Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is the kind of movie you don’t watch so much as luxuriate in. It is among the precious few films whose mise-en-scène is so exact, so complete, evoking such a prodigious sense of time and place, it quite figuratively transports you. That it casts this spell over four hours, without its hold on you faltering, is a wonder.
In our discussion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, I made the comment to Justin that Tarkovsky is such a master at camera movement and the arrangement of elements within the frame that, even with an oblique (or even opaque) plot, there was enough happening onscreen to transfix or even hypnotise me. Every shot of Nostalgia is so pregnant with thematic intent and the joy of cinema, I really didn’t even need a plot; I was happy to let it wash over me.
Well, A Brighter Summer Day gave me a similar problem. Not that the plot is opaque, oh no—it’s very straightforward, in fact. (More on that later.) But from the opening sequence, of a father pleading with a school over his son’s grades, I was so beguiled by Yang’s style, that I found I didn’t even make an attempt to follow the plot. Yang populates each shot with so much detail, my eye was darting around the frames trying to soak it all in. Intellectually, I knew I would watch it again at some future date—I purchased Criterion’s truly awesome new Blu-ray—but that’s like telling yourself you’ll get seconds at a buffet. You want to try to at least sample everything on the first go.
I don’t recommend doing what I did. I didn’t know going in that A Brighter Summer Day involved over a hundred speaking parts, with characters whose motivations aren’t always illuminated or even explored. So here is my advice to you: watch it twice. The first time, for the plot and characterisations; the second time, for the atmosphere and style. (Or vice versa.) Yes, this will take eight of your Earth hours. No, you won’t mind. It is that good.
Summarising the plot of a four hour long movie seems a fool’s errand—and as Justin says, ‘Plot is overrated!’—but broadly, it involves two rival street gangs in 1960s Taiwan. One are youth descended from the military, the other, the children of civil-servants. Orbiting around this rivalry is Si’r, a fourteen year old whose grades are so poor, he has been bumped down from day school to night school—an academic shift populated by juvenile delinquents.
From this broad outline, Yang explores the intricacies of these situations and characters, as well as Taiwanese society as a whole. The Zhangs are sure to become an iconic screen family, like The Corleones, The Finches, or The Burnhams. And they inhabit such a vivid world, you don’t only get an idea of what Taiwan was like as a military dictatorship in the 1960, you feel, somewhat, like you experienced it. I know how that sounds, but A Brighter Summer Day really is that immersive. I’ll probably do a more intricate analysis once I’ve seen it a few more times (one viewing cannot do this film justice), but for now, you need to get a copy and watch it. Trust me on this.