I discovered Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day during my initial exposure to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s indispensable writings, and after falling in love with the director’s last film, Yi Yi, his previous work became “Holy Grail” material for me. Like almost all of Yang’s films, A Brighter Summer Day is completely unavailable on DVD and rarely screened theatrically. So when a good friend emailed me a link to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) series entitled Four Masterpieces by Edward Yang, I was ecstatic at the prospect of seeing A Brighter Summer Day in it’s purest form, exactly as Yang had intended at a whopping 240 minutes long. Needless to say, I made the two hour drive with my girlfriend in tow, loving every bit of the L.A. traffic.
Enthusiastically introduced by L.A. Weekly critic Scott Foundas, the film played to a packed house of cinephiles all eager to experience a cinematic rarity. It was worth the trip. A Brighter Summer Day, like Yi Yi, weaves together a plethora of fascinating characters moving through a society in transition, namely a Taiwan infused with Chinese immigrants seeking a better life away from communist China. Yang reflects this tension through the uncertain eyes of S’ir, a teenage boy torn between the growing pressure of school, family, and local street gangs. His subtle plight reverberates in unseen ways, revealing a shadow play of uncertainty in the community as a whole. Yang builds scenes with long takes, holding on characters to experience the reaction of the reaction, giving the film an added sense of depth and clarity that is a staple of his films.
A Brighter Summer Day blends elements of tragedy and comedy with ease, melding scenes of harsh conflict with the hilarious nuances of its characters. But this is a film obsessed with disappointment and the melancholy one feels when rosy perception unravels into gray reality. Yang paints the pain on S’ir’s face in multiple scenes, but none more glaring than the devastating climax in the middle of a rain drenched Taipei street. With blood on his hands and panic in his eyes, Yang’s hero is a product of a terrifying identity crisis that transcends class or gender, a state of mind as confused as it is hopeful.
Edward Yang died last year at the age of 59 and it’s a loss many won’t truly feel until his body of work is more widely released. A Brighter Summer Day is a masterpiece of glaring complexity, both a tragic comedy and a comedic tragedy. It dares to glide through bustling and hilarious interactions of everyday life with eyes and ears open, letting the fusion of time and place enable a sense of the struggling humanity fluctuating under a tumultuous and engaging surface of change.