Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian)

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian)        A+                  
aka:  An Incident on Guling Street
Taiwan (240 mi)  1991  d:  Edward Yang

Edward Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, ushered in a new era of Taiwanese cinema.  When a retrospective of his work premiered in Chicago in 1997, Yang was present for some of the screenings, acknowledging he lived on the West Coast and was friends and working associates with the Microsoft crowd, receiving a degree in electrical engineering.  But a single event changed his life, watching Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), which emboldened him to return to Taiwan and become a filmmaker.  While his friends all became instant millionaires, Yang made films few ever saw during his lifetime, but they left a lasting legacy.  Born in Shanghai but growing up in Taiwan, his background is similar to many others of his generation, like Hou Hsiao-hsien, who was born in the same year.  A great admirer of Antonioni, Yang became associated with cinema of observance, mostly using medium to long shots, keeping the viewer at a distance from the characters, revealing as much of the surrounding vicinity as possible, allowing them to be judged evenhandedly.  While he became recognized for his portrayals of contemporary urban life in Taiwan, tracing the lives of young, middle class workers who become devoured by their rapidly changing environment, often losing their place in life, eradicated by the enormous power of modern day capitalism to simply steamroll over worker’s inability to keep up with the rapidly changing cultural dimensions, leaving many devastated in the wake.  Strangely, this film is the only one of Yang’s films to be set in the past, where the intricate layers and novelesque scope is what stands out, ultimately making this head and shoulders above everything else he ever created. 

In the late 1980’s, the Taiwan film industry run by the Nationalist Government-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation almost ceased to exist, scaling back their activities, leaving a void for new young directors to fill.  Yang’s initial efforts, THAT DAY ON THE BEACH (1982), TAPEI STORY (1985), starring Hou Hsiao-hsien as an actor, and THE TERRORIZER (1986) comprise an urban film trilogy, examining the tensions and contradictions of urban life in Taipei, each one revealing less narrative detail, becoming more increasingly experimental in form.  Interestingly, one of Yang’s techniques deliberately leaves out key plot details, intentionally hiding pieces of the puzzle, which forces the audience to involve themselves in the unraveling narrative.  Viewed as appetizers for the main course, this film astonishingly took 5 years in preparation, and although completed in 1991, never found a distributor, initially languishing on the shelves unseen, involving a cast of over 100 speaking parts, largely non-professional teen-age actors, where Yang used his position as a drama teacher at the National Institute of the Arts to train most of the cast and crew himself, using 92 different sets, taking place in the poorer Taipei district in 1961, using the filmmaker’s own memories of his adolescence, shot at his high school, inspired by a true incident of a 14 year old boy murdering a 13 year old girl, the first juvenile murder case in Taiwan’s history, the film opens and closes with an old, broken down radio broadcasting the lists of graduating students.  In this context of a repressive, militaristic government, the resulting family chaos, the constant threat of gang fights, the need for a good education, and the idea that hard work can bring success, is seen as paramount. 

In a film that bears some autobiographic similarity to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi) (1985), this film is prefaced in a historical context, with the understanding that Chinese Taiwan was formed in 1949 with several million Chinese being militarily forced by the Communist army to cross over into Taiwan from mainland China, into a world they knew nothing about, so they were required to build their new lives with great insecurity about the future, and this film is about their first generation of offspring.  The anxieties of the parents created a world of anxieties for their children, who search for their own greater security and their own self-identity through the formation of street gangs, whose inner turmoil is largely a reflection of the world around them.  The Taiwanese identity is revealed to be a sense of perpetual exile.
Edward Yang’s own father fled from Shanghai.  Artifacts from other countries have great impact in this film, the use of Japanese samurai swords which are ultimately used as murder weapons, Russian novels are read by teenagers and understood as “swordsmen” novels, a family’s observation that the Chinese fought the Japanese for 20 years only to then live in Japanese houses, listening to Japanese music, an old tape recorder that has been left behind by the WWII American forces is used to adapt American lyrics and American rock ‘n’ roll music for the Chinese, the film features American doo-wop music, first love, cigarettes, gang violence, rebellious behavior, casual dress, the influence of Hollywood motion picture magazines and movies, the voice of John Wayne from Rio Bravo (1959) can be heard in one of the movie theaters, while the title of the film (ironically mistakenly translated) comes from the Elvis Presley song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” Elvis Presley- Are You Lonesome Tonight. - YouTube (3:19), a comment on the dark cloud hanging over everyone’s heads, hardly a brighter, summer day.

