Edward Yang’s incredible, sprawling historical drama is so precise. A Brighter Summer Day (the title taken from Elvis lyrics) is a challenge in more ways than one. It’s 4 hours long, and Yang really makes the audience work. There aren’t typical Hollywood character introductions, and scenes don’t often have answers immediately.
I generally like my movies to be two hours or under. A Brighter Summer Day fits into that category of films that defy time. It is timeless in more than one way of the word.
Si’ir (Chen Chang) is a 15 year-old, coming-of-age in Taipei amidst the violent conflicts of two rival gangs. The film is critical of both Mainland China and also the government of Taiwan. There’s a sense of both misguided nationalism and absolute apathy, and there’s certainly a string of misogyny that runs throughout.
Yang, who made only a handful of movies before passing away in 2007, favors long takes, wide shots, several incredibly (and incredible) long sequences that are often surrounded by rather short scenes, and a green palette.
The dialogue is sharp and often carries dual meanings, emphasizing, perhaps, the bipolar experiences of the adult and youth populations. “We have all the time in the world,” is repeated in the context of young lust and a government interrogation.
Here’s a good example of Yang’s camera in this film, and one of my favorite shots. The camera starts wide on Si’ir. Another character enters frame and the camera pushes in with him, landing in the MWS 3-shot (#3 below). We pan left with this guy revealing more people, and then continue panning left, landing on even more characters:
There’s a lot to like in these shots. First, the blocking is natural and fluid. The framing and cinematography by Hui Kung Chang and Longyu Zhang is also amazing. I really love that first frame above. The hazy light coming through the background slats is made all the more obscure by the passing train. That train gives a sense of motion to something that is other tableau-static (Yang very much likes the tableau, as we’ll see again below). The other bikes give the presence of other people, but at the moment it’s the only indication as such.
I also really like how much depth Yang has in his shots. The last frame has people on so many different planes of action, and the hall/doorway frame left opens up the already-large space even more.
Maybe what I like most about this sequence though is how Si’ir is just so totally alone in the first frame. He’s tiny in there, just surrounded by negative space. But he’s actually – as the pans soon reveal – not alone at all. It fits thematically with a film that is so much about internalization and isolation.
Two more shots that I like, as much for their chiaroscuro composition and yellow/green hue, as for the mood that suffuses both:
A Brighter Summer Day has some of the best sound design in a film. There’s so much off-screen sounds: radios, singing, trains, etc. Even a lot of conversations take place with a good portion of the dialogue off-screen. It yields a richly textured world, but also one where so much information is right at the fringes – like Si’ir we’re just on the cusp of learning things.
I can’t think of the tableau without thinking of Fassbinder. Yang has a lot of such moments in this film. Like this one, where Si’ir’s father has just been released from interrogation, eats alone, and slowly looks up…
…to find his wife staring at him, frozen:
Fassbinder tended to use that technique for awkwardness, discomfort, and definitely to emphasize a character’s outsider status. It’s not used that way in Yang’s film. Instead, there’s something to keeping us in a character’s perspective. Si’ir’s father is so dazed that the outside world doesn’t really exist for him, and when it does it feels strange and stilted.
Here’s another example. Si’ir is going to be kicked out of school. His father comes in and has a talk with the headmaster. After a master shot and some coverage, Yang cuts from headmaster to father-
-and then to Si’ir picking up a baseball bat:
A cut to the headmaster walking away, and then a CU as the bat smashes the hanging light-bulb:
The scene ends, as in the previous one, with the entire room frozen and staring:
I think there’s also something of the inaction of adults. The kids in this film are violent and we see them take real action throughout. The adults are more passive – perhaps more reserved. Is this a generational divide and the visual technique to accompany it?
I also like this moment because there’s suspense. Did Si’ir only hit the light bulb (we find out later, through dialogue, that it’s not all he hit)?
It’s hard to compare A Brighter Summer Day to anything, so maybe it’s not worth doing so. The only other Yang film I’ve seen is Yi Yi and that has pacing similarities (scenes that build slowly and then others that are short and almost slashed away to create a disparate start and stop). Tsai Ming-Liang is a contemporary, but, visually-speaking, aside from wides and long takes, there isn’t that much I see in common.