Monday, April 25, 2016
#804: A Brighter Summer Day
"You can't even tell real from fake. How can you make movies?"
Art is objects made to look like symbols, or perhaps the other way around. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. In cinema, this takes the form of actors and sets and music and title cards, but the most interesting thing in film has always been the illusion of fantasy made real; the rudimentary science fiction of A Trip to the Moon; the Depression-fighting glamour of The Thin Man; the television-fighting Christian epics of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur; the current kid-fantasy comic book deluge. All of these genres are wildly different and intended for different audiences. But they represent the history of cinema as an artform primarily concerned with the artificial and imagined conceits of society turned literal on screen.
The real and the fake constantly bleed together in Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, his four-hour masterwork finally available in the US on home video (or any kind of wide release) after 25 years of bad bootlegs and fleeting repertory screenings. The blurring starts at the top. Taiwan itself is a simulacrum of China, a "republic" in exile, convinced that it will return to claim its country. The generation that lost China's civil war, represented as parents in the film, dreams of retaking the mainland, yet seems more intent on displaying to themselves their readiness than actually delivering on it - a false show of force rather than the implementation of it.
The implications of this myth - and the dependence upon it - are all around the characters of the film, despite the fact that the movie's core story is not overtly political. S'ir's family lives in a house formerly occupied by the Japanese, a constant reminder that Taiwan is a nation in flux and without the ever-present history of their former country. Tanks roll down the street to nowhere in particular. The night school S'ir is demoted to uses military-style uniforms that mask the ganglife reality of its students (a layer of deceit later extended by Honey's return, where he wears a military uniform to avoid the police).
Within this context, it's no wonder that S'ir and his classmates would turn to American culture, a worldview created by the children of immigrants in a land where tradition is constantly erased. Elvis's disciples in the film, particularly Cat, present renditions of his work that are difficult to visually reconcile: young Chinese men and boys singing like, posturing like, hoping to move like American rock-and-rollers. Cat, subtly one of the most important characters in the movie, does not understand the words but uses phonetic translations of the music to recreate nearly perfect renditions. Is it "a brighter summer day" that Elvis sings, S'ir's sister wonders? The film's English title, it seems, could itself crumble under closer scrutiny.
S'ir and Ming are the false lovers at the center of this story of misunderstood run-ins and quiet injustices. The relationship is built out of imagined connections, mainly because Ming is so obtuse that she allows any boy (or man, in the case of the doctor) to ascribe to her whichever need they have the urge to satisfy. In the case of S'ir, this plays out as the role of protector. Ming's early acquiescence to this dynamic illustrates the typical peril women face in innocent games; what is taken as flirtation and innocence by S'ir is actually Ming's defense against the already typical pull men feel toward her. In Ming's shoes, their interactions are superficially meaningful. She is drawn to S'ir because she thinks he doesn't want precisely what her attention is stirring within him. Look at the final crime that brings their dalliances to a final tragedy: S'ir does not intend to stab her until the very moment he does it. This crime of passion was originally (presumably) intended for Ma (whose own power over Ming by employing her mother casts further tragic light on the girl's facility for choice outside the intentions men place on her). Even this most-real moment is something far different than it looks. As S'ir stands over Ming's body, with the surrounding shoppers as oblivious to what has just happened as they are to the world of teenage games that we've lived with for nearly four hours, he looks down and screams at her that she is not dead. It's hope for reality to pull him out of his nightmare despite the fact that we know it's the other way around.
This final moment couldn't have come without the interrogation S'ir's father experiences. In the most jarring narrative shift in the film, Yang cuts from the white-knuckled terror of the pool hall massacre to the White Terror of Taiwan's purging of suspected Communist sympathizers. This rug pull is addressed in the essay accompanying the Criterion release, though Rayns seems to take it at face value. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Yang timed the massacre for the halfway point of his epic, nor does it seem surprising that he would follow it with the rest of S'ir's world crumbling around him; this film is a symmetrical arc with a second half that descends into emotional chaos for father and son alike. But the fact that Yang chooses to avoid any of the immediate aftermath of the massacre is the mark of a true storyteller. Like, Ozu, Hitchcock, or Resnais, Yang knows when his viewer can make a narrative jump more elegantly than the average filmmaker does. And here, too, the film's reality bumps up against artifice.
