragedy.
In his essential essay on Yang, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described the filmmaker as novelistic and, while the term aptly hints at the richness and complexity of interaction on display in Summer Day, it only fits if we understand it not in the sense of the 19th-century novel, but in its more modernist incarnation. Eschewing the reams of exposition of a Balzac or Tolstoy (though War and Peace, humorously referenced in the movie, is not a bad analogue for its initially overwhelming presentation of vast numbers of characters), Yang simply thrusts us in, forcing us to actively sort out the webs of interaction, as his people talk or fight their way across his rigorous medium and long shots. The warmth and easy comprehensibility of Yi Yi (neither of which are meant as a knock on that film) are largely absent from Summer Day; instead, Yang plunges the viewer into a state of dislocation that mirrors his characters’ tenuous positions.
But once the connections are made, the characters sorted out, the richness of the implications freights every one of the film’s exchanges with dizzying layers of significance and turns its larger set pieces into intricate nexuses of meaning. In one standout sequence, a Western-style concert in which a local band performs American pop songs learned phonetically from English becomes, in addition to an absurdist commentary on cultural influence and appropriation, the site of a gangland power struggle in which an understanding of the complex interactions of a good dozen characters is necessary to tease out the full import of the situation. Many films take historical instability as their theme and many more deal with the cross-cultural migrations of pop artifacts, but one would be hard pressed to come up with any that do it both on the scale and with the intricate orchestration that Yang manages here.
With Yi Yi an established masterpiece and Summer Day seemingly poised for similar recognition, the director’s place in the canons seems secure. Now it remains only to wonder what pleasures the rest of his filmography, when finally brought to light, may yield up at long last.
A Brighter Summer Day will play on February 28th as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.