Jerry McGlothlin’s review published on Letterboxd:
My 500th Review!
Before embarking on the mammoth journey that is A Brighter Summer Day, I tampered my expectations as much as I could after seeing the ridiculously high average rating it holds here on Letterboxd, so that I wouldn’t be disappointed or let down by all the hype. It’s safe to say though, that this film is worthy of the massive reputation it has garnered. My forcefully modest expectations were exceeded in the first thirty minutes, and things only got better from there. By far, one of the most thematically layered films ever made; this is a movie about life. The ups, the downs, and everything in between. It would be foolish to try and unpack all that is being put forth by Yang here after only one viewing and I am in desperate need of more context pertaining to the time and place in which the film is set to have a more complete understanding of everything that’s going on and why. But what stood out to me most—and what I’d like to comment on here—as the credits rolled, is the profoundly harrowing statement on how our environment shapes who we are and who we will become from an early age.
When we first meet our protagonist Xiao Si’r, he is a bright, ambitious and relatively clean-cut teen boy who, after flunking just one important exam (it is established that he is normally a star student) is placed in his district’s minacious night school, which is filled with troubled, often times violent teens—many part of various street gangs that pervaded Taiwan during the early 1960’s—and finds himself completely lost and out of his element. He quickly adapts (or tries his damndest) to this unfamiliar, treacherous environment, befriending another fellow student named Cat; an aspiring singer and diehard Elvis fan. The King plays a major role symbolically in A Brighter Summer Day, acting as a representation of Western culture in the midst of the Taiwanese Nationalist regime in power at that time. Together, they make for quite the puzzling juxtapositional influence on these impressionable youngsters. Equally, if not more important than Xiao Si'r‘s immediate surroundings, is the sociopolitical context of the film, acting as the true subconscious catalyst for the metamorphosis of our main character. But I digress…
Xiao Si’r soon finds himself intertwined in gang life; though never an initiated member, many of his peers with whom he interacts on a daily basis are members of one of the two main factions in his area, The Little Park Boys or the 217s. As a result, Xiao Si’r begins to change; his behavior—very slowly but surely, much like in real life—starts to reflect these newfound surroundings he has been placed in through no fault of his own besides one failed exam. As the film progresses (and it does steadily progress, yet never dragging on or feeling even remotely as long as its runtime would suggest), Xiao Si’r morphs into a completely different person from whom we meet in the beginning. The many, many factors that contribute to this change are reflected in the comprehensive nature of the film itself. There’s reason why it runs just shy of four hours long; the story being told is not a simple one, it is complex and variably infinite in its intricacies.
Not a second is wasted here. Even the most quietly benign, seemingly uneventful moments are essential to the overall unfolding of the narrative. As we reach the home stretch, Xiao Si’r is virtually unrecognizable from the young man he used to be. He has become what he feared most during the opening act of the film, with one major caveat; Xiao Si’r was not made for this cutthroat environment of gang violence and unchecked aggression. Somewhere along the lines, his morality was not only tainted, but skewed and so painfully misplaced to such an extent that he eventually winds up committing an unforgivable act that—regardless of how poorly the various systems in his life have failed him—is indefensible. Yang does not try and provide an excuse for this almost-Biblical moral misstep that is the climax of the film, only a plethora of potential reasons and explanations for why and how Xiao Si'r could have possibly wound up where he is by the end of the picture.
A Brighter Summer Day—while being a richly novelistic experience—is also one of the utmost technical quality. The performances, script, camerawork and overall atmosphere are undoubtably some of the best in cinema history. What struck me as singularly grand in particular is the scope of the story, as well as the innovative cinematography. Spanning a small handful of years and a much larger handful of different, fully developed characters; Yang manages to make it all seem effortless in his execution of these filmic elements. DP’s Chang Hui-kung and Li Long-yu’s work is nothing short of breathtaking. There’s one shot in particular, where we are shown a portion of a conversation play out in a barely-visible reflection of the shimming of light off of a wooden door, giving us a feeling of intimacy and closeness, yet obstruction; all of which is felt in the scene, as Xiao Si'r and Ming meet in secret, away from the many nosey potential witnesses that—if any were to see or overhear this exchange—could cause serious trouble and potentially disastrous ramifications for both parties involved.
Lastly, I’d like to touch on how the film manages to balance realism with a heightened, stylish coming-of-age plot structure with ease and more-than-a-little finesse. Moments of familial bonding and quarreling in equal measure, for instance, proceeded by aggrandized fight sequences or moments of tension between street gangs that somehow resemble an odd mix of The Warriors and Goodfellas. Yang’s mastery of the form is just staggering, and even though this is only the first of his works I have seen up to this point, there is not a doubt in my mind that his other films are just as artistically and intellectually engaging and stylistically savvy. And there is so much more to say about this masterpiece; I’m just not equip to delve into it any further after having seen the film but once. A Brighter Summer Day is a confounding and moving piece of filmmaking that should be seen by all, and then seen again. Please don’t let the runtime turn you away, because trust me, this film is worth every second of the time it will take to watch it.