S'ir's father is of course a good citizen of the Republic of China. Though he's taken the same kind of hit most middle class former Chinese men have in the move to Taiwan, there's no indication in the film that he regrets his decision. We even meet a woman whose husband opted out, returning to Mao's China in the 50s to attempt to open up the country during the Hundred Flowers Campaign. This is also why Zhang is interrogated, of course. He happened to be friends with the wrong people, who are really just the people that anyone would know in a messy separation like that of the Communist revolution (mirroring the lower stakes HUAC era in the States). Zhang is a true citizen of Taiwan's Chinese government, yet fear of Communism has turned citizens into spies. Zhang's friend Wang talks a big game, but it's not clear if he is able to back up this posturing; S'ir's mother wonders aloud to her husband if he wasn't behind the kidnapping himself. The ultimate façade crumbles as Zhang is pulled from his interrogation room to glance in on another interrogation - just like his own - taking place in the next room over. It's an assembly line of false confessions, designed to blur the line between truth and fiction and serve up a generation of traitors to excuse the sorry state of the resistance, long since exiled to a tropical island.
As the film's devices extend into metaphor, so too does the push and pull between real and fake. The most overt example of this is the flashlight, a wonderful display of Yang's deliberate plotting and delicate hand with symbolism. S'ir steals the flashlight in the early moments of the film from the movie studio that sits next to his school. From there it winds its way through the plot as doggedly as S'ir himself, almost immediately playing a key role in illuminating Sly's makeout session, but then bleeding into events at school, encounters with Ming, and perhaps most notably in the chilling massacre S'ir is witness to at the pool hall. In the commentary included with the film, Rayns posits that S'ir initially intends to steal the flashlight simply to read in his bed. But this seems far-sighted for a clearly impulsive kid like S'ir, who likely just grabbed the first thing of value on the guard's desk when he was unattended to. Still, the ways in which S'ir (and others) use the flashlight are often childlike and innocent, even when what it reveals is more sinister. S'ir returns the flashlight (where he says the line at the beginning of this post) just before his final act; he's put away childish things and turned toward his fate.
Flashlights are frequently metaphors for truth, shining a light on what was dark. Yet their light is artificial, cutting through the natural darkness to glare at things that were meant to be hidden. The pool hall massacre takes place in the dark because the Taiwanese government is unable (or more likely unwilling) to keep the lights on. S'ir's flashlight cuts through this darkness to reveal the truth hidden by his government. As the tanks roll by, Ming turns the light on and off, bouncing the fake beams off the giant machines lumbering through their world. A war has become a game (just as the doctor accuses Ming of turning love into a game), and the normalization of violence persists. The flashlight's origin in the movie studio extends the metaphor: this light is from a temple of light, a place where without exposure there is nothing. The coincidence of the flashlight motif and the concept of a brighter summer day no longer seems so coincidental.
Yang's basic premise for A Brighter Summer Day, using a real-life tabloid murder from his childhood to construct a wholly fictionalized narrative about his and his father's generation, is filled with potential for exploring the battle between real and fake. Of course, the very nature of cinema, referenced literally in the studio subplot of the film and in the quotation at the beginning of this post, is ripe for examination of the duality - the technical process of individual frames implying motion is just as much of an illusion as the developed method of storytelling within the medium (editing, set design, acting, post manipulation, etc.). Yet there are many conscious and unconscious layers of narrative piled on top of reality. The film's Chinese title is "The Murder Incident of the Boy on Guling Street," yet the boy is not the boy (his used name in the film is not his "real" name in the movie - yet his "real" name is the real name of the actor who plays him, just as his fake father is played by his real father) and the street is not Guling street, but rather an elaborate set constructed for the film. Real-life events are either inserted into the film to anchor the fictional story to history (the Nixon/Kennedy election) or altered to fit the narrative's momentum (the massacre that serves as its turning point is loosely based on a real-life crime that occurred years after the film is set).
The concept can be extended to Yang's directorial style, one that was in line with many of his peers in New Taiwan Cinema. Long takes, amateur actors, and stories that detail the real lives and political context of everyday life are all devices frequently used to eliminate the "lies" of cutting, method acting, or wish-fulfillment and/or pure entertainment in mainstream films. This was not necessarily the conscious intention of these filmmakers, many of whom took their influences directly from previous titans like Ozu, whose frames within frames are on full display here, and Herzog, who showed Yang that film can be deeply personal and need not conform to commercial standards. But they nevertheless reject both Hollywood and what the filmmakers were seeing within their own industry, where romance pictures and war propaganda were being churned out by a tired studio system out of touch with the realities of second- and third-generation life in Taiwan.
The real/fake relationship can be felt everywhere in the film, both literally and metaphorically. The implications of this dichotomy, pulled throughout the film's mammoth running time, are less straightforward. What does this continual process of illuminating obscured truths say about the world Yang wants to depict? Rayns mentions on the commentary that Taiwan's history was tightly controlled through the first thirty years of its history under Chinese rule, to the point where huge massacres like the one that inspired the pool hall incident were not even covered in the paper. So perhaps Yang's intentions were political, a statement about the struggle of Taiwanese 2nd and 3rd generation children to decode their past. Told lies and half-truths for so long, it would seem cathartic to experience a film like A Brighter Summer Day. This political slant ties nicely into the rest of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, where films shed light on similarly papered-over but significant events like the February 28 Incident where thousands of native Taiwanese were massacred by the Chinese government.
However, I think Yang's intentions were much more personal, and therefore universal. At the end of his brilliant commentary, which, as would indicate its impressive scale, I've already referenced quite a bit, Tony Rayns says that he believes the film is about both father and son and their inability to reconcile their own personal system of beliefs with that of the authoritarian state under which they live. This is as good an explanation of the film's larger purpose as any that I have heard or read, but I'll offer one more.
A Brighter Summer Day seems to be not so much about the individual versus a social or political structure as it is about the fundamental nature of identity - "who am I?" not "how can I be myself?" The rocky path father and son find themselves on is not laid exclusively by the powers that be, but partially by their own doing. One of the key moments in the film is Zhang telling S'ir "if a person will apologize for the things he didn't do, he is capable of anything." This is directly relevant to the situation both find themselves in, where the father is accused of sympathies he does not harbor and the son is associated with the gangs to which he does not belong. But it's also indicative of their internal struggle to make a place in the world. Yang once said that the film was made to address the unspoken choice Taiwan must eventually make, to declare independence or reintegrate into China. Either approach is an acceptance of defeat, and for me this is why the film is not so much about the destruction of the individual as it is about the struggle for a moral and certain dignity within any state, though particularly an oppressive one.
In this regard, both men have fought a losing battle by the second half of the film. Zhang is a shadow of his former self walking home from his son's former school, recreating the scene from earlier where he laid down his stand against false confession. As Rayns notes, S'ir himself is pushed out of the film by the camera, depicted either outside the frame or with his back to us for the final stretch. This is not the oppression of the state - we've seen that come down on him for the first three hours of the film - but the elimination of identity, his final chance for redemption pushed aside with him. The movie opens with S'ir's fate being discussed by other people as he sits outside. The value of education in the world of the film makes clear the role the radio broadcasts of graduating students play in the film's bookends: this is tragedy of lost potential, of sacrifices made that were never redeemed. Of course, virtually none of the children we've met during the film will be included in any broadcast like the ones we hear, so there are certainly social implications here, the idea of a lost generation. But the continuation of the Zhang family's household chores (and the absence of the men) in the final moments points toward a more personal tragedy. S'ir's cinematic dissolution is a democratic call to Yang's generation, and a tribute to the failed struggle of his father's. These are statements with far-reaching political implications, but they apply first to the individual.
Many people have talked about the novelistic qualities of A Brighter Summer Day; the detail in the setting and plotting; the huge number of speaking parts; the many threads of story that are intertwined so tightly that the running time could not be reduced without sacrificing key moments, a rare case of a four-hour film without any fat. In the modern era, this is most reminiscent of the praise surrounding The Wire, David Simon's five-season examination of the American City at the turn of the 21st century. I am not the first to compare this film to The Wire (on the day of the blu-ray release, Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting made an illuminating comparison chart of gang names on Twitter) but I do so here because the theme of the individual within a system, as A Brighter Summer Day also alludes to, was at the heart of that show's run. But where the two works part ways is on the issues of identity that I think are so vital to the purpose of this movie.
