Fellow ScreenAnarchy writer Kurt Halfyard knows of my overwhelming fondness for cinematic experiences of unusual length. He and I will often seek out the one ticket in the Toronto International Film Festival's annual program that will see us sitting in the darkened Cinema 4 till our posteriors have gone numb and most normal folks would have long since retreated to the lobby for a snack.
As movie run times become more and more templated, there's something appealing about any film that asks a different level of discipline of its audience. One such film is Edward Yang's 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, which stretches a bladder-busting 3 hours and 56 minutes without so much as an intermission - making Tarantino's roadshow version of The Hateful 8 seem like a hot stone massage by comparison.
Now, arriving as it has in a beautiful new blu-ray presentation from the Criterion Collection (spine #804), there's no real reason to hope that most viewers will use the opportunity to recreate as faithfully as possible what it would have been like to watch A Brighter Summer Day in a movie theatre twenty-five years ago. Indeed, for the Netflix generation, screening Brighter at home seems perfectly in line with all of our well developed binge-watching habits. Choice is the rule of the day. One could be forgiven for pausing the action halfway through to grab dinner (I did), or just powering all the way through (I will next time).
Part of the boom in Taiwanese cinema that also saw the emergence of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Ang Lee, A Brighter Summer Day was made by the late Edward Yang a quarter of a century ago, and part of its Criterion release's cachet is how difficult it has been to see in North America since then.
The film toured the festival circuit in the nineties and then all but disappeared from a western perspective (Yang's last film, Yi Yi, is perhaps better known). I jumped at the chance to explore the project when Criterion announced its release for this month. This is what the label excels at: shining a light on singularly important works of filmmaking, which have little or nothing to do with the engine that runs the rest of the industry.
What's striking in watching A Brighter Summer Day is how briskly it moves. One could be forgiven for expecting a four-hour coming of age drama to indulge in at least one or two mood/contemplating sequences of trains ambling past, or light shimmering on water, the sort of thing that Hou Hsiao-Hsien excels at (think Terrence Malick, but without the voiceover).
Instead, A Brighter Summer Day is packed with plot and incident, and Yang's authorial style is tightly disciplined and matter-of-fact. Compositions are striking and long takes proliferate throughout the film, but the camera rarely abandons clarity for poetry.
(One of the few, striking counter-examples: a budding romance photographed in the glossy reflection of a white painted door, the characters little more than blurry outlines, as though the camera and audience are as shy towards the couple as they are to one another.)
The story revolves around Si'r, the son of Chinese nationals who emigrated to Taiwan following the rise of Mao Zedong. Like many children his age, Si'r is drawn into a local street gang to locate and maintain a sense of identity in Taipei. (Yang has noted that the story, taking place in 1960, finds Si'r's parents at the point where they are beginning to realize they will never return home.) The story charts the collision of Si'r's gang with another local faction.
Masculine bravado and teen confusion run high. "Being in a gang" in this context seems to mainly involve walking around together looking tough, so don't expect The Warriors-esque street fights (though violence does, eventually, follow). The boys, meanwhile, attend a less-than-desirable night school, which Si'r's bureaucrat father is earnestly trying to free him from.
There is, naturally, a girl - almost a Smurfette character, in fact, given that she seems to be the only female within reach of dozens and dozens of the film's teen male characters. Various boys' attempts to dominate her affections form the spine of mounting tensions between the gangs, and we move towards increasingly violent and disturbing repercussions.
As intriguing as its plot proper is A Brighter Summer Day's milieu, in which a softly-stated ethnic war between the inhabitants of Taipei is wordlessly overshadowed by the teen generation's increasing fascination with all things American. The rival gangs declare truces to host ersatz rock concerts, where pre-pubescent gang members howl Elvis Presley songs they don't understand, but for which they've learned the lyrics phonetically. Japanese-style houses see American-style greasers picking through Taiwanese pornography by the light of military flashlights. It's a heady brew, and it pushes Si'r's natural sense of adolescent displacement past a significant breaking point.
Restored in 4K, the Criterion Collection's blu-ray presentation looks for all the world like it was filmed and released yesterday. Perhaps due to the length of the film or the breadth of the character base, A Brighter Summer Day feels more than usually like a completely lived-in world, and the characters linger so substantially in the mind that one would be forgiven for spinning up the 4-hour feature a second time within weeks of the first. At the very least, this story will sit with you for a long while after you've watched it.
The two-disc Criterion edition packs the film onto the first platter (along with a commentary by critic Tony Rayns, for those who like a little Coles Notes with their foreign language film). The centerpiece of the second disc is a 2-hour documentary about the Taiwanese New Wave, called Our Time, Our Story. It's a genial look at several filmmakers of the era, and you'll want to keep a notepad handy to jot down a few titles on the way.
There's also a 20-minute interview with Chen Chang, who played Si'r in one of his very first roles. Audiences may be more familiar with him from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Assassin, but he gives great talking points about A Brighter Summer Day, in which his own father played Si'r's father, and where natural teenage disaffection threatened to derail his nascent acting career as a result.
A Brighter Summer Day will be released by the Criterion Collection on March 22nd.