Whenever I watch Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day at any moment of my life, something flashes back into my head – it is a memory of a happy moment of my life. At this point of my life, it hits me even harder because I have just hit the age of eighteen years old. Before I hit this moment, I was afraid more than anything. I was especially afraid because I just felt deep down that I wasn’t ready to hit such a moment of my life. Entering adulthood, I felt I wasn’t ready to leave moments of my life that defined what I am right now behind. Of course, I was going to keep them as memories, but even then, they still feel missing. I reflect back upon Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and its portrait of the youth finding themselves, and I think to myself that somewhere, I’m seeing a life experience coming back to me. As a result, my love for A Brighter Summer Day has only heightened. At four hours, what Edward Yang leaves behind is a search that entrances while it still lasts.
Edward Yang’s film is loosely based upon a true crime that the film director remembers from his youth, in which a 14-year-old murders his girlfriend and was involved with a gang leader for reasons that have been unclear. Set in late 50’s-early 60’s Taiwan, what we are also being presented in here is a time in which the nation had been searching for an identity. It was a decade after the people had fled from China after the People’s Republic had taken over, and during this moment, the citizens of Taiwan had adopted a different form of culture from the West in order to separate themselves from China. From here, I’m watching things unfold as if I’m another person within the background being a key witness to another search for what defines one as they are, when we watch Xiao Si’r’s story taking place in A Brighter Summer Day.
There are films that show what adolescence is like on the screen, and then there are films like A Brighter Summer Day – something which hits especially when you come to remember how you feel like you are not ready to enter a new world, and you are still finding yourself. Xiao Si’r is a teenager like most others, he still suffers from the pressure of his peers and harassment from others, but we are always drawn to his character arc. All the stress comes together in order to transform him into what he has become by the very end of the film, but in part, Edward Yang is also showing the downfall of this stage of life – for Xiao Si’r was an ordinary teen unready for what challenges his future has set for him, something which I have always been in fear of, only having turned eighteen years of age. I was in fear that if freedom were to enter my own hands, I would not keep it as controlled as I should be and I would put my own self at risk.
It also helps that the film derives its title from Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” It’s clever how Edward Yang incorporates this song into the work, because it also encapsulates the tragedy to which the film is about. While the actions of Xiao Si’r certainly are indefensible, there’s something about the way that Yang portrays him that I find so resonant – it is because it is a period in which I am afraid of when we are about to let go of our adolescence and enter the world of adulthood. We lose control over ourselves because of this newly gained freedom after adolescence – something which I have been in fear of the moment I finished another year of high school. We root so much of the good moments inside of our head, we just can’t let imagine what it would be if we go past what we have pictured as a “brighter summer day,” the time in which we recognize our happiness in our lives. As Elvis Presley’s song went, “Does your memory stray to a brighter summer day?” And every time I hear it now, all because of this film, I think back to what made me so much happier when I was younger.
Edward Yang’s method of storytelling is yet another one of the film’s grandest aspects. In four hours, it shows how Taiwan as a whole was trying to separate itself from China yet at the same time, they are finding themselves. It adopts a narrative that feels like that of any film that would come out from Hollywood, recognizing of their tendency to adopt from Western culture, which is one of the many themes to which Edward Yang manages to fit so perfectly inside of every second of A Brighter Summer Day. Never does it drag, for Edward Yang uses every small moment in order to recollect these memories of togetherness and sadness, especially within how he encapsulates the picture of gang members all looking just like one another, showing how individuals are instead remembered as collective as opposed to just one.
When I first saw A Brighter Summer Day, I was so overwhelmed to my very core because I could not even put into words what I have been witnessing this whole time. I was witnessing something that I’m afraid to let go of, how guided all of it had been through all of these years as I had been growing up. It still hits me because I’m afraid that with all of the freedom I am about to acquire after entering adulthood, I’m afraid I might still disappoint in the way Xiao Si’r’s downfall had brought him into. I just know that as I’m entering a new stage of my life, I’m going to be missing something incredibly deeply, and it still leaves me in worry because I don’t want to end up a disappointment – whether it be to my own family members or my friends.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Edward Yang
Screenplay by Edward Yang, Hong-ya Yan, Ming-tang Lai, Shun-ching Yang
Produced by Wei-yen Yu
Starring Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elaine Jin
Release Year: 1991
Running Time: 237 minutes