A Brighter Summer Day

A Brighter Summer Day ★★½


Second viewing, last seen 30 January 2000. (According to my log, I also saw High School that day. It's one of the shortest Wiseman films, but still, that's a whole lotta adolescent rebellion.) Wish I had a stronger case to make for my contrarian opinion, but the film's ostensible greatness is simply lost on me—what I saw, again, was four solid hours of maddeningly shapeless quasi-memoir, centered around a protagonist who never quite comes into focus and a mundane turf war between rival youth gangs. Chang Chen's appeal has always escaped me, even in movies I otherwise quite like (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Red Cliff); here, in his screen debut, he's such an empty vessel that Si'r's final act lacks any psychological scaffolding whatsoever. (More accurately, it seems motivated by emotions far too ordinary to merit the amount of time A Brighter Summer Day devotes to Si'r's nebulous relationship with Ming, much less to reflect the film's broader portrait of Taipei ca. the early '60s.) And Yang's penchant for tonal equanimity, combined with his personal connection to this era (which can sometimes make an artist forget what others don't know and/or won't intuit), leads to confusion regarding what's significant vs. what's merely observational. After something like three separate verbal references (over several hours) to a very early scene in which Si'r briefly sees Sly kissing an unidentified female, I finally had to go back and rewatch it, because Yang shoots that moment in such a casual, offhanded way that it simply doesn't register as something that we're meant to remember or wonder about. On the other hand, Si'r's father getting picked up by the government and interrogated absolutely registers...but having that occur in the immediate aftermath of the Little Park Boys' murderous revenge attack implies a connection between the two that (as far as I can tell) doesn't actually exist. The movie becomes a morass of undifferentiated incident. (Pull quote!)

None of those criticisms get to the heart of the matter, though. For me, watching A Brighter Summer Day is like looking at this Ishihara plate. The vast majority of you clearly see the number 74. I do not. I see a meaningless jumble of dots. My iPhone is configured so that clicking the home button quickly three times inverts colors, and when I do that I can see the '74' clear as day, because it's now (I think) yellow-orange against a field of (I think) blue-gray. Jumps right out. But even once I know exactly where the numbers are, they completely vanish when I switch back to normal color. I just can't see what the rest of you are seeing. I am defective.

Likewise with all the ecstatic reviews of this film, which to me describe something that I simply did not perceive. Godfrey Cheshire, in his Criterion essay, describes it as "a Taiwanese Rebel Without a Cause made with the gravity and epic sweep of The Godfather." To which I can only feebly reply "But...but those movies are thrilling, and this one is faintly dull." I mean, I wish there were anything here one-tenth as memorable as Jim Stark screaming "You're tearing me apart!" or Michael Corleone nervously heading to the men's room. The Little Park Boys attacking the 217s during a power outage (and a typhoon) made me perk up momentarily, and I'm always down for little kids earnestly singing Elvis Presley, but that's about it. Mostly, I found myself concentrating on Yang's typically expert compositions, as the film rarely engaged me on a more visceral level. It seems deeply significant that my favorite shot in A Brighter Summer Day's entire four hours is the one that shows Si'r and Ming standing and talking as reflected in a surface (the paint on a door) that's barely reflective at all, such that you only even know those are human figures because you already saw them earlier in the shot. (Must have been indecipherable on the cruddy VHS copy that was floating around for so many years.) It's an incredibly bold formal gambit, but it also accurately reflects how little of those two characters—or anyone else—I was able to make out, even after spending so much time with them.

Had I written this without reading any other reviews/essays, I'd likely have concluded that A Brighter Summer Day falls into another of my various blind spots, viz. films that subordinate human drama to a sweeping national diagnosis. That clearly explains my general indifference to Jia, for instance. Is it a factor here? Probably. But passion for this movie seems a good deal more intense and intimate than do the raves I encounter for Still Life or Unknown Pleasures. People talk about it the way I might talk about, say, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Wild Reeds. They're deeply moved by it, and I honestly don't understand why—not even when y'all tell me why, because that amounts to your pointing at the blatant 74 that's invisible to me. It'd be like me trying to explain to any other member of my family (and perhaps to some of you) why Jeanne Dielman doesn't bore me into a stupor. "I genuinely find these repetitive domestic routines more riveting than almost every car chase and gun battle I've ever seen." "Okay, man, if you say so."

Sometimes I feel quite confident in my orneriness. Rave reviews of You Were Never Really Here, for example, almost make me angry, as a second viewing only reinforced my conviction that it's utter garbage partially redeemed by Ramsay's formal brilliance. But my inability to appreciate this film feels like a personal failure. It just makes me sad. I wish I could see the numbers. They aren't there for me.