Combustible Celluloid
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With: Guozhu Zhang, Elaine Jin, Wang Juan, Zhang Han, Jiang Xiuqiong, Lai Fanyun, Chen Chang, Shiang-chyi Chen, Lisa Yang
Written by: Edward Yang, Hung Hung, Lai Mingtang, Alex Yang
Directed by: Edward Yang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 237
Date: 07/27/1991

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lonesome Tonight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edward Yang's four-hour A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is even more complex and intriguing than Yi Yi. Set over the course of most of a year in 1961, the film deals with a subculture of Mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan after the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949. A printed introduction explains that their children are now living in a state of uncertainty and have taken to forming street gangs for a sense of safety and control.

From there, Yang's narrative jumps back and forth between many subplots. It's difficult to track them all, especially given his taste for medium and long shots, as opposed to close-ups. Even so, Yang's masterly storytelling skills usually find recognizable cues for each sequence, and the world he creates here is so vivid and complete that we're never lost for very long.

Perhaps the main thrust of the story, or at least the one that's the most emotionally engaging, has to do with a gangster's school-age girlfriend. He has gone into hiding and a younger, inexperienced gang member becomes smitten with her. They cut class together and wind up next door, at a movie studio, where she wins an audition based only on her looks. They form an endearing bond, but his friends warn him never to let a girl become the cause of any bad blood.

Other characters flirt with singing careers, putting on little shows that become both a source of income and frustration for the various gangs. Our two singers, one pre-pubescent (with a high, Frankie Lymon-type voice) and one post-pubescent, have American songs translated phonetically; the Elvis song, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is the source of the movie's title. That song is just one coveted artifact that re-appears throughout the movie and doesn't specifically originate in Taiwan. A samurai sword, a flashlight, a radio, and a tape recorder also become important, almost characters by themselves.

The arc of the movie as a whole suggests dislocation, people adrift between patriotism and something grayer and more elusive. The older characters, when they appear, either stubbornly adhere to Taiwanese traditions or have grabbed onto something else, such as Christianity. Other adults are weak and powerless. The children seem to understand all this, but can't comprehend how to crawl out from under it. And despite a murder -- inspired by a real-life incident -- the film still has a few glimmers of hope.

Yang's film doesn't waste a single second of its four hours, and taken as a whole, reveals a beautiful, intricate, masterful tapestry that is as accomplished in its grand, quiet way as is The Godfather trilogy.

In 2016, it's still quite difficult to find most of Edward Yang's films, but the Criterion Collection has taken a major step by releasing A Brighter Summer Day on a gorgeous Blu-ray. Tony Rayns, who knew Yang and who knows a little something about Taiwanese history, provides a very insightful commentary track. A second disc includes a new interview with actor Chen Chang, a 113-minute documentary ("Our Time, Our Story") from 2002 about the New Taiwan Cinema movement, a videotaped performance of Yang's 1992 play "Likely Consequence." The liner notes booklet offers an essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire and a 1991 director's statement by Yang. The 4K digital picture is superb, as is the uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

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