XL Popcorn – A Brighter Summer Day

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 575/1007
Title: A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian)
Director: Edward Yang
Year: 1991
Country: Taiwan

For a film with a runtime of around 4 hours A Brighter Summer Day is a surprisingly understated affair most of the time. If you have ever seen Yang’s equally acclaimed 2001 film Yi Yi you will know how adept he is at the slow burn with sudden accent bursts of emotion.

Off the bat I am going to say that of these two films I preferred Yi Yi because of his sole focus on a family in modern day Taiwan. You could almost claim that A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi are great companion pieces and are a great window into Taiwan’s social history.

When watching this film it is very important to remember the historical context at the beginning:

“Millions of Mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan with the National Government after its civil war defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949. Their children were brought up in an uneasy atmosphere created by the parents’ own uncertainty about the future. Many formed street gangs to search for identity and to strengthen their sense of security.”

This section of text at the beginning goes a long way to explain the 4 hours you are going to watch. The central focus is Xiao S’ir, a teenage boy being brought up in the uneasy world as stated in the intertitles. After flunking his school entry exams he has to attend night school with the members of two rival gangs: the Little Park Boys and the 217s. He has no allegiance to either gang and yet finds himself getting mixed up in their war which escalates to the point of a massacre around the films halfway point.

He is a good kid with a decent enough brain (we know this as he seems to want to find someone to talk to after reading War and Peace). The problem he has is that there is no one there to guide or help him. Since the school assumes he is a delinquent (due to his enrolment in night school rather than the day school) and his parents are so busy with their own problems in adjusting to their new life off of the mainland… well what hope did he really have?

It’s hard enough being a teenager dealing with their first love with a good support network – take that away and… well I am not saying everyone would end up where he does, but it’s all very possible. Just a downward spiral of emotions, social upheaval, hormones and no one ever truly believing in you. This whole film is just… tragic. The final intertitle five minutes before the end offers some relief, but not much.

Aside from the general upheaval (both geographic and political) that we witness in this film there is the cultural upheaval. At the time Mainland China was only a few years away from the Cultural Revolution, but in Taiwan the West is making its mark. The English title of the film comes from a line in Elvis’s song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, the line itself being a topic of discussion as to whether it’s grammatically correct. To be living in Taiwan in this time period must have been disorienting, much like how East Berliners must have felt once the wall fell.

As I said before A Brighter Summer Day is a slow burn with heightened emotional accents (I realise I am comparing this film to a house whose interior is entirely magnolia save for two red walls… I just can’t think of a better way to describe this).

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