Based on a real event from the early 1960s, Edward Yang’s 1991 masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day, is set in the static tension found in the middle of a cultural tug-o-war. Taking place about 15 years after the end of the Japanese colonization in Taiwan, at a moment where the post-war geopolitical climate allowed for a growing influence of the United States and Western culture in general, the movie finds a very specific common ground between Yasujiro Ozu and Nicholas Ray, in a dilated epic where no parts are actually missing, but many of them are expressively kept out of sight. The scenes here are used as a clearing where the effects of the pressing surroundings are manifested, resulting in a relentless investigation at the heart of modern cinema: the dynamic between on-screen and off-screen space.
During the four hours of this pitted epic, the director tirelessly finds new ways to activate this magnetic field around the “stage”, starting with the early shot inside the film studio which neighbors the school where a good chunk of the film takes place: the inclusion of the work behind the camera and behind the scenes soon opens up with a tilt that reveals the two boys hiding on the roof beams, watching the scene from very unlikely “seats”, and eventually interfering with the action, as one of them drops a book and almost hits a crew member in the head. A Brighter Summer Day shows a world under the constant threat of its own unpredictability – Commoli’s “risk of the real” wouldn’t be an inappropriate description – where anything may suddenly invade the screen – whether its a pool ball, a basket ball, a punch or an army truck… or maybe even a young girl who breaks into a film set and ends up getting a screen test – but where the chance of disappearing from the screen is also just as likely – whether it’s by a car accident we never see, or by the many hidden holes and ditches where the characters fall into without any kind of warning, as if suddenly sucked out of visible existence.
What’s at stake is an experience of the world where everything that matters seems to happen at the very edge of visibility, emphasized here by the stunning use of blackouts, flashlights and candles, the key props forgotten by past residents in the attic, the inventive use of prosaic space (the bed “hidden” in the closet is only one of the movie’s many striking metaphors) or the ample landscape that exists only on the soundtrack, like the mockery when a boy-meets-girl awaits to happen in front of an entire class. Edward Yang’s mise en scène favors echo over action, and consequence over cause – like the gunshots against the trees cleverly illustrate – creating a centripetal world dragged violently towards modernity, but where traditions, mysticism and a crude representation of politics remains half-awake, waiting for a breach to leak back to the surface.
In a society that sometimes resists and other times gives in to the pressure of outside norms, the off-screen space is also the tool that allows an extremely specific choreography – one that isn’t necessarily led by the national anthem, the school protocol, the religious liturgy, the conventional territorial frontiers… one that often exists as a reaction to all of that. As in the cinema of Chantal Akerman, Straub/Huillet, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Pedro Costa and James Benning, Yang’s film is an active cinematic response to a drama where a very particular form of disappearance, cleverly flipped on its head by the film’s epilogue, poses a threat that questions the very existence of cinema: the disappearance of presence itself. In A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang finds a way to allow cinema to fight back.
* Criterion Collection restoration, seen at BAM Rose Cinema Theater 4.