For about a day, my favorite theatrical cinematic experience of the year-to-date was my revelatory umpteenth encounter with Godard's Band of Outsiders at the IFC Center Saturday. But then I found myself in a packed house at Walter Reade Theater the next day for the unveiling of the World Cinema Foundation-funded restoration of the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang's 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day, as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comments Selects series. Having never seen any of Yang's work—not even his highly celebrated Yi Yi (2000)—I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
After four mesmerizing hours in the dark, Yang proceeded to knock Godard out of the park.
With the richness of a great novel, Yang, in A Brighter Summer Day, weaves a densely interwoven human tapestry set in Taiwan in 1961. Apparently, even over a decade after the Chinese Communists' victory on the mainland in 1949 forced some of those Chinese to flee to Taiwan, the country was still in something of a transitional phase in '61, an unsettled state reflected by the complex emotional, familial, interpersonal and political ties Yang so precisely and patiently details.
Much of the focus is on the children in this particular town, who, as a title card explains early on in the film, have resorted to forming street gangs in order to curb their insecurity and lack of control. That insecurity and confusion manifests itself most acutely in Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen), who, being raised in an environment filled with violence, the threat of violence and general unruliness, experiences crises of moral, religious and even sexual bewilderment that gradually build up to an explosive act of violence at its climax.
Xiao Si'r could be considered the film's central character, but the film focuses on a such a wide array of characters around him that it ultimately feels far wider in its purview than that one character. In fact, so detailed is its milieu and so telling are its characterizations that A Brighter Summer Day creates an entire immersive environment, one which becomes as familiar to us over its four hours as it does to the characters within the film. But Yang is as attentive to micro details as he is to the bigger picture; his preference for medium- and long shots and lengthy takes observes this world with an intimacy that is often breathtaking.
The result is a film that astonishes with Yang's depth of vision; his dizzying attention to literary and visual detail; his empathetic warmth toward his characters, and above all, his wisdom about human nature, especially under the stress of forces—be it historical, political, societal or otherwise—far beyond his characters' control. A Brighter Summer Day is a film of epic scope that amazes not with its grandeur but with its intimacy. It's rare that a film is so masterfully composed and closely observant that, by the end, you'll have not only understood that a character arc has occurred, but have also felt it in your gut, and gotten a vivid sense of the forces behind such a change.
I don't even think I have even begun to do justice to this monumental film. Suffice it to say, I was held in Edward Yang's grip for all of its four hours, never bothering to look down at my watch once (usually a good sign, in my book), rapturously held by the human dramas playing out onscreen, and marveling at the nearly pristine quality of the newly restored print. After the final credits rolled and the lights came up, I walked out of Walter Reade feeling as if I had just been in the welcome presence of a warm and wise man, eager to impart hard-earned wisdom about humanity, yet not so much interested in pushing that wisdom on us as allowing us to arrive at it through oceans of personal experience (Yasujiro Ozu is the only other director off the top of my head whose films inspire similar impressions.) I'm already eagerly awaiting another chance at this grand panorama; there's so much one can learn about the world around us from a film like this, and the only way to glean its insights may well be to see it as many times as possible. A Brighter Summer Day may be specifically about a year in the history of Taiwan, but its implications and emotions are absolutely universal.
A Brighter Summer Day isn't available on commercial DVD; you can, however, purchase a (by all accounts decent-quality) laserdisc rip here. But by all means, keep your eyes peeled for a theatrical screening; it's worth experiencing its feel of real life magnified on a big screen.
Here, as a teaser of sorts, is the first nine minutes of the film, thanks to an intrepid user on YouTube: