On a Thursday night in September, I watched Edward Yang's four hour masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day at the YBCA.
A Brighter Summer Day starring Chen Chang; directed by Edward Yang; Mandarin with subtitles; (1991)
Fifteen year old lead actor Chen Chang made his debut in A Brighter Summer Day. He would go on to supporting roles in films by acclaimed directors such as Kar Wai Wong's 2046 (2004), Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and John Woo's Red Cliff (2008).
A Brighter Summer Day reportedly has more than 100 speaking parts and I believe it because there were so many characters and subplots. Set in 1961 Taiwan, the main storyline involves Xiao Si'r (Chen Chang credited as Zhen Zhang). Si'r is a teenage boy who is having disciplinary problems at school. He runs with a street gang and is sweet on a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang). Si'r becomes friends with an Army General's son and the three of them form a love triangle. This is the essence of the main subplot but Edward Yang is juggling several subplots in this film; the least of which is to show how Taiwan was suffocating its own people through corruption, political repression, social upheaval and the spectre of the past.
Any synopsis of the plot cannot do it justice because Yang layers the film with story upon story and image upon image. A shocking murder (based on a true story) puts an exclamation point at the end of the film but most of the time spent exploring how the youth (and their parents) of 1961 Taiwan spent their days and coped with the turmoil around them.
Is the film a masterpiece? It felt like a masterpiece but so much was going on in the film, multiple viewings are necessary to grasp everything. At four hours in length, it takes supreme commitment to dedicate the time to repeated viewings. I'd invest another four hours to the film. Perhaps someone will program a New Classic Taiwan Days Film Festival featuring the works of Yang (who is no deceased) along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang.
Speaking of which, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) (2008) is screening at SF MOMA on December 30. The French language film stars Juliette Binoche.
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