Wednesday 13 June 2018 4.57pm
A Brighter Sadder Summer Day 2018
A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
An Edward Yang Film
Top 100 Films –
A Brighter Summer Day is equal #84 with Metropolis (1927) and Sátántangó (1994) in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll
A Brighter Summer Day is equal #107 with Sátántangó and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles amongst others in the 2012 BFI Directors Poll
Edward Yang’s drama begins in Summer, 1959 but spends most of its time in 1960 and the following three years. In the first scene, Xiao Si’r’s father is pleading with school adminstrators to check the exam results for Si’rs Chinese Literature course. He says that Si’r’s results in every other subject are close to 100, so how could he get just 50 in this particular test. While they sympathize with him and say they will check, but they have a policy of not allowing anyone outside to see a finished exam paper. The result of this bad grade means that he will end up in Night Shool.
Intertitles explain some background to how things got to be the way they are in Taipei in the 1960s. “Millions of mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan in 1949 with the Nationalist government after its defeat in the civil war by the Chinese Communists. Their children were brought up in any uneasy atmosphere created by their parents’ uncertainty about the future. Many formed street gangs to search for an identity and to strengthen their sense of security.”
Night School is a where the juvenile delinquents tend to congregate. Si’r is a good boy from a decent family, he’s not in a gang, but this is where his life starts to turn for the worse. It begins with being bullied and pushed around but grows worse when he becomes friendly with a schoolgirl who is the girlfriend of the Little Park Boys gang leader who is hiding from the authorities, Honey. Rumours start spreading about Si’r and Ming, and Sly, who has taken over the leadership from Honey develop an adversarial relationship and we’re introduced to Shandong who leads the other main gang, the 217s.
Yang’s screenplay (which he co-wrote) is rich and full of so many dimensions and layers, ranging from the political situation which the parents have experienced when they fled China after the civil war put the Communists in power, to the political situation which is mirrored in the lives of teenagers fighting their own civil war. There’s no particular reason for the gangs to be fighting each other for turf other than the fact that that’s what teenage boys do. Violence comes with membership, fuelled by testosterone. It is a couple of hours into the film before we learn what may lie behind this particular hatred between the Little Park Boys and the 217s when Honey turns up. He’s been hiding out with an older criminal element because it is believed he killed a member of the 217s. Now that he’s back in town he finds that he’s lost his position and place of power. His old gang are firmly behind Sly as leader now and Honey becomes belligerent and antagonistic towards everyone at a combined event, a concert, where the two gangs have briefly managed to set aside their differences. This brief truce is shattered when Shandong murders Honey, coinciding with the halfway point of the film.
The film gently and insightfully explores the emotional life of several of the teenage characters, particularly Sly, Cat, Si’r, Ming and Jade. The changeable emotions of children who are turning into young men and women and the difficulty of handling those situations conjunction with school life, home life and leisure, is particularly, and often sadly, illustrated.
Life in a gang is more than a distraction because teenagers are bored or have the desire to become powerful. It is a way of attempting to control the course of one’s own life. The violence and the destruction is a mixture of misguided values and a few hotheads leading others astray.
One of the great ironies and pleasures of the scenario is that there is a musical element to the film. Cat and Sly love to sing American songs. When they’re singing, the bravado and belligerence drops away. When they stop singing, Sly, in particular, immediately becomes a mean son-of-a-bitch – an badly behaved gang member again – after just singing so sublimely.
The film balances the feelings of kids who feel they have little or no control over where their life is headed. Like the Chinese people who suffered at the hands of both sides of the Civil War, there’s an inherent belief that people with power control the destiny of people without power.
When Si’r is arrested, the policeman doesn’t recognise him and says, “Strange. I don’t know this one. What gang is he with? I know every one of these assholes in town.”
The police find a letter in his pocket: “Dear Sis. I’m sorry. I know you’re the only one who understands. Please help explain to Mom and Dad in case I never see you again.”
It ends, ‘In the summer of 1961, Xiao Si’r received the death sentence from the District Court of Taipei. Being the first juvenile homicide case in Taiwan under nationalist, government rule, the case and sentence were wiely debated. The District High Court later commuted the sentence to to 15 years in prison. Xiao Si’r was released from prison shortly before his 30th birthday.
Gangs are a strong and obvious metaphor for people – an entire race – who are frustrated by their lack of having a voice. They’re beaten into submission by a system which is autocratic and authoritarian or run by dictators. The only way to be heard or to make a difference is to do something that is so brutal or out of character that it startles everyone so their apathy is interrupted.