By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It begins simply enough, with a concerned parent wondering to school faculty, why his son, a good student, did poorly on a test. It ends four hours later in murder, madness, the destruction of lives, and the loss of hope.
Edward Yang’s epic film “A Brighter Summer Day,” released in 1991 but set in Taiwan about 30 years earlier, rapidly earned a place in the pantheon of Taiwanese cinema. Oddly enough, though, says Aaron Dean from Northwest Film Forum, a lot of people don’t realize Yang’s strong Seattle connections.
Dean, who masterminded the Northwest Film Forum’s revival of the film this month, says we don’t know exactly when Yang arrived in town, but it was some time in 1976 or 1977, and he spent several years here working on microcomputers and defense software.
“It was in Seattle that Yang became a regular attendee of the Harvard Exit Theatre, now gone, sadly, where he discovered [Werner] Herzog’s film ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God,’ as well as Michelangelo Antonioni and works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealists,” said Dean. “Yang spent more time in Seattle than anywhere else, and he had a love for the city, even wanting to someday come back and make something here. There are a number of photos of Yang wearing a vintage Seahawks jacket.”
Of the seven feature films Yang completed before his death, from cancer, in 2007, “A Brighter Summer Day” is by far the longest (it’s usually shown in two two-hour chunks), and his only story not set in present-day Taipei.
“[The film] stands as Yang’s only period piece,” confirmed Dean. “All of Yang’s other work focused on the lives of urban citizens of Taipei.”
The teenagers in the movie play pranks, break the law in small ways, run with glee to avoid police and other authority figures. It seems harmless enough at first. But over the long stretch, malevolence begins to build up. Early 1960s teen culture is run by street gangs, each one eager to defend its turf and encroach on enemy territory. They preen and pose for each other, for enjoyment and intimidation. But with the win-or-die mentality as an underlying tone, blood is bound to spill.
Yang also included an important subplot about one teen’s father, who gets swept up in a police investigation and accused of being a Communist, with ties to the mainland. He’s innocent of anything substantial and he’s no traitor. But the police attention will leave a stain on his reputation.
Casting a critical eye at teen violence and police heavy-handedness carried some risk, even for a film set in the past. Still, explained Dean, the film was something special for Taiwan.
To shoot it, Yang had the biggest budget of any Taiwanese film in history at the time it was released. But even so, adjusted for inflation and converted, it was still only made for $1.5 million USD.
“Taiwanese film, at that time, was still done very minimally, even when the works were large in scope. Small crews, fewer lights, few takes, so on. [This film] was privately funded, made up of Yang and his crew’s own funds (his previous film ‘The Terrorizers’ was successful at the Taiwanese box office) and some private investment. All of the music was used without license, which was one reason it took considerable time for the film to make it to the United States.”
That music, while only used for certain sequences, leaves a palpable impression. The young folks take to the stage (some skilled, others not so much) to render such early rock and roll classics as “Angel Baby.” A cult of Elvis is strong, kids eager to dress like him, sing like him, and in a short sequence from which the film gets its name, struggling to decipher the half-sung, half-spoken lyrics to Elvis’ early hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Rock music in the film, said Dean, “represents many things: Invading American popular culture, escape from disorientation from the youth characters (but ultimately increasing those feelings), either through cool idols (and gods) like Elvis, or through a narrow/idealized view of the hope America may offer, and so on.
Ultimately, the film allows such music and culture to exist both as a force of joy and a force of confusion…
“More than anything, the film is a testament to cinema’s ability to act as a tool of communal reckoning. Its function isn’t simply to tell a story, or be a formal exercise: It is truly meant as a historical document, both for the people who lived it to never forget where they came from, and where they’re going, and the same even more so for those distant from it, like us. It’s a film that shows, thoroughly, how violence can arise, how not just an individual but a generation, a society, can become lost. And that that may even be a necessity of history, but one we should continue to learn from.”
“A Brighter Summer Day” plays March 18-19 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit nwfilmforum.org/films/a-brighter-summer-day-edward-yang.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.