Lonesome tonight: Tony Rayns and Edward Yang on A Brighter Summer Day

Gang feuds, a troubled teenage romance and political paranoia in 1960 Taiwan are mixed in Edward Yang's extraordinary epic A Brighter Summer Day. Tony Rayns recalls visiting the set and reflects on Yang's achievement in this 1993 feature.

7 September 2023

By Tony Rayns

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Sight and Sound

Jinguashi, November 1990

After a week sitting through day-long screenings of the past year’s Hong Kong and Taiwan movies (as a member of the jury for the China Times Express Film Awards), nothing could have been more welcome than an invitation from Edward Yang to visit the shoot of his new film, A Brighter Summer Day. A 45-minute drive up into the hills north of Taipei brings us to Jinguashi, where a cluster of abandoned Japanese-style buildings overlooks a thickly wooded valley. One of the sturdier houses has been converted to serve as one of the film’s prime locations: the home of the Zhang family.

Yang is shooting a simple domestic scene. Xiao Si’r, the younger son in the family, has gone to bed to read by torchlight. His bed is actually the lower bunk in a cupboard-like space off the living room, and he has slid the cupboard door closed in order to be alone. His eldest sister Juan (played by Wang Juan, also one of the director’s assistants and a dialogue coach) is whispering to him in the dark. They’re working in very low light levels and recording synch sound, and several takes are needed before Yang is satisfied. There are the usual odd moments of horseplay between takes, but the conspicuously young crew works most of the time with seriousness and concentration.

During a break in shooting, Yang guides us around the site, which was built in the early twentieth century as a holiday villa for the Japanese imperial family. No emperor ever stayed there, but Hirohito once visited during his days as the Crown Prince. The entire complex has been abandoned for years, and there are plans to demolish it to make way for an amusement park. The situation is rich in ironies. The film is recreating a world and climate that Yang knew in his schooldays, but Taiwan’s pervasive indifference to it own history has erased nearly all traces of even the recent past in Taipei itself. Hence the retreat into these hill to find suitable buildings; and hence the race to beat the wreckers from the amusement park company. Given the film’s storyline – and the eventual fate of Xiao Si’r – it’s oddly moving that a cupboard that once stored Japanese imperial bedlinen should be pressed into service as a bunk bed for a mixed-up 14-year-old Chinese schoolboy.

Taipei, May 1991

Back in Taipei to see the fine-cut of the film at the CMPC sound-mix studio on the edge of town. Watching it is an overwhelming and emotionally exhausting experience, and not just because the integral version runs nearly four hours. The film has a structure and angle of approach unlike any other I’ve seen. Rather than working its way through a neatly predigested storyline, it plunges the audience into a vast social fresco (there are well over 100 speaking parts) and locates its central troubled romance in a web of other relationships, allegiances and incidents. As a result, it illuminates questions of social and political context in a way that few other films even dream of doing. But this does not diffuse its emotional impact; on the contrary, it gives the climactic act of violence a weight of meaning that makes it all the more devastating.

The Chinese title, Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian, translates literally as ‘The Boy in the Murder Incident on Guling Street’ (the street was known in the Taipei of the 60s for its stalls selling second-hand books to schoolkids and students). The English title is a possibly misheard line from the lyric of Elvis Presley’s ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, as transcribed for a budding Taipei garage band by a girl with secondary-school English. Both titles resonate throughout the film. The Chinese title identifies the protagonist, Xiao Si’r, and provides a clue to the way the story will resolve itself – thereby helping to guide the viewer through the narrative density of the movie. The English title both evokes and summarises the appeal of America to residents of Taiwan, now as then. The dream of a better future is what drives virtually everyone in the film, and the fact that that future has an American accent is a measure of what’s wrong with their lives.

Xiao Si’r is the fourth child (of five) in the family of a bookish civil servant. He takes after his father in many ways, but he’s an academic disappointment. He has failed to win a place in Day School for his years in junior high, and so has to make do with a place in the less prestigious Night School. Most of his friends are members of the Little Park Gang; they, too, are boys from Mainland China families that moved to Taiwan after the Communist victory of 1949. Their greatest enemies are the tough kids of the 217 Gang, sons of soldiers and named after the military housing estate where they live. But Xiao Si’r is too much of a loner to join the gang. He has the makings of an intellectual; the first thing we see him do is steal the flashlight he uses to read and write his diary in bed.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

The first time Xiao Si’r meets Ming is one Saturday afternoon in the school clinic. He knows that she is (was?) the girlfriend of Honey, founder of the Little Park Gang, who is in hiding somewhere in the south after killing a rival in a gang fight, so he deliberately represses his interest in her. But their nascent relationship (which eventually flowers after Honey returns and is murdered by the leader of the 217 Gang) drags Xiao Si’r into involvement in the city’s escalating gang feuds. And on the stormy night which sees an all-out bloody attack on the 217 Gang, Xiao Si’r returns home to discover that his father has been hauled off for grilling about links with Communists. The boy’s situation is complicated further by official disapproval of what is seen as his under-age romance.