The film features Xiao S’ir (Chang Chen in his film debut), a fourteen-year old protagonist, the fourth of five children, continually switching back and forth between the two worlds he inhabits, at home with his family or in school, hanging out with various friends, where his best friend seems to be Cat (Wang Chi-tsan), a diminutive kid with plenty of swagger and braggadocio, whose favorite past time is having Xiao Sir’s sister translate Elvis Presley lyrics, where he learns to sing them in the original English language.  All wearing identical school uniforms, where each has an identifiable number inscribed, their individuality is expressed in the variety of nicknames, like Threads, Sly, Airplane, Bomber, Tiger, Sex Bomb, Deuce, and even Underpants.  S’ir’s father (Chang Kuo-Chu) is seen having to plead with a rigid school administrator, angered after his son is sternly issued a demerit, actually losing his temper, seen afterwards, each walking their own bikes, having a heart-to-heart chat about the implications of their actions, each owning up to their own personal failures while promising to do better, Brighter Summer Day (First Road Conversation) YouTube (1:50).
In an amusing scene, probably as a way to get out of school, both S’ir and Cat are seen high up in the rafters at a movie studio that happens to be right next to the school, as they watch a scene being filmed.  While it grows more absurd, with the lead actress arguing about the color of her costume, the director then rightly complains that the film is shot in black and white, so who will notice?  Nonetheless the actress insists, stepping behind a dressing screen to change costumes, where both boys get a look from their vantage point, but clumsily reveal themselves.  As they are being chased by a security guard, S’ir grabs a large flashlight on his way out, which is used to great effect by the director, reappearing throughout the story, often with ominous implications.  The length of the film allows viewers to become easily familiar with navigating the surrounding neighborhood, including the school, shown prominently both during the day and night, the club house run by the Little Park gang, the food stands and bookstores of Guling Street, the pool room and garage used by the 217 gang, and the homes of S’ir and his friends.

For the most part, S’ir is a quiet and studious young boy who happens to develop a crush on Ming (Lisa Yang), the girlfriend of Honey (Lin Hung-Ming), the leader of the Little Park Boys gang, but Honey has been in hiding after killing the leader of the 217 gang.  When Honey returns, he befriends S’ir and tells him he spent his time reading “swordsmen” novels, citing War and Peace as his favorite, claiming:  “When you look into the past, it looks like the gangs of today.”  Honey is a cross between a young Brando and Fassbinder’s Querelle dressed in his sailor’s suit, where he seems to be in a completely different space and time, accentuated by his arrival to a school dance where the kids are standing at attention for the playing of the national anthem, yet he is oblivious to this conformity.  Nonetheless we get a chance to hear the irrepressible Cat sing in falsetto, seen standing on a box to reach the microphone, Angel Baby YouTube (1:42).  While walking to discuss a peace treaty with Shandong (Alex Yang), the new leader of the 217 gang, Honey is pushed in front of a car, but as he is shoved, the film immediately cuts back to the school auditorium where a Taiwanese band is performing “Don’t Be Cruel” Elvis Presley don't be cruel - YouTube (2:11) to the absolute delight of the screaming kids, probably the happiest moment in their lives.

But this murder leads to acts of revenge, perhaps the most artfully presented sequence of events in the film, the massacre in the night that takes place during a typhoon of rain during one of the many Taipei blackouts that occur periodically throughout this film, as well as another Yang film, TAPEI STORY (1985).  Filmed almost entirely in utter blackness, with barely a sliver of light, boys are slaughtering other boys with samurai swords to the heightened sounds of yelling and screaming, yet little can actually be seen, one indistinguishable from another, as instead people are heard attacking, while others are falling, crying, and then silence.  S’ir shines his stolen flashlight into the silent darkness, the beam of light leading him past bloodied, dead bodies to Shandong, who is lying on the floor covered in blood, moaning and gurgling with a meat cleaver in his hand.  In this scarcest of light, the blades of S’ir’s knife and Shandong’s meet as the only light surrounded by total blackness, until Shandong is left to die.  S’ir turns and walks away without a word, led by his beam of light which is all that can be seen until he leaves the room and all light disappears.

In the middle of the night, S’ir’s father is arrested by the secret police for unnamed charges, demanding a full confession on all persons he’s ever encountered since he arrived in Taiwan, including compatriots he knew on the mainland, with suspicions of lingering communist influence, initially allowing him cigarettes where he is alone with his thoughts in an empty room with beams of light streaming in, but then the cigarettes are taken away, the rules are enforced, and the punishment begins.  Some are forced to sit on large blocks of ice, where they can be heard moaning, however as the father is a musician, his interrogation features an organ player in the corner singing a song in a boy’s voice that turns into that of a woman’s, soaring into the clouds, a surreal dream of salvation, perhaps, but Edward Yang mentioned there really are people who work with the interrogators as musical inspiration for full confessions.  The father works feverishly all night on his confession until he is interrupted in the morning by the sound of someone entering the room, he waves him away claiming he is almost finished and he needs just a little more time, but the voice sternly tells him he can go, hurry, and get out.  The camera pans around the room to an open door, which reveals, at long last, life outside, trees, gardens, and flowers.  But S’ir’s father is humiliated by this experience, so eloquently expressed as he sits alone slumped over a noodle counter after the interrogation, having spoken to no one, where his wife (Elaine Jin) stops on the street and just stares at him, her eyes in disbelief that this once proud man is her husband, so utterly powerless and alone, looking so much like a stranger, but this incident will forever change their relationship. 

