Friday, February 26, 2010

A Brighter Summer Day

Those of us who get easily swept up in the tender, boundless empathy of Yi Yi may find it difficult to remember (or, due to the general lack of availability of Edward Yang’s other films, may not even realize) that much of this great Taiwanese director’s career sprang from his bitter sense of irony. While Yang’s final masterpiece suggested an artist beginning to make peace with an unjust world, his other major works were made in a spirit of indignant protest against a culture he felt was actively suppressing its own history and cheating its youth. Now that the World Cinema Foundation’s newly restored print of the 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day is finally making its stateside debut as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects slate, Yang fans will get a stronger dose of the anger that only occasionally disrupted Yi Yi’s chastened world-weariness and Ozu-like tranquility. Where Yi Yi was dominated by brightly lit compositions contrasted with a handful of melancholy nighttime sequences, A Brighter Summer Day traps its audience in a permanently murky atmosphere—one that seems intended to precisely capture the political anxiety of its historical moment, but that also renders our relationship to time and space unstable.

Nothing about the film’s premise leaves room for the lightness that Yi Yi endowed its ruminations on life and death. As if A Brighter Summer Day’s four-hour length weren’t intimidating enough to the uninitiated viewer, Yang makes sure to weigh his film down from the get-go, both formally and thematically. The unusually long Chinese title makes blunt reference to the first case of juvenile homicide tried in Taiwanese history, an event that galvanized the island and upon which the film’s central plot strand is based. The first shot metaphorizes Yang’s commitment to bringing a buried history into the light, with a single bulb hanging down the center of the screen, barely illuminating the darkness of an unidentified room. Soon after, a title card appears to situate the film’s sprawling, novelistic narrative and large, mostly early-adolescent ensemble within the context of the mass migration of mainland Chinese to Taiwan, which began after the Kuomintang’s defeat in 1949. By the Sixties, a generation of young people had emerged whose only sources of security were admission to a prestigious school or alliance with a street gang.

With its sovereignty as a state held at the mercy of its various colonizers (and long denied in both the East and West), Taiwan has always been a contestable and provisional nation. It is within this marginality that Yang locates the dilemmas of a contemporary Chinese identity, one that is both liberated and imprisoned by the globalization of culture. As in a number of other important Chinese-language films, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness and Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, the shifting political landscape is communicated through bits of sound design, usually a fuzzy news broadcast placed incidental to the action. The implication is that the characters’ sociopolitical fates are as tenuous as these barely audible sounds, which ironically must travel down the same channels as the imported pop culture that the nation fanatically consumes. Here, the first instance of government-controlled media being used as a narrative device is a roll call of honor and implied humiliation, as a radio announcer robotically recites the names of students whose exam scores have earned them entry into a good school. The obsession with education that has been forced upon this society—and the accompanying illusion of Taiwan as a meritocracy—forms the basis for tragedy ahead. [The rest of the post can be read at Reverse Shot.]

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