Monday, March 28, 2016

A Brighter Summer Day

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 22, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

The Taipei (capital city of Taiwan) of director Edward Yang's film “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), which takes place from 1959-1961, is familiar to just about any viewer. The teen protagonists are sick of being told what to do in school, they're absolutely crazy about rock 'n roll, and the boys and girls are growing increasingly crazy about each other. The parents, meanwhile, obsess over their kids' grades and how to pay the bills, while complaining about how young people today don't have any respect like in the good old days.

However, these universal themes play out in a specific time and place like no other. Yang, who just happened to be a teenager in Taipei at the same time, recreates a society built from pieces of so many others. The school is run by the Kuomintang-backed military (President Chiang Kai-shek had a knack for winning every election), the kids worship Elvis Presley and dress and snarl like rebellious Hollywood youths, and a Japanese samurai sword crops up in multiple scenes before playing a decisive role in the action. All of which makes sense for a country occupied by the Japanese for half a century, then ruled after the war by the Republic of China (not to be confused with the mainland People's Republic of China, or with the People's Front of Judea) which was, in turn, officially recognized by the United States government.

This hybrid condition is further underscored by the simple yet brilliant static shot of a tree-lined road that plays under the opening credits: in just over a minute, this quiet road is traveled by pedestrians, a horse-drawn cart, bicyclists, and motor cars, antiquity and modernity sharing lanes. Combine the uncertainty of a nation in transition and the eternal turbulence of adolescence and you have the combustible mix that leads to tragedy in Yang's somber, sympathetic epic.

The Zhang family tries its best to negotiate this perilous landscape, but a father (Chang Kuo-chu) unsure of his status as a minor government functionary and a mother (Elaine Jin) prone to asthma attacks can only offer so much help. Younger son Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen) is thus largely on his own as he tries to get by at a school he views with increasing contempt while also coping with an afterschool life dominated by two warring teen gangs, neither of which he is inclined to join. There may be reasons aplenty for his aloofness but don't look too deep; it's just in his DNA to be a loner. Trust me, I recognize the type.

Si'r has a lot of free time to fill and does so by hanging out with his friends, including the younger, scrappy Cat (Wong Chi-zan) who sings Elvis tunes in a phoneticized falsetto that produces the film's most memorable sound, as well as the movie's title, a slightly misheard Elvis lyric. Si'r also falls in love with Ming (Lisa Yang), a tenuous relationship that provides the source of many of his struggles as various boys consider her to be their property with Si'r identified as the intruder who must be “handled” with the might they have been taught is right by their authoritarian instructors, both at home and in school.

Still, the teen gangs seem innocuous enough at first, filled with young men strutting and preening to impress each other and, of course, girls, but petty territorial squabbles eventually turn bloody. Not just for the kids either. The father's insecurities prove well-founded when one day, out of the blue, the secret police come calling at his door and whisk him away from his family for days of relentless interrogation that is all the more violent for its bloodlessness. He is badgered day and night to confess everything in writing, and by “everything” his interlocutor truly means everything in his life and he is berated for every alleged omission no matter how minor.

Our nuclear family is under pressure from so many fronts it cannot help but decay. Pressures are exerted from within as well. The father and son clash over school evolves in multiple stages, while mother's chronic illness prompts her to remind her oldest daughter to “Hurry and grow up. My future depends on you.” But other than that, have a good time. It's no wonder the power keeps going out in this movie's Taipei; the wonder is that it somehow keeps coming back on.

Yang (who co-scripted with three other writers) often lets the action unfold at a leisurely pace in long shots, some with careful pans that explore restrictive spaces, others careful static compositions. In one of the key action sequences, a brutal assault by undetermined assailants takes place in near-dark settings, both its cause and its aftermath remaining unclear. Yet even though the story can sometimes be a bit challenging to follow, even at just under four hours “A Brighter Summer Day” still feels like it consists of nothing but the essential, rendering the heartbreaking finale both shocking and inevitable.

“A Brighter Summer Day” went largely undistributed for many years, even being shut out of most major festivals at the time. Critics who saw it at select venues championed the cause (like many people, I first learned about it from the great Jonathan Rosenbaum's passionate advocacy), resulting in its unusual status as a film hailed as one of the triumphs of '90s cinema while remaining largely unseen by most cinephiles. Its relative lack of availability was even more keenly felt when Edward Yang died in 2007 at the age of 59. Criterion's fabulous Blu-ray release is in the final step in correcting one of the great cinematic injustices of the past quarter century.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K digital restoration, undertaken in partnership with The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, was created from the 35 mm original camera negative on an ARRISCAN film scanner with wet-gate processing.”

Any quality transfer would be hailed as a gift considering the film has largely been available in North America only through mediocre bootlegs and downloads. However, by any standard, this restored high-def transfer is tremendous, with a rich, warm color palette and sharp image resolution throughout. If any boosting was required, it's subtle enough not to be noticeable, and I couldn't see any obvious signs of dirt, debris, or damage of any kind. Plenty of detail visible in the darker shots as well. Basically, this transfer is a knockout.

The linear PCM mono track isn't called for much dynamism. It's clear, functional and completely free of any hiss or distortion.

Since the film runs close to four hours, it fills up Disc One, the extra on the disc being a commentary track by critic Tony Rayns. I haven't had a chance to sample the commentary yet (watching a four-hour movie plus other extras takes up a bit of time) but Rayns is one of the finest English-language writers on Asian cinema so I look forward to checking it out in the near future.

Disc Two kicks off with the feature-length documentary “Our Time, Our Story” (2002, 113 min.) which covers twenty years of New Taiwan Cinema. I was really looking forward to learning more about the movement that produced great directors like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-liang and others, some of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. I was disappointed by a documentary I found difficult to follow which doesn't mean it's bad. Rather, it's clearly made for Taiwanese audiences or other viewers who are familiar with the many political, historical and cultural references mentioned but often not explained in the film. I'm sure there's plenty of meat here, but I gave up after about 45 minutes when I realized I didn't know any more about New Taiwan Cinema than when I started the movie. Maybe I'll try again.

The disc also includes a new interview (2014, 19 min.) with lead actor Chang Chen who went on to great success after “A Brighter Summer Day” with roles in “Happy Together” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” among others. He tells of first meeting Yang through his father, who was an actor and friend of Yang's. This features also lets us see some of Yang's wonderful caricatures and sketches which he would use to help the actors create characters.

The final extra on Disc Two is “Likely Consequences” a 45 minute video of a play co-written and directed by Yang and performed in Taipei in 1992. The quality isn't so great and I can't say I found it riveting, but for hardcore Yang fans, well, it's there.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire and a June 1991 Director's Note by Edward Yang.

Final Thoughts:
Ah, the wonder of Blu-ray. “A Brighter Summer Day” has rested atop the list of shamefully unavailable films for a few decades. Now it not only gets crossed off the list but can be seen with a tremendous high-def restoration and with ample extras on a two-disc release that will go down as one of the major film events of the year. I probably prefer Yang's magnificent "Yi Yi" (2000), one of my favorite films of the past twenty years or so, but "A Brighter Summer Day" is wonderful too. And now they're both available from Criterion.

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