This outline may suggest something of the film’s narrative complexity, but it cannot begin to evoke the way Yang interweaves the central relationship between Xiao Si’r and Ming with other characters and relationships to produce a comprehensive picture of a society in submerged crisis. There was a real-life teenage murder incident in Taipei in 1960, but Yang is not interested in dredging up the facts of the case in the cause of period reportage or in recreating images from his childhood memories for their own sake. His film aims to dissect the roots of a malaise, the problems that afflicted his parents’ generation as well as his own, and it is essential to his method that nothing in the story – the climactic murder least of all – should be reducible to a single, symbolic meaning. On the contrary, he needs a sense of social profusion to make his point that Taiwan’s problems were pervasive and not easily grasped at the time. This is the one valid point of comparison between A Brighter Summer Day and Hou Xiaoxian’s film A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi, 1989); both films look back to ‘vanished’ periods in Taiwan’s past and aim to define them in ways that would have eluded those living through them. Since neither period was exactly happy for the island or its people, this work is what Germans would call Trauerarbeit.

Non-Chinese viewers will need at least a sketchy sense of the historical and political background to get to grips with the film’s implications, if not its emotional thrust. The island of Taiwan reverted to Chinese rule when the Japanese surrendered in 1945 (it had been a Japanese colony for around 50 years, and much of its social infrastructure – from the school system to the design of houses – was essentially Japanese). China’s KMT (Nationalist) leader Chiang Kai-Shek moved quickly to take control of Taiwan, perhaps foreseeing that the island would become his bolt hole in the event of a Communist victory in the Civil War. When that victory came, in 1949, there was a massive exodus of people, capital, antiques and material resources from the Mainland to the island. Since then, Taiwan has been the last bastion of the old ‘Republic of China’.

In the 50s, Taiwan became an American colony in all but name. The Korean War and the consequent Cold War with China necessitated the stationing of large numbers of US troops on the island, and they brought with them music, movies, comics and all the other flotsam of American popular culture. Their presence also fuelled the growing anti-Communist paranoia, resulting in a series of spy-scares like the one shown in the film. At the same time, there was constant tension between native Taiwanese (not so much the island’s oppressed ethnic minorities as the Chinese who had been settling there for some three centuries) and the newly arrived Mainlanders, who reserved power and privilege for themselves. And this, in turn, produced predictable rivalries and feuds between Taiwanese and Mainlander street gangs made up of disaffected kids with no higher aim than to fight for territory and supremacy. Behind the rise of the violent street gangs lay the fact that war and political upheavals had shattered the traditional Chinese ‘extended family’ for many of Taiwan’s residents. In the absence of the old familial constraint, kids were suddenly comparatively free to run wild, get laid, play Elvis Presley songs and get into gang fights.

Meticulously recreating the Taipei of 1960, A Brighter Summer Day offers an extraordinarily detailed cross-section of this turbulent society, using each of its many leading characters as a thread through the labyrinth. Ming, for example, comes from a broken family; her father is dead, she is an only child, and her ailing mother works as a housemaid to support herself and her daughter. This background helps to explain Ming’s problems with boyfriends (“You’re like all the others,” she tell Xiao Si’r when she finally walks away from him, “You just want to change me”), but it also shows her as a victim of circumstances any earlier Chinese generation would have known how to resolve. Or take Ming’s sometime boyfriend Honey, on the run from a murder rap and deeply dissatisfied with his brother Deuce’s temporary leadership of the Little Park Gang. Honey clings to romantic and hopelessly dated notions of gang life (he has even read War and Peace, taking it as a generic swordplay novel), and his death is as inevitable and, arguably, as tragic as the collapse of an old code of honour in a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster movie.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

The phenomenal thing about Yang’s film is that it sustains this breadth of characterisation and sociological colour across its entire dramatis personae. Not a single person, however peripheral, is denied his or her autonomy as a character or forced into a crude stereotype. Crucial to achieving this is not only Yang’s respect and affection for his characters, but also his cool, measured visual style. The film is composed almost entirely in elegant wide-angle shots, most of them with a fixed frame, that leave the characters and audience room to breathe. There is no attempt to force the viewer into identification with any particular character, and neither is there any overt emotional manipulation. The visual compositions exactly match the plotting, in that both insist on seeing people and events in a wider context.

