Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Edward Yang | 牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (Gǔlǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn) A Brighter Summer Day

frames impossible to escape
by Douglas Messerli

Hung Hung, Lai Ming-tang, and Edward Yang (screenplay), Edward Yang (director) 牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (Gǔlǐng jiē shàonián shārén shìjiàn) A Brighter Summer Day / 1991

Edward Yang’s 1991 master film, A Brighter Summer Day, is about so many different things that ultimately coalesce into murder, that this was one of first movies in a long time where I not only listened to all of Criterion’s interviews but followed Tony Rayns long commentary. As Paul Dano suggested, this is a work which you might actually want to research before seeing it, if for no other reason than to just to fill in your gaps of knowledge about Taiwanese history.

      The elder Taiwan population, mostly conservative despite their radical departure from a homeland they loved, must face off with their disaffected children, more influenced by the cultures of Europe and the US than by China. In some respects, Yang’s presentation of the 1990s Taipei is a bit like West Side Story with various gangs less based on nationality than on the economic backgrounds of their parents. In this case the Little Park Boys, led by Honey—the children mostly of civil servants—fight with the 217s, the children of military officers, the latter of which is especially fearful to the civil servants because of the existence of the secret police, who, often for seemingly no reason sweep down on government workers and others to interrogate them about their past relationships in China with Communist members and others who did not leave their homeland. You can almost hear the crackles in this broken society between past, present, and future. And if the elders bow their heads in troubled obedience to the new order, the schoolchildren, especially the boys, literally leap out the doors of their classroom, almost as if ready to jump into dance like the Jets (clearly, in this case, the Little Park Boys) and the Sharks (the 217s).
      The Tony of this piece is Si’r (Chang Chen), not a gang member, but who as the son of a government worker, obviously has friends in the Little Park Boys gang. His great love, however, is film, and he continually breaks into the shooting studio located next to his school, one day stealing a large flashlight which gets him into more trouble than he might have expected when he flashes it on a nearby kissing couple whom he believes to be Sly (who currently leads the 217s gang while Honey hides out for killing a rival lover of his girlfriend Ming) and Jade, a woman who we later discover was actually Ming (Lisa Young).
      In this movie, also, there is, as in West Side Story, much treachery, as Si’r falls in love with Ming, whom the missing Honey (Lin Hong-ming) offers up before he is killed by the leader of the 217s, Shandong, who pushes him under a passing car. And there is an American-like dance in the gym with a very young boy singing his version of US pop tunes in beautiful renditions that he has evidently created himself.
      Yet A Brighter Summer Day—the title based on the lyrics from Elvis Presley’s song "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"—although a kind of Romeo and Juliet-like story, is no West Side Story. Unlike the great US musical, the adults are very much in view here, such as Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) who is hauled in by the secret police and for several days queried about any friends he may have had back in the mainland. The interrogation leaves him traumatized and jobless. The intense scene when he returns home, but simply cannot enter it, preferring instead to visit a dumpling shop, suddenly looking up to see his wife (Eliane Jin) shopping nearby. The shock of the encounter expressed upon her face says everything: she has lost the man she loved and her own meaning for existing in one second. The military have destroyed him as sure as the 217s have killed Honey (a word that is predominant in Presley’s famous song).
     Suddenly in Yang’s film the gang warfare of the young is grounded in a different kind of gang warfare in the adults. Yang’s film is not as much about generational differences as it is about cultural pressures, the pushes and pulls of a new society that hasn’t yet been able emotionally to separate its new identity from its past.
     How amazing, I suddenly realized, was the US to have such remarkable early leaders who openly broke with their own British identities. They were truly rebels, represented in Yang’s vision primarily by the young. And, in this sense this Taiwanese film is also a kind of version of Rebel without a Cause.

    Moreover, this is not a film about the urban jungle or the brutal streets, but a carefully “framed” work along with a careful expression of intense personal relationships that are defined by Yang within his framing. Perhaps never since the great director Ernst Lubitsch has any filmmaker so perceived how to encompass his characters and scenes within doorways and windows. Here they represent both the possibilities of escape and a kind of vertiginous inability to transcend the spaces in which they exist.
     Time and again, characters seem about to move out of their containments, but turn back or are simply locked into their own entrapments. Given Yang’s lush and colorful palette you sometimes cannot blame them for their resistance to more forward. Even old lamps, scratched with overuse, seem homey, something you never want to release from your possession. This is, after all, a society which had to carry everything they might have had to an isolated island, where others—the original Taiwan Hoklo citizens, the Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, and many more did not allow easily assimilation—and had long inhabited before them. Imagine it as a kind of terrifying escape of so many, many refugees from what they knew would be certain death, arriving to develop a new, rather unwelcome world. Imagine the waves of the Irish, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans onto the shores of the equally unwelcoming US. Or today the Mexican, Central American, and South American citizens trying to escape homeland prosecution.
    And then there was the past and a new western world which their children were naturally attracted to as a statement against the China heritage, slow to accept anything western, which their parents had escaped.
    Si’r, despite his careful upbringing, his parents’ and his own attempt to move into the intellectually elite of the society into which he has been dropped, is also extremely moral, and a bit like Otello, he is terrified by Ming’s sexual openness. In a sense, in his vital attempts to move from night school to day school, and then to the university his family desires for him, he is a kind of Taiwan puritan, who simply cannot endure Ming’s sexual betrayals. By the end of this film, in almost a reverse of Tony’s devotion to Maria, he is impelled to kill the woman he loves for her own faithlessness. A bit like Honey, a good boy is forced into the worst of misogynistic acts which he has subliminally been trained to kill, despite the fact that she is the one he most loves. His shock for the result, his intense commands that she come to life again is so shockingly painful that it is hard to even watch.
     But this a movie you have to watch, again and again. This is one of the greatest films in existence. And I thank Martin Scorsese through Criterion for helping me to see it.
Los Angeles, March 4, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2020).

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