Directed by Edward Yang
Written by Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang & Edward Yang
When a film has a great reputation I stow it away on my Netflix queue for eventual viewing, knowing that somewhere down the line, when my mood is right, or my motives are right, I will venture into the new film with ambition and curiosity. Then there is A Brighter Summer Day. It is a Taiwanese film, which doesn’t necessarily make it obscure, especially considering the Criterion Collection has released another of the director’s works. But upon searching for it on Netflix it was nowhere to be found. Then I checked the Cincinnati Public library system. Not there either. I checked the University of Cincinnati library catalogue. Surely they would have it. Nope. I checked the Columbus Public library just for the heck of it, and not surprisingly it was absent from their lists. How can a film that has such a reputation be impossible to find!?
This is usually where I attempt to succinctly summarize the story, but I find the words difficult to come by, which is an additional surprise considering the film is a sprawling epic at nearly four hours long. The best that I can come up with is that rival street gangs in 1960s Taiwan clash. There are two more important characters running here as well. One is Sir, a young boy who is in night school, but his parents are fighting to place him in day school to be more successful. The other is a girl, Ming, who seems to be connected to the wrong people, especially considering she comes off as a sweet, pretty girl. Sir and Ming start to hit it off, but at the conflict of the two gangs, the 217s and the Little Park Gang.
I am sure I missed something between the language barrier and the length of the film, and let me take this first opportunity to say I need to see the film again, a theme which will weave its way throughout this review. I had the time to sit down with the film, which reminds me I guess I should explain how I did finally come about it. Let’s just say I have been prouder of my movie gathering methods in the past, but when there are no other sources, I am left with little choice as a movie lover. Which therein brings me to my next point: I need to see the film again, and more importantly it needs a legitimate release in the English speaking world (wink wink, nod nod to you Criterion). And the reason there is because this is an amazing film for its vision and its scope. It is a very nicely shot film, but the quality found in the picture is sub par, as is just about everything about the actual copy of the film, which like I said is a shame for such a big, obviously great film.
What amazed me most about the film was definitely the length, which I split into two separate viewings over the course of a day. Essentially I watched two, two hour long movies to consume the entire four hours, but to be honest with you it never felt that long. It seemed to just go by without time really passing, which is a compliment. It is not an action packed film, and is actually slow in its development, yet it never felt long. It actually felt like just a two hour movie but I think that is probably because of the craft and care with which Yang constructs the film. There is a fairly large cast of characters, but I enjoyed spending time with all of them. Heck, I almost even feel like I could have spent more time getting to know some of them. I was never really bored, which is crazy for a four hour movie. I need to see it again.
I have only ever seen one of Edward Yang’s films, Yi Yi, a similarly long film, and yet I can definitely feel the style of the director. He takes his time to set these characters up with context and feeling, which is something many people put on the back burner in favor of sex, violence, or just general pizzazz. Yang crafts really solid, slow gestating films which are vastly interesting. There is that word. Interesting. I am going to call myself on that because far too many times I use it, and it is way too general of a description, but honestly that is the best way to describe my experience here because it was general, I can’t really put my finger on what it was or why it was, but the film seemed much shorter than it should have been, and was much more engaging and enveloping that it should have been. If I knew more of the time period in Taiwan, or the culture of the place, I would have loved it even more I think. I need to see this movie again.