S’ir promises to be Ming’s protector forever, and makes his declaration to the sound of a high school band playing an off-key militaristic march.  Later, in another extraordinary scene, S’ir questions why Ming can’t just ignore the bad things that happen, this while a procession of tanks drives by, leaving them in a cloud of dust, an ominous reference to the repressive, militaristic government that simply cannot be ignored, A Brighter Summer Day / Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (1991) Трейлър YouTube (1:27).  Just as S’ir is kicked out of school for accumulating behavior demerits, forcing him to attend the less prestigious night school, his father loses his government job, and with it all sense of family security, both coming under rigid, unbending rules of repressive authority.  Each time S’ir has gotten into trouble at school, his father has come to defend him, but this time, when he can find no words to stop the patronizing insults of the education moralizers, S’ir grabs a baseball bat and smashes a light bulb hanging overhead, again he is engulfed in a moral darkness.  When he and his father walk home with their bikes afterwards, in a quiet, still moment of shared vulnerability, his father, a shell of his former self, actually blames himself for his son’s troubles.

The anguish, at this point, is only beginning to mount.  While viewers are never privy to the business dealings of S’ir’s parents, which are discussed offscreen and intentionally left ambiguous, nonetheless we have some idea of some shady dealings going on, which precipitates an argument between S’ir’s mother and father in their bed, where she suggests he should cut off relations with an old personal friend, that the friend’s name was mentioned during the interrogation, at which point he screams at her that this friend actually helped the family move from the mainland to Taiwan, that women have no idea about the business of men, that loyalty to friends is a duty which must be maintained, a discussion which deteriorates into tears with each realizing now they have no one but each other.  Equally haunting is another scene where the father explodes in the middle of the night over some fictitious home intruder, an alarming realization that he is losing all sense of himself.  Later, the father loses all control when he brutally beats his eldest son in the mistaken belief he has stolen his mother’s watch, while S’ir sits silently in the dark outside the house with the full knowledge that it is his own theft, not his brothers, that is prompting a beating that his brother is taking on his behalf, which causes his religious, younger sister to remind him that he’s “out of touch with his inner calm” and urges him to accept the salvation of Christ, who absorbed the punishment for the sins of mankind. 
S’ir has been studying on his own in an attempt to gain re-admittance to Day School, an unlikely prospect at this point, but achievable, when S’ir hears from others that Ming has had various affairs, including one now with Ma (Tan Chih-Kan), one of S’ir’s best friends, whose advice to S’ir has always been that getting into trouble or losing friendship over a girl is dumb, but S’ir flies into a jealous rage and threatens Ma to keep his hands off Ming, and waits on the street for him after school with a knife, only to encounter Ming instead who again lectures him on his selfish behavior, that he only pays attention to others because he wants others to pay attention to him, which sends S’ir into a blind rage and he stabs her several times right out in the open, in front of hundreds of passerbys who barely take notice.  S’ir’s family reacts hysterically to the news of his arrest and is in utter disbelief.  There is a beautiful, brief scene where the younger, religious sister is singing in the church choir, but she can’t sing, as tears are streaming down her face.  Cat visits the prison where S’ir is incarcerated and attempts to share his joy in successfully contacting Elvis Presley in America, pleading with the guards to give him a tape of the music he sent, pleas that fall on deaf ears, as instead they throw it away, evidence of the missed communication that runs throughout the film.  In the end, while the family appears to be cleaning and hanging their laundry out to dry, the radio announces the names of the those students accepted into the Day School, including Xiao Sir’s name, which simply freezes his mother in her tracks, paralyzed at the thought of all that has been lost, as the names continue over the end credits. 

For all those Yi Yi: A One and a Two... (2000) fans who don’t understand the complexity of this film, let’s just remind you of the title, “A Brighter Summer Day,” as this is a film for which those words have no meaning, and unlike  YI YI, which had the charming optimism of Yang-Yang, an as yet undeveloped child who has a future, YI YI is much more a “perfect” film, everything is neatly examined and explained, where there’s a perfect symmetry, as on whole it’s balanced and feels like a complete experience, but A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY offers no such peace of mind, as it’s a raw emotional roller coaster where the last hour or so is filled with such complete anguish and despair, nearly all the family members have their singular moments where they are the focus of an unending torment of pain, where the understated personal horrors can leave one breathless.  Most of the world’s viewing audience have been spared this kind of personal degradation, and therefore have no personal reference points to connect with such despair, but Yang, to his credit, spares no one. The film’s greatness lies in its complete lack of artifice, its meticulously chosen shot and music selection, brilliant imagery mixed with an equally brilliant narrative, a devastating portrait of children on the precipice of darkness, one of the more complex human examinations of the after-effects of a subjugated nation, which is still, at heart, a police state, yet there is a breaking out from the bonds of repression by rebellious teenage kids who have affectations of violence and above all a love of Elvis, freedom, and rock ‘n’ roll.

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