A Brighter Summer Day is now available on Criterion limited edition Blu-ray.
A remarkable piece of New Taiwanese Cinema, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is one of the few genuinely epic coming-of-age films of the past fifty years with a four-hour runtime and sweeping plot. At its heart, Yang’s film may be a story about identity and adolescent disillusionment, but this is coupled with multiple themes from gang-related crime to historical drama, family turmoil and political unrest.
Initially set in Taipei in 1959, Si’r (Chang Chen) is a junior high school student who attends a night school due to his declining academic results. Here, he befriends members of a local gang called the ‘Little Park Boys’. The gang’s rivals are the 217s, and due to past conflict, Honey (Lin Hong-ming), the previous leader of the Little Park Boys, is now in hiding after killing one of the 217s over a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang). However, tensions are further heightened between Si’r and the Little Park Boys – now led by Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) – when Si’r and Ming become romantically involved.
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A Brighter Summer Day explores Taiwan’s political and historical situation through Si’r’s family life. His parents are refugees from mainland China, leaving the newly established Communist People’s Republic behind for a new and culturally different environment. While they may miss their homeland, they also know it has changed for good, and their previous lives are no longer accessible. Like their parents, the children of this immigrant generation lack a clear identity in a new but foreign land, descending into gang-related activities to gain a sense of belonging and identity.
What elevates A Brighter Summer Day to its place as one of the all-time greats of modern cinema is the subtle yet poignant way its story manages to be universal. On the one hand, the film portrays a particular chapter in history, focusing on a distinct cultural and ethnic tension between Taiwan’s Chinese, native Taiwanese and Japanese residents. But it also weaves this with the newly forming cultural influences of the West, especially the rock n roll of the United States.
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Yang’s film takes its title from Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, a song the characters translate and religiously listen to throughout the picture. Presley’s song perfectly encapsulates the central theme of Yang’s film; loneliness. Here A Brighter Summer Day touches upon the universal teenage struggle to find belonging in an ocean of confusion and doubt. These core themes are so beautifully presented that they transcend time and place, speaking to everyone no matter where we call home while holding up a mirror to our society, whether old, new, east or west.