On an unassuming summer afternoon in 1959, the imploring voice of a principled, concerned father (Guozhu Zhang) is heard through the near empty halls of a junior high school as he attempts to persuade the school administrator into reviewing the grading of his son’s examination paper for Chinese literature (a subject that he claims his son excels in), drawing on his civil service privileges and former ties to the mainland (and particularly, a Shanghai intellectual named Professor Xia) as the indifferent young man Xiao Si’r (Chen Chang) waits outside for the outcome of his father’s futile entreaties. Having emigrated his family from the mainland to pursue a career promotion in the immediate years leading to the secession of Taiwan from China in 1949, his father’s social and political influence – along with the family’s modest possessions – has been slowly eroding under the increasingly nebulous policies of the nascent nationalist government. As the fledgling nation struggled to redefine an identity that is separate from the communists of mainland China, the toll of the cultural upheaval has also manifested in the rampancy of gang association by Taiwanese youth like Xiao Si’r who see the petty territoriality of the local street gangs as a surrogate for the sense of empowerment and communal identity that was denied them when they were permanently (and reluctantly) uprooted from their homeland. However, Xiao Si’r soon finds his circumstances increasingly beleaguered when he befriends (and soon falls for) a beautiful and seemingly vulnerable young woman (and prospective actress) named Ming (Lisa Yang), the abandoned girlfriend of a notorious gang leader named Honey who is rumored to have gone into hiding after killing a romantic rival for Ming’s affection. Already leading a tenuous day-to-day existence as a probationary student and burdened with the knowledge of his family’s turning fortunes as a result of the government’s increasingly pervasive White Terror campaign, Xiao Si’r further takes on a seemingly insurmountable responsibility when he resolves to rescue Ming from her family’s desperate poverty.
Loosely based on a 1961 incident from the filmmaker’s childhood (a highly publicized case that had also led to the prosecution of the first juvenile trial in Taiwan), A Brighter Summer Day is a sublimely understated, insightful, and richly textured chronicle of the social uncertainty and cultural fracture of transplanted Chinese as they attempt to rebuild their lives in a newly created nation after being relegated to an unforeseeable life of perpetual exile. Recalling Hou Hsiao Hsien’s cinema of alienated history, most notably in the magnum opus A City of Sadness, Edward Yang similarly implements predominantly medium shots, deliberate pacing (that enables detailed observation), and episodes of darkness (that also serve to illustrate the country’s constant struggle with intermittent blackouts and unreliable utilities during the transitional period towards self-reliance) that betray the characters’ sense of estrangement and disorientation behind the veneer of control and internalized order. Yang further incorporates episodes of surrogacy and substitution that convey a sense of pervasive displacement: the young gang member, Cat’s requested English transcription of the Elvis Presley’s song Are You Lonesome Tonight? (from which the titular lyrics were culled) that reflects the younger generation’s assimilation of borrowed culture in the absence of their own sense of lost ancestral history; the family’s occupancy of a reclaimed Japanese house, Juan’s (Wang Juan) payment of Lao Er’s (Zhang Han) debt to redeem their mother’s watch that is subsequently mirrored in his own attempt to reclaim the same watch that Xiao S’ir later pawns; Ming’s pragmatic opportunism that has led to a succession of often disreputable liaisons. In the end, it is this resigned sentiment that is reflected in Ming’s embittered and ultimately damning words “I’m like this world. It will never change.” – a desperate search to find some semblance of an elusive, impermanent inner peace within the hollowed and broken psyches of a dislocated people.
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