Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
"If a person apologizes for wrongs they didn't commit, then they are capable of anything terrible."
"Natural? You can't even tell real from fake."
If it's slowly becoming a cliche to call this film 'novelistic,' it is simply because it is true, as much as I would like to perversely dis-spell that notion (a truly self-destructive act!). Over 100 characters with speaking roles, this creates a density of details and interrelationships which serve as both a portrait of a culture (and/or diminishing culture with the beginnings of a new one) as well as a process of depersonalization borne from the desire for cultural identity. Xiao S'ir is at once a fully realized, developing character himself and a walking metaphor for this shift. This too is realized in the youth gang atmosphere, cited in the opening as a result of the unstable security from shifting from Qing rule, to Japanese colony, to American liberation, to pre-communist China rule, to 'democracy': a military dictatorship. But politics are deceptively in the background of this film, partially because Yang is invested as much in the future as he is in the past - so through these youth gangs we see the seeds of consumerism: youths creating feudal enterprises as a hoped source of stability in the face of the bureaucratic maneuvering of which they have no control, late-teenagers funding concerts for cheap profits upon which the controllers of "turf" invest for a cut. Secondary members make secret deals & sell out other members if it is deemed favorable to one over the other. "Lets kill Mao Zedong! Skin Zhao Enlai! Lets recover the mainland!" says one young hood.
As important as these gangland politics are to the film, it's just but one component of such a vast, ambitious work. But it never sprawls - each sequence, every shot has a specific functionality which (for me) makes this movie feel like almost half its actual run-time! It's also the most overtly formalist (in composition) of Yang's works, littered with primary colors in order to draw the viewer into the emotionalism of adolescent experience (another great film which does this is the opening Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married) As the film progresses to its almost apocalyptic conclusion, Xiao retains less and less of his emotions, even as this style continues. Because of this movement and retention of style, the disparity between rationality and emotionalism is revealed - Xiao fails to retain his emotions because he cannot control his emotions.
A key to this films utter brilliance however, is that though the events of so many characters are illustrated literately, it is through Xiao that we feel and understand the repercussions of these phenomenon. This comes as early as the second shot of the film, as Xiao sits outside while his father questions the school principal over Xiao's worsening grades - the coldness of the image, as Xiao stares into nothing is as haunting as anything in cinema. Xiao's growing alienation is illustrated by his progressing lack of interest in school.
Yet there is a real joy to this film for much of its runtime, because it's blessed to capture the joy of experience - everyone has dreams, aspirations, but also no-one second guesses their daily lives. Even on repeat viewing this makes the devastating final act all the more shocking. It's important not to stick wholly with Xiao in writing about the movie because of the amount of details, but I'll have to forgo this because of the sheer amount that has to be covered! One thing that must be mentioned is the relationship of the parents: though this is a film very greatly inspired by Rebel Without A Cause, generation gap is not a key cause - everyone suffers, and the amount of empathy this shows to the parents is moving - a father who understands the necessity of good parenting, who has high hopes for a child without becoming intrusive - this is all very moving to me. Again, this makes the final moments more depressing. As we learn later on that Xiao's father may have been a communist, he is interrogated by the 'secret police' (lo and behold, the secret police arn't communists, they're democrats!) - the strain of this on the entire family is evident, affecting Xiao's own belief & faith.
As Xiao is removed from emotional identifier because of his eventual emotional instability, the style stays the same. Because of this, A Brighter Summer Day becomes less a portrayal of a culture in these later moments and more one of dense philosophical inquiry. As Xiao utters the second of the above quotes to a movie director, one is struck because Xiao himself has failed to determine between what is real and what is fake. The world has confused and betrayed him, thus forcing him to shut himself off from it. Before making a mistake which is irreversible, he trusts only himself, gets lost in his own mind - there is romantic obsession, but Xiao also watched his brother be beaten for his (Xiao's) own theft without guilt. Xiao's mistake is to believe that the world is incomprehensible - so when he kills Ming, not only is he unable to take responsibility for his action, but he is incapable of believing that Ming is even dead.
I haven't talked enough about the movies formalism, but I'm just gonna shout out that one shot where Ming and Xiao walk past the camera and carry on their conversation as the camera fixes on a door, and we see the bases of their reflections on the light bouncing off the paint of the door - they look like spirits. Not gonna catch that one in the fucking laserdisc rip are you!
One of the best movies ever made. Yang was and is a godsend. The films final shot is at once emotionally apocalyptic and impossibly humane.