Unlike the father and son of A Brighter Summer Day, the characters of The Wire were unapologetic about who they were. McNulty, the central character of the series, is almost wholly driven by his inability to play by the rules, yet the small amount of impact the wire has on both the drug system and/or policing in Baltimore comes directly from the supreme confidence in his own nature. In fact, attempting to pretend your identity can be altered is often punished. Many of the most significant deaths in The Wire - Wallace, Omar, Stringer - come when the character attempts to change and get out of "the Game." But their deaths do not come from the system, they come from their own conscious choices to drift back into their old habits, their true identities. There are of course exceptions to the rule; Bubbles and Pryzbylewski have significant character arcs in the show where their identity becomes an awakening. But these exceptions are intentional, and point to the insidious nature of the system, where expectation of even the most revolutionary individuals (McNulty, Marlo, Carcetti) is baked in.
Ultimately, The Wire is a cynical show, not about human nature but about the economic and political structures humans have created. People are people in The Wire, not good, not bad, but flawed and resilient. Partially because it's set in the past, A Brighter Summer Day is something else entirely. The individuals in the film have long since passed the point of change, but it's not too late for the 90s. The movie's events seem so detailed and familiar that they must be real. But they are not. They are constructed around a false memory and lost identity that does not need to be fate and the individual alone can transcend. Yang is telling the viewer that honesty can change Taiwan.
The comparison still continues to hold water because the superficial comparisons are also apparent - a portrait of society as told through its young gangs, storylines we enter midway with a narrative uninterested in providing exposition to ground the viewer, sprawling casts with fully realized biographies just offscreen. It's these elements that in many ways make the two works so appealing (and so seemingly authentic) to such a wide number of people, despite the fact that they never make any attempt to adjust people to lives of the characters - they simply are, and in so being, we recognize humanity. But these similarities - the ones that make them still so popular and vital to outsiders - belie the individuality of each work. These complex, richly symbolic narratives thrive on their dedication to the truth of their characters and the hyper-local world that surrounds them. Unsurprisingly, A Brighter Summer Day was embraced by the Taiwanese youth on its release, just as The Wire found favor with inner-city drug dealers in the 2000s. Specificity and detail go a long way toward tearing down the barriers between real and fake.
The basic premise of this blog (which was never expected to last long enough to need to stick to any sort of premise) is to record my thoughts immediately after my viewing of a film without any additions or editing beyond typos in a second pass-through (many don't even get this low level of editing as you may have noticed). I've broken this rule a handful of times, usually with something like Last Year at Marienbad or Shoah that affected me a great deal but required more reflection to translate my feelings into words (though both went largely unedited - I just took my time writing them). A Brighter Summer Day is so complex and thought out that both approaches seem unworthy of the movie, which is what prompted me to write what I have written here after seeing the film a second time with commentary and watching some of the extras, not to mention spending a few weeks sitting with it. While I don't consider the observations I've made here to be the final word on the meaning behind the film, I haven't seen this aspect of the movie explored yet, and I think it's an approach to the sprawling story told here that helps illuminate the psychology behind both this film and Taiwanese cinema in general. Any movie with such a rich tapestry of characters, plotlines, and consciously implemented symbols (the radio, the flashlight, the baseball bat, the use of knives and swords, basketball, Elvis, etc.) leaves room for many interpretations. But this is a particularly impressive feat here because Yang's execution is so detailed and both time- and place-specific.
I don't think any of us fully comprehend the impact this film will have in the coming decades now that it is widely available, not just to an American audience, but to international viewers (including those in China) who are willing to import it. Although Yang is not doing anything particularly revolutionary with his camera work or story structure, the complexity and depth of his achievement here unlock the door to cinematic perfection through brute force. Furthermore, his dedication to the world he constructed and his insistence on the specific without concern for internationally familiar context should serve as an inspiring roadmap for developing cinema all over the world. In the last Sight and Sound poll, A Brighter Summer Day ranked #84 overall and placed behind only In the Mood For Love in terms of Chinese films. I expect to see it grow in estimation with its newfound exposure, similar to the current #1 film (and long my go-to choice for my own personal favorite movie), Vertigo, which was also "lost" for decades. In fact, I expect to see this movie in the top ten by the 2032 poll. It's that good, that massive.
One final thing - I don't particularly care to compare the film to Yi Yi, Yang's more successful (internationally) and widely available final film, because they are very different works and are intended to reach the viewer in different capacities. That later movie had a deep emotional impact on me and it continues to be a personal favorite. A Brighter Summer Day is the more important film, however, and this Criterion release will cement its reputation as Yang's masterpiece. As this post likely implies to the reader, I'm perfectly fine with the distinction.