A Brighter Summer Day

A Brighter Summer Day ★★★★★

The western title for Yang’s most universally and all-embracing giant mammoth of a film is inspired by western culture: A Brighter Summer Day is taken from the lyrics of Elvis Presley's Are You Lonesome Tonight?. The original title is literally translated as Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street. Naturally, I would opt for referring to this film with its original language title, but the universal thematic content of this colossus ironically leads us to conclude that both titles/sides are irreparably coexistent. Both titles are relevant, one from the angle of the loss of cultural identity and the latter from the social perspective.

Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street justifies its length for its enormous array of socially concerning topics, and it is of utmost importance to remember the sociopolitical context that will serve as a justification for the entire story of the film: “Millions of mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan in 1949 with the Nationalist government after its defeat in the civil war by the Chinese Communists. Their children were brought up in an uneasy atmosphere created by their parents' uncertainty about the future. Many formed street gangs to search for an identity and to strengthen their sense of security.” From the very start, the movie establishes itself as a based-on-a-true-story testament about the loss of a cultural and social identity and the desperate search for one. Gangs seems to be a worldwide accepted symptom since youth which formations serve social and identity purposes.

Of course, it is not coincidental that the film takes place during the 60s. The baby boomers belong to a lost generation characterized by a lack of parental guidance and driven by pervasive cultural influences, mostly from the United States. A Brighter Summer Day is no exception (here, using the English title serves the purpose of the present paragraph). It is easy to pinpoint the 60s with counter-culture, rebellious and revolutionary movements and the rise of a new aimless, self-destructive youth which is represented so strikingly here with a tumultuous sociopolitical background. From the generation of the Pink Floyd and “Gimme Shelter” followers and the Woodstock partiers to the Chinese natives who fled to Taiwan during post-war times, there are common patterns. This takes us to a very human, even if reiterative conclusion: we are all humans.

Yang constructs the perfect predecessor/psychological prequel for Yi Yi (2000), a film which focuses on a middle class family that must make amends with its past and look after the construction and reconstruction of its past and present relationships. In Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street, we see parentless, aimless youngsters facing such present which will have perpetual consequences for their adulthood future. You can see their probable future in Yang’s 2000 epic. However, Yang never strips away the sentiment of a national identity and does not omit parenthood entirely. This is one of the few films set in the 60s that presents parenthood as a challenge rather than as a forgotten responsibility. It shows how difficult it is for lost parents to raise their children in an uncontrollable environment. This environment, from a human point of view, had to involve also a coming-of-age perspective where a love and sexual discovery must play a secondary role, yet equally strong in importance.

In an intoxicating, alien environment where everybody is finding its place in society while being forced to coexist with menacing and culturally differing social classes, Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street is Yang’s most ambitious success, and my personal 2nd favorite from his cannon after Taipei Story (1985), that jarringly nostalgic and reflective New Taiwanese Cinema masterpiece. It magnificently encompasses everything without becoming an overstuffed turkey, but rather a razor-sharp and precise, even if gut-punching amalgamation of relevant sociocultural topics that any nation and individual can identify with, that is, from both a macro and micro perspective. Yang’s concern with portraying Taiwan as a multicultural world, like an onion full of layers, would be fully fleshed out until his masterpiece Ma Jiang (1996), with comparatively similar violent climactic outcomes, but for now, his four-hour prototype for his future themes to come turned out to be what is considered by many, including myself, as one of the best films ever made.


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