A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang)

“You women, you know nothing about friendships between men. Besides being suspicious, what else are you good for?”


Edward Yang died two weeks ago. The least I can do is watch his extremely acclaimed four-hour movie from ’91 that I bought on bootleg DVD almost four years ago and never watched before.

Unfortunately, “there are over a hundred speaking parts in the film and it is necessary to stay focused in order to keep track of what’s going on and to whom, which is a good trick to make sure your audience is always paying attention” (KS Kincaid). And my copy is a fuzzy bootleg disc from a decent-quality print. Not many close-ups and picture resolution is just poor enough that I usually can’t tell who is who. I try to latch on whenever someone says a character’s name, so I struggled somewhat through the storyline and lost many of the side characters and threads. Also there’s the occasional close-up on a letter or page with no subtitle translation. Criterion has done Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, so maybe there’s enough interest that this will get an eventual nice release.


Set in Taiwan in the early 60’s during military rule, an uneasy time according to the intro text, when many kids formed street gangs to strengthen their sense of identity and security. I sort of lost the gang thread, but kept up with lead character Sir and his family (gov’t worker dad, mom, younger sister, MIA older brother Honey) and friends (Cat & Airplane, girlfriend Ming), so when the bloody nighttime gang war (lit only with flashlights during a blackout) comes a half hour into disc two, I wasn’t sure who was slaughtering who, or how come it wasn’t a big deal to anyone the next day after a bunch of people had been killed. Instead, the secret police round up Sir’s dad and subject him to at least one full day and night of questioning and confessions and statements at an ominous ice factory.


Ming is actually Honey’s girl, but ends up briefly with Sir. After he gets expelled, she ends up with one of his friends, and is rumored to never have been faithful to Honey in the first place. Sir kills her with young Cat’s sword, a shocking action, but not as senseless as it first seems, given Sir’s history of violence, his idols and friends, everything leading up to the killing.


During more innocent times, the kids watch a John Wayne movie (?), send tapes to Elvis Presley, and hang out at the film studio next to the school.


The line “Honey’s dead” was probably not inspired by the Jesus & Mary Chain album of that title.

I’m interested in what people who understood the movie better than I did thought.

IMDB reviewer:

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, casual dress, the influence of Hollywood motion picture magazines and movies, the voice of John Wayne can be heard in one of the movie theaters, the title of the film comes from the Elvis Presley song, `Are You Lonesome Tonight,’ a comment on the dark cloud hanging over everyone’s heads, hardly a brighter, summer day.

“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.”

“The film is so meticulous in its construction and its feeling of community (its preparation, filming and post-production took several years) that at the same time its length automatically gives it an epic quality it is a remarkably intimate film that is about as far from an epic in the traditional (Hollywood) sense as possible.”

“Like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day is not a political film but a work of art that shows how individual experience is impacted by the flow of time and history.”

“The film is laced with nostalgia, but never at the expense of intelligence. He deftly creates a manifesto here that sums up his volatile, often conflicting, attitudes about his country’s modern history. Watching the film, with its seemingly limitless ability to examine the country, one laments the fact that every developing nation doesn’t have a storyteller as gifted as Yang probing the history of its progress.” (Movie Martyr)

Senses of Cinema on Yi Yi: “The film conveys a magnificent sense of life being lived, of time taking its toll on these characters as we watch them, unmatched in world film outside two of the other pre-eminent auteurs of Third World cinema: Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Yang is gifted with a remarkable sense of framing, alternating between a tighter framing that glimpses into the characters’ interior lives, and a more idiosyncratic framing that removes the characters from the immediacy of the close-up, and inserts physical-psychological-mental space between us and them.”

J. Rosenbaum also compares Taiwanese Yang and Hou with Kiarostami (as well as Makhmalbaf). “Part of what’s valuable about these four directors is what’s also made their films relatively unmarketable here–meditative narrative rhythms combined with a preference for long shots and medium shots over close-ups, an approach that both assumes and encourages analytical distance rather than simple immersion in the action.” “I have no doubt that the 230-minute version of A Brighter Summer Day… belongs in the company of key works of our era. … Indeed, Yang’s film surpasses these other masterpieces in its novelistic qualities, richly realizing a physical and social world as dense with family, community, and other personal ties as any John Ford film, and furnished with more sheer physical presence (including characters, settings, and objects) than any other fiction film I know of from the 90s.”

Oh wow, the actor who played Sir later appeared in Happy Together, Three Times and Crouching Tiger, played Mimi’s boyfriend in 2046 and the lead in Wong’s The Hand.

Hope I get to see this again sometime with better picture clarity… would be worth the trouble.