Endless Summer

The late Edward Yang's monument to his people, nation, and time
by Michael Atkinson  posted May 18, 2009
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Edward Yang died in 2007 and already he is a neglected figure—so it is with some poignance and necessity that a director’s-cut, nearly-four-hour restoration of his magnum opus A Brighter Summer Day (1991) comes to the Classics sidebar at Cannes. It’s still a film largely unknown on American shores, having never been released or made available on video, and only glimpsed in occasional retro showings, and then usually in the three-hour version otherwise released in Europe and Japan. It’s also a film that has inspired so many genuflections from the best critics that one’s expectations come naturally tottering with intoxication. The good news is that as part of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation deal, the Yang and some of the sidebar's selections will find distribution either theatrically or on DVD or both, and so finally Yang’s casual-yet-careful, intimate-yet-epic behemoth will be available to the planet, and a crucial integer in the equation of Taiwan’s "new wave" outside of the relatively structural, introspective visions of Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Unlike his peers, particularists by comparison, Yang was expressly all about encapsulating his nation, people, and time. Part of the thrill of A Brighter Summer Day is watching it, by dint of grace and scope and time, methodically establish itself as an iconic tissue of history itself, and something grandly generational—not merely a touchstone, but a monument. Here is a prime example of a film that defines itself, for better or worse, as a truth-telling spokes-work for an entire cultural state of youthful being. (Others that come to mind: Jia Zhangke’s Platform, Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy, Zastava Ilyicha and Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am 20, whichever of a dozen Godards spoke to you loudest in the ’60s...)

The setting is the 1961 Taipei of Yang’s youth, a lingering tropical paradise beset by more than a decade of unwanted Chinese citizens immigrating by the millions from the mainland’s civil war and subsequent Communist government. The resulting hothouse, perpetuated by the Kuomintang martial law that wasn’t lifted until 1987, created an uneasy social landscape of disposable citizens, bureaucratic malevolence, and generational combat; territorial high school gangs waged war in the nightened middle-class streets, between tank convoy runs. Yang based his film on a news item from ’61 (leading to the first juvenile capital conviction in Taiwan’s history), but his canvas envelops 20 or more characters, most of them adolescent or preadolescent gang members or hangers-on, siblings, and bystanders, along with a nexus of parents, school administrators, and associated adults, all followed and caught within a geographical sense of living spaces that mixes Ozu and Ford but remains, always, stylistically unselfconscious. The reigning spirit of the film can be characterized as both pacific and tumultuous, suspended but chaotic. This must be one of the most busily and convincingly inhabited films ever made, and given Yang’s preference for mid-range shots (there’s not much opportunity here for wow performances like those from Wu Nienjen and Elaine Jin in Yang’s Yi Yi, nine years later), it’s sometimes difficult to even tell one skinny lost teenager from another. Yang’s aesthetic is hardly about exploring character in any case—it’s a weft of incident and the aftermaths of unseen incidents and the between moments where the fallout from crises drips silently from the sky.

A protagonist does emerge—15-year-old Chen Chang’s Si’r, the son of a displaced Chinese family—as an unaffected hub of action, helplessly submitting to the tidal pull of the gangs’ strife, and befriending a gang leader’s baby-faced girlfriend (Lisa Yang), who despite her innocent demeanor is actually a walking romantic dilemma for many people, including her school’s physician. Still, Si’r is no fresh-faced babe in the wild—he harbors what we’d call today a good case of oppositional defiant disorder, which he periodically unleashes on gang bullies and authority figures (though never his beleaguered father, played by Guozhu Zhang). His impulsive rebellions (including pounding a school principal with a baseball bat, offscreen) are selective and strategic enough to be taken politically, not psychologically. But of course every eruption in the narrative—from the plethora of idle threats to a wildfire inter-gang massacre at night with samurai swords left over from the Japanese occupation—is a metaphor, as incidents in youth gang movies always are, for both the trials of growing up and for the maniacal tribalism of the adult world at large.

A Brighter Summer Day is filthy with symbologies—Yang’s strategy is offhand realism organically run through with thematically resonating details. Taiwan being Taiwan, virtually everything suggests fundamental dislocations: the residue of the Japanese ("Eight years of war with Japan," Si’r’s mother gripes, "now we live in a Japanese house and have to listen to Japanese music"), the ubiquitous American pop (the film’s title is a line from Elvis Presley’s "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"), the random passing of Army tanks, the frequent blackouts, the Americanized gang monikers (Honey, Threads, Sex Bomb, Underpants, etc.), the giant ice blocks seen long before we understand what they’re for (suspected radicals are made to sit on them by state interrogators while writing their confessions), the movie being shot in the studio next to the school that never actually seems to get underway, the huge net of secrets maintained by virtually every character, and even the father’s old tube radio, which must be tilted up on one side by books in order to receive a signal. Nothing is stable in Yang’s Taiwan, and conjoining the mysteries of adolescence with the historical tension of the "White Terror" makes the movie arguably the definitive film, minute for minute, about the always misapprehended difference between the teenage and grown-up worlds.

We only discover at the end that the film is a bolero, rising silently to a chilling moment of climactic violence, but its affect is decidedly unmelodramatic. The film’s length is a vital factor, and requires one to paradigm-shift into a distinct film-watching mode. Genuine length—utilized as time undergone, as film-watching in a perpetual state of re-self-definition, as personal investment, as movie-life in the grip of duration, exhaustion, and accretion—is a tool largely misused and misunderstood by Americans, who demand that any random five-minute chunk of a film be as exciting and distractive as the film is as a whole. But as Jia, Jacques Rivette, Bela Tarr, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and other cathedral-builders know well, extreme length gives a film the texture of life, subject to accident, ambiguity, tedium, anticipation, empathy, dissipation, meditation, epiphany. Experience accumulates with the hours, so we are forced to regard the movie as a real-time ordeal that may, indeed, have no end. (Once a movie passes the 200-minute mark, it might as well not have an ending, which has been in effect Rivette’s point.) It’s a tactic of abandon, not efficiency. One of cinema’s great and secret subjects is the drift of time, despite the fact that ordinary film syntax has always worked to sublimate and abbreviate it for brisk entertainment purposes. The unaccented rollout of A Brighter Summer Day is indeed more like living than watching, so its historical accuracy and patience have a social, almost pedagogical purpose. Filmmakers can try to "make" us feel "what it was like" with any number of emphatic shortcuts and visceral gimmicks, but for Yang the only way to communicate the time and place is to have us live there, for longer than we might have wished, and without much more guidance than the other wanderers we see around us, pacing the night under the palm trees, disconnected from everything and looking for trouble. 


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Courtesy Cine Qua Non Films
Lisa Yang and Chen Chang in A Brighter Summer Day, directed by Edward Yang
Photo Gallery: Endless Summer


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct