Ethan’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Are you lonesome tonight?”
Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is a film where everything and nothing happens all at once. An unrivalled artistic achievement in its magnitude and scope, the film encompasses adolescence, ideals, love, and anguish in a tender portrait of Taiwan's search for a collective identity. The film chronicles the exploits of the young and disillusioned Si’r, who is forced to attend night school after failing one of his classes; his family grows worried he will be influenced by the delinquents who also attend the school.
But the world of A Brighter Summer Day extends far beyond this almost superfluous plot description. Yang's 1960s Taiwan is vibrant and textured while losing none of its authenticity and realism. It feels as though the world in which these characters inhabit has existed and will continue to exist without one's watchful participation. Novelistic in its approach, characters come and go. Narrative threads weave in and out; some are given more time and expanded upon, while others end before the film does. But at every step of the way, Yang's involvement is closely-felt. In complete control of tone and craft, Yang intricately stages his scenes, characters, and blocking, painstakingly showing each component that precipitates Si'r's gradual transformation from an impressionable young teen.
The film, among many other things, is about the search for identity and meaning living under an oppressive structural regime. Having fled China when the communists took over, Taiwanese families faced a crisis of identity. Where there was nothing, they built a home and created a sense of community. But it was fleeting, something was still lacking. These families felt nostalgic for the past and the things they've lost in exile, and some even questioned their decision to leave. Si’r, as a part of the first generation of youths to grow up in Taiwan, faces a similar reckoning as he searches for his purpose and place in this brave new world.
A Brighter Summer Day is a modern masterpiece, both grand in scale and intimate in execution, resulting in an experience like no other. Yang’s slow accretion of detail, contemplative reserve, and naturalistic characters is poetic and operatic in equal measure, effectively distilling the feeling of an entire existence, of real people, and lives lived. The film's mammoth four-hour runtime will wash over you like a wave, immersing you in a time long past, and still leaving you wanting so much more.