Friday, August 07, 2020

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, Taiwan, 237 minutes
Director: Edward Yang
Writers: Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Edward Yang
Photography: Hui Kung Chang, Longyu Zhang
Music: Hongda Zhang
Editor: Po-Wen Chen
Cast: Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Kuo-Chu Chang, Elaine Jin, Chuan Wang, Han Chang, Chi-tsan Wang, Lawrence Ko, Chih-Kang Tan, Alex Yang, Hung-Ming Lin

Speaking of Peak Elvis, this much-acclaimed four-hour picture from director and cowriter Edward Yang is haunted by the popular culture ghost of Elvis Presley, even taking its title from an Elvis song popular in its time setting, and incidentally one of his worst, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The time is 1960 and 1961 and the place is Taiwan, the Chinese bastion of capitalism protected and maintained by the US since World War II. That has been basically for anti-Communist propaganda purposes, though there's a fair case for humanitarian grounds as well. It's a Westernized scene in Taiwan, as Yang has explored deeply in A Brighter Summer Day, which often feels like West Side Story with its complicated but colorful swaggering youth gang juvenile delinquent dynamics. Various individuals are going through various crises of individualism, rugged and otherwise. 

A Brighter Summer Day is also based on a sensational true-crime story from Taiwan of the time, in which a teen boy murdered a teen girl out of misplaced motivations and misogyny. So there is a lot going on here, and four hours may or may not actually be sufficient unto it, particularly given Yang's slow, methodical, and organic approach to staging his scenes and confrontations. I must say, full disclosure (and Martin Scorsese's support notwithstanding), I have never managed to connect with this movie, even if its relatively high placement on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (currently #121) has meant I've now spent about 12 hours trying. I guess everyone has a few movies like that. In fairness, I've never liked West Side Story either.

Let me say I don't have any problem at all with Yang's Yi Yi, which I started out liking and have seen only get better every time I look. I hoped for something like that with A Brighter Summer Day, which is similar in many ways, working on the complex fundamentals of human relations. I like the bold way it lands on Elvis and integrates him into its Taiwanese scene, which is a little like City of God connecting its youth gangs to the latter-day Scarface and Godfather movies. Indeed, A Brighter Summer Day features many pop songs—"Angel Baby," "Mr. Blue," "Never Be Anyone Else but You," "Poor Little Fool," etc.—often rendered by the piercing, true, and remarkable preadolescent soprano of Chi-tsan Wang. But pop songs are short and this movie is long and unfortunately it also has many arid stretches with no pop music at all.

Another complaint: too many shots are in medium-long, which makes it feel a bit like looking at a great concert from the furthest nosebleed seats (and not even a jumbotron). I remember noting this problem specifically with another Asian picture, Platform, and if I got systematic about it I think I might find it peculiar to Asian film aesthetics (for example, it rings a bell for some of the Ozu pictures I've struggled with). Or maybe it's a type of racism on my part because, at least in medium-long (and often heavily shadowed) scenes, I do seem to have difficulties telling characters apart. Between the two factors, Yang might simply be too subtle for me here. I'm willing to put it on myself, with regret, even as I'm pretty sure three tries should be enough to settle it.

The story is fairly standard teen love, with a lot of familiar wrinkles. Xiao Si'r (Chen Chang) has a thing for Ming (Lisa Yang), who likes him too in spite of already having a boyfriend who's a player in this gang underworld. Si'r is genuinely tough, seemingly centered and within himself, not aligned with any gang but willing to stand up to practically anyone. In his way, he's a typical Westernized loner hero, a John Wayne or Gary Cooper type more or less going his own way. It's admirable enough and Ming admires it. But she's also in a tight spot, no matter what her feelings are. A lot of the picture is world-building—there are lots of characters and stories floating around this main one.

What I miss in this movie most is forward narrative momentum. When I can gear down to Yang's deliberate way of letting scenes develop (reminiscent of Fellini and Antonioni in the '60s and after) I can see there is a lot to admire—in the way it is set up and shot and in the performances, which are an intriguing mix of the theatrical and the seemingly improvised, with all the young players and their natural high spirits. It is slow but the youth movie cues, pop music and teen love and angst, perhaps make me jittery for right-now kapow action and interactions. The distributed 30 or 40 minutes devoted to pop music in this picture are generally when I perk up and enjoy it most but they are not enough.

Horserace notes: Because Yi Yi is a movie that I love, and A Brighter Summer Day is not, I'm a little fascinated by their relative movements on the TSPDT big list. Yi Yi came out in 2000 and is thus considered by TSPDT to be 21st-century, which meant it took a little longer to make it to the big list. Yi Yi is presently #123, two notches behind Summer Day. It's actually never been ahead of Summer Day, which made it all the way into the top 100 for a couple of years awhile back, around the time of the Criterion release. I've noticed some correlation between Criterion releases and TSPDT chart action. For example, this past year one of the most dramatic jumps we saw was Beau Travail inexplicably moving up 36 notches from #154 to #118 (a very big move for the top 200)—at a time when it was virtually unavailable except at collector's prices. Stay patient checking the Criterion release schedule, however, and sure enough, it finally turned up as a September release this year.

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