牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (A Brighter Summer Day), 1991
Dir: Edward Yang
You can watch film after film after film, and even at points become fed up with how mundane everything you watch is, but then you watch something that makes you want create something just as great and poignant, that hints at something deeper than just the story you are presenting. A Brighter Summer Day is one of those films. A film about community, family and a failure to connect on many levels, it resonates clearly in every aspect of its production. That the film has fallen into obscurity is ridiculous, and makes the experience of watching the film all the more powerful.
At its core, the film is about Xao S'ir, a teenage kid who is trying to get along in Taipei, Taiwan in 1960. But in building the sense of community that dominates the film, the overall feeling of uncertainty that permeates with every character belies the sense of unease that was Taiwan after the departure of the Kuomintang and the Republic of China to the island, especially under the iron fist of Chang Kai-shek. Parents try to teach their kids values for posterity when they themselves have no idea what the future holds, and the same kids fall in to street gangs to try to build a sense of security for themselves. That's what the first half of this film is about: the world that Xao S'ir is growing up in. Xao S'ir seems to be a fringe member of the Little Park Boys, and only at times feels like he is interested in being part of the mayhem. They are always bumping heads with other gangs over turf and girls, and the leadership is being tested because their leader, Honey, is on the lam after killing another street tough. Two lieutenants, Deuce and Sly, begin to jockey for the top. To make things worse for Xao S'ir, he gets on Sly's bad side (over a girl), who then begins a run of passive aggressive bullying. Honey's fate is crucial to that of Xao S'ir's, who becomes friendly with his girlfriend Ming, and their relationship starts to weigh on him. Xao S'ir's inability to communicate his dilemma begins to show in his overall attitude, and he eventually gets expelled from school, and decides to take actions into his own hands.
Tawain in 1960 is like bizarro China meets the USA. All the kids are into rock'n'roll and gangs, and the parents are worried about the culture change, but everything is totally exaggerated because although they love American culture, no one really gets its and barely any of the kids speak English. There is a romantic, melancholy tone that Yang build up through the film attached to all of this, and it is one of its biggest strengths. Given that the director's cut is almost 4 hours long, you definitely need those things, but once you are in to the film, you really forget about everything else, which is the greatest compliment I can give it.
Yang is sort of like a modern day Ozu, who clearly influenced his style. Lots of long, master shots that don't cut in close; lingering portraits also in long shot that make you study a character fully; deliberate tracking shots, and no camera shake. The gang chases and beatings are some of the most frightening things I've ever seen because he doesn't cut away and because of the lighting, which is as elaborate as it is simple (kind of like Yang's overall style). He also uses ellipsis to great effect. His still, long takes allow for masterful mis-en-scene, which is impossible to miss. In the end though, it's a film that's about everything because it has everything. While telling its story, it lingers in the details, and sometimes that's where you find answers. The answers of this film aren't necessarily obvious, if there are any. Maybe it's just the truth you get from listening to a song, and really feeling it.