In this schema, the insecurities Xiao Si’r feels at home are mirrored precisely by his directionlessness at school and on the streets. At home, he is surrounded by women (his mother and three sisters) and lacks viable male role models. He reveres his father, only to see him and his faith in willpower humbled by political circumstances; he has no relationship to speak of with his elder brother Lao Er, who is the kind of academic achiever Xiao Si’r himself has so far failed to be. Mr Zhang’s fundamental problem is that his personal decency in a deeply corrupt society has tended to isolate him and leave him impotent; in Chinese terms he has little or no guanxi (connections, the traditional Chinese network of friendship and mutual obligation that trumps all questions of merit and moral justice) and the only influential ‘friendship’ he can claim is ironically the one that lands him in political trouble.

Xiao Si’r tries to cement ‘connections’ of his own outside the family, but has no more luck than his father. He hangs out with junior members of the Little Park Gang and is happy to prevail on his sister to transcribe baffling English lyrics from American records for the gang’s rock’n’roll band, but instinctively he’s drawn to other loners like himself. The one who impresses him most is himself doomed to be shoved aside by history: Honey, the arch-romantic. Ma, the sharp kid who arrives in school with a killer reputation and a highly privileged family background, proves a poor substitute, despite his access to guns, rifles and samurai swords. Xiao Si’r ultimately has to fend for himself in his attempt to build a relationship with Ming, and he finds the going tough. After all, he’s only 14.

There’s another frame of reference in which Yang’s film shines as an heroic achievement: that of present-day production in Taiwan. The late 80s saw the virtual demise of the Taiwan film industry for a number of related reasons. First, the ending of martial law and consequent moves towards a more genuine democracy changed government attitudes to the propaganda value of movies, and the KMT-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation (long the largest single investor in film production and the strongest production/distribution/exhibition company) halted most of its activities; it is now more interested in funding an overseas Chinese director like Ang Lee (Li An) than in rebuilding the production system at home. Second, as Taipei surrendered to an increasingly reckless ‘boom-town’ mentality, scores of technicians left the film industry to take up more lucrative jobs elsewhere, diminishing the pool of available labour to vanishing point. Third, as the government relaxed its restrictions on contacts with Mainland China, financiers turned their attention to the possibilities of production there, often working with Mainland directors and writers. And fourth, the Taiwan public grew markedly more interested in Hong Kong movies than in domestic productions, and the Taiwan theatre circuits were happy to fill their screens with imported Hong Kong product. All of this conspired to slow Taiwanese production to a trickle.

Edward Yang responded to this decline in two ways: he established his own independent production company (Yang and his Gang, Filmmakers) with a small group of like-minded friends, and he took up a teaching post in Stan Lai’s drama department at the National Institute for the Arts. Both moves fed into the making of A Brighter Summer Day. The company set about raising finance from a variety of hitherto untapped sources – including, eventually, the Japanese media giant MICO, an offshoot of the national broadcaster NHK. And the institute yielded an enormous pool of hitherto untapped talent: Yang found among his students dozens of the people who would become substantial collaborators on the making of the film. He notes that 75 per cent of the cast and more than 60 per cent of the crew had never worked on a film before, and the majority of these people (including co-writers Yan Hongya and Yang Shunqing, both of whom also act in the film) came from the institute. In short, Yang found and trained virtually all the personnel he needed to make the film with him.

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Initiatives of this kind sound par for the independent film-making course until you remember that A Brighter Summer Day is not only mounted on an epic scale, but is also as fully achieved technically as anything out of any functioning studio system. Like his characters, though, Yang has to pay a certain price for his ‘loner’ status. Journalists visiting Taiwan to report on the film culture that has produced such talents as Yang and Hou Xiaoxian routinely come back with tales of bitching and back-biting from contemporaries; several prominent critics, writers and former collaborators are no longer on speaking terms with Yang. This syndrome is familiar enough in English film circles, and so perhaps it should be no surprise to find something similar in Taiwan. But happily, the predominantly youthful Taiwan audience seems to have appreciated A Brighter Summer Day, and the film was one of the most successful Taiwanese releases of its year. It is pleasant to report that Yang is vindicated as much by commercial success as by his own single-minded determination to get his vision on the screen.

Taipei, June 1992

A three-hour cut of A Brighter Summer Day (more tightly focused on Xiao Si’r and Ming than the integral version) won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo Film Festival Iast October. Since then, Yang has premiered the integral, four-hour version at the Hong Kong Film Festival, and is dividing his time between the institute, where he has co-conceived and directed a short play with his students (Likely Consequence, since recorded on video), preparations for his next feature, and travel overseas to promote A Brighter Summer Day. I catch him in his newly expanded office in Taipei, fresh from a visit to Seoul, and invite him to think back over the experience of making his magnum opus. This is a heavily edited version of what he has to say:

Edward Yang during the shooting of A Brighter Summer Day

“Our reaction to the real-life murder back in 1960 was that it wasn’t a big deal. There were fights all the time: the massacre of the 217 Gang in the film is based on an actual event. This murder seemed only a little more serious, though it did surprise everyone in the school – maybe because it wasn’t very acceptable to go dating at the time, especially for younger kids. But I found that the incident stayed with me, and when I began researching it I found that most of my contemporaries remembered it clearly too, whereas older people had forgotten it. And l began to realise that this was because all of us had sympathy with the kid involved. It could have happened to any one of us.

