Edward Yang’s 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day is in a sense bookended by two scenes between a son and his father. In the first, Xiao Si’r — a teenager in the midst of an identity crisis, who’s just been berated by his school’s administration for allegedly allowing another boy to cheat off of him — listens with quiet resolve as his father — who got angry enough at the bureaucrats who berated his son to earn Si’r a demerit — tries to impart an important lesson about the way the world works.
Father: You might as well take the demerit. A person who’ll apologize for wrongs he didn’t commit is capable of all sorts of terrible things.
Xiao Si’r: But that kind of thing seems to happen so often.
Father: Exactly. The purpose of education is to search for the truth of life to believe in. If you can’t be brave enough to believe in it, then what’s the purpose of life? Si’r, you’re lucky. I hope this incident proves to be something positive and not a setback. You must believe that your future is determined by your own hard work
Si’r’s father has good intentions here, but the lesson rings hollow. This is not only because it verges dangerously close to an empty platitude, but also because Si’r was just punished for a crime he didn’t even commit: we, the audience, and Si’r know that he didn’t want the other boy cheat off of his work at all. How can Si’r reconcile an uncaring, indifferent bureaucracy — which sees him not as an individual but as yet another troublemaking student in a school full of gang members at war with one another — with his father’s platitudes about determining one’s own future?
Midway through this four-hour film, Si’r’s father is captured by the secret police and hauled off to be interrogated for past political associations. He is forced to recite a litany of names, and write narratives of his life and past acquaintences that never seem comprehensive enough for the interrogators. After an indeterminate amount of time, he is suddenly freed, but leaves shaken — a damaged man, who loses his job because of the taint of the interrogation and who wakes in the middle of the night fearing imaginary burglars.
That same night, Xiao Si’r had been involved in a brutal massacre, a conclusive end to the war between two gangs that ends with at least a dozen dead. Si’r had at most a passive role here, as he has in much of the film — indeed, his actions are often slightly inscrutable, his face unreadable, even as he watches a man writhing in pain on the ground, dying from a sword-inflicted wound (Si’r did not strike the killing blow, but he is present for the man’s dying moments). The man’s screams do not hold the answer to the question at the heart of Si’r’s problems: What is the truth of life that I believe in?
It’s a question that Si’r thinks he understands better near the end of the film, when he and his father have another walk away from school, shot in such a way as to exactly mirror the first — the lone difference being that while the first was shot in the late afternoon, this one is shot at night.
Si’r, after angrily hurling obscenities at the school nurse and striking the vice principal with a baseball bat (presumably this did not result in serious injury), has been expelled from school. He and his father walk side-by-side in the dark.
Xiao Si’r: Don’t worry, Dad. Getting expelled isn’t so bad. This way I can take the transfer exam this summer. I’ll get into day school for you. Don’t worry about me, Dad. I remember everything you said. I’ll always listen to you. I remember you said one’s own future can be determined by one’s own efforts. I hit him with the bat because he went too far, just like last time when you —
Father: If I quite smoking, the money I save every month will be enough to buy you glasses on the installment plan.
Father — defeat lacing his voice and marking every expression — refuses to engage with his son on the profound moral and existential questions that have been plaguing him from the beginning. Perhaps he sees the futility in his own platitudes — which he has come to question himself, after his interrogation — being spoken by his son. Perhaps he wonders: What lesson did I really teach him? Is it one I even believe myself?
Xiao Si’r, for his part, still searches, achingly, for an identity, right up until the end, when he commits a terrible murder that will change him and his family forever.
A Brighter Summer Day is a fantastically complex film, with many interweaving strands. This strand — the relationship between father and son, and how this relationship buckles under the strain of unanswerable questions and unspeakable violence — is only one small part of this giant film. At almost four hours long, and with over a hundred speaking parts, it would be impossible to cover everything about it in one blog post.
And yet, it’s got a kind of subtle simplicity, as well. It’s a beautiful film, clearly evoking a time and a place — 1960s Taiwan — and suffusing it with moments of subtle beauty, staggering violence, and even quaint charm. Despite the incredible specificity of the story and characters, it speaks to universal questions about identity and how we make meaning in an essentially indifferent world. And in the end — after everything that happens — life goes on, as it must. As it does. Although as the film ended, I wished it could have gone on just a little longer — I wished I could have spent more than just four hours in the world it creates.
As I own this film, I can speak a bit about the various supplementary material that comes with it. First and foremost I must praise the audio commentary, by noted film critic Tony Rayns. I listened to bits and pieces of it (and will someday, I’m sure, listen to the whole thing), and found it incredibly illuminating. The man clearly knows his stuff.
The other special features are excellent, if a tad scant. I’m especially fond of Our Time, Our Story, a feature-length documentary about the New Taiwan Cinema movement, of which Edward Yang was a part. It offers crucial context for the production of this film, and made me very interested in seeking out more movies from the directors featured.
Overall I give A Brighter Summer Day a strong recommendation. I think it’s a masterpiece, and it’s one that I look forward to revisiting again and again.
NEXT WEEK: Spine #330: Au revoir les enfants , Dir. Louis Malle