“I happened to know a number of people closely associated with the boy, and so I was able to research the fact of the case in some detail. But only for a very short period did I feel any need to be faithful to the facts; it soon became clear that it wasn’t simply a question of what had happened to this specific boy and girl. Once l realised that, I was free to construct a fictional family for him, and to create the other characters as well. In fact, the other writers and l built up detailed psychological profiles and personal histories for virtually every character in the film. If someone asked me to make a 300-episode TV series about these people, I’d have the material to do it.

“In actuality, the boy was a member of the gang. But my philosophy of storytelling is that it’s not interesting when a bad guy kills someone or when a good guy does something good; it gets interesting only when a good guy does bad things or vice versa. lf Xiao Si’r belonged to a gang and killed someone, the entire focus would be blurred. The real-life girl had a background very similar to the one I gave Ming; that’s why I had such sympathy for her. Just about all the native Taiwanese at the time still had close family ties. whereas the Mainlanders arrived detached from their old family structures. Ming’s is an extreme case in point. For a girl that age to have no security, no obvious future…

“Gangs have always existed in Chinese society, as they do today. They exist because they fulfil a need; the Chinese have never been able to structure justice or law enforcement very well, and so there are always lots of holes in the system that need to be filled at local level. Sometimes I think that’s a positive thing, but maybe I’m just romanticising it. China’s history is full of strong central governments that failed to understand the immediate needs of local people, and communities always found ways to fill that vacuum. And so I think that secret societies and gangs are very characteristic of Chinese culture.

“American influence meant a lot to my generation, particularly to kids from Mainland families (like me), who found themselves detached from their roots. Learning to stand on our own feet, we found plenty to identify with in American individualism. At the time, of course, America had the world’s dominant popular culture. Everywhere else was still in the process of rebuilding after the war. Also, you have to remember that no one in China ever thought that we’d win the war. The Chinese government never really had a plan to win. And when it was all suddenly over, thanks to the US, the American forces in Taiwan inevitably represented a kind of stability. The image of America as a model modern country grew strong. And America was always fresh. If you tuned into a rock’n’roll show on US Force Radio, there’d be a new Number One every week. Whereas if you tuned to a Chinese music station, you’d hear the same thing over and over again.

“When people ask me what the murder has to do with the political climate, I always say: ‘Go back and watch it again!’ Actually, if you follow the main characters through the story, it’s clear enough that the film’s ‘hidden’ meaning has to do with conformity and non-conformity. Xiao Si’r and his father are both loners, and it was inevitable at the time that anyone with a conscience, anyone with honour, would become a loner. In Chinese history, or at least recent history, it has always been the educated class that suffered worst. It happened in Taiwan in the late 40s, when most of the Taiwanese elite was eliminated; it happened during the political purges of the martial law period; it happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the film, Zhang gets into trouble because he relies on his supposed friendship with the official Wang, but if it hadn’t been that it would have been something else. That’s the tragic thing about being educated, decent and conscientious in times like those.

“In structuring the film, we looked for ironies and tried to set up connecting chains of action and reaction. For example, would-be usurper Sly might start something, and the consequences would have to relate to what happens to Ming. We tried to anchor it by tying characters to particular events, but each strand was designed to contribute to the scope of what we were building up. It took us some time to work it all out. Even though the full version runs four hours, l think it’s very lean. My rough-cut was 20 minutes longer, and if I hadn’t cut those 20 minutes out it would have been flabby.

“What’s fundamentally wrong with the film business in Taiwan these days is the logic behind it. I can well understand the logic behind the Hong Kong film business: they have every reason to exist and function as they do. But the logic here is totally ridiculous. The government is now talking about providing subsidies or loans, but their motivation makes no sense and the regulation are full of loopholes. Anyhow, government intervention in film-making is clearly designed to benefit producers and their own Government Information Office more than creative people. The rules are basically intended to encourage a certain type of conformity. The underlying problem is that Taiwan’s film industry has never had any real relationship with the mainstream economy. One of the things I’m trying to do is to go with the mainstream of the economy. I think that strategy gives the industry its only hope of a future.

“My next feature will be called The Age of Independence, and it’s a comedy about modern young people in Taipei. After the collapse of the USSR, when all those small republics became independent, the issue of Taiwan’s ‘independence’ from China came up again, partly stirred up by the Americans. I found the whole situation rather comical, not least because we’ve seen the consequences of ‘independence’ before in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. Our story brings the issues down to a very human level, because everyone wants ‘independence’ in some sense. That’s what I want to explore in the film.”

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Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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