A Brighter Summer Day movie analysis: an ode to adolescence

Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight? Are you sorry we drifted apart? Does your memory stray to a brighter summer day, when I kissed you and called you sweetheart?”

The aforementioned lines are from Are You Lonesome Tonight – a song popularized by Elvis Presley, even if not written by him. The phrase “a brighter summer day” is also the name of a movie. Because of its peculiarity, the phrase cannot escape one’s eye.

An individual coming into contact with movies as he/she grows through the years is least likely to come across this work by the Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang. Nevertheless, by any luck whatsoever, if one has ever come across it and passed successfully through the intimidating running time of four hours, they will know. How deceptive, they will know, can the title of a movie be.

Anticipating a brighter summer day...
Anticipating a brighter summer day…

A brighter summer day -a mistake in nomenclature?

However, to keep the English title of “The Homicide Incident of the Youth on Guling Street“(originally Chinese) as “A Brighter Summer Day” cannot be a fully unconscious decision. For one, it has a notable influence of Elvis Presley on one of its characters. The sweeping Western influence speaks for itself. For another, the description of separation in Are You Lonesome Tonight also partly relates to the situation between protagonists Xiao Si’r and Ming.

The song, Are You Lonesome Tonight, itself, although recurs only at occasional moments. The transformation of the original title to this phrase seemingly appears as a drastic act. A Brighter Summer Day is not a movie that many people would come across often. Concerning such stature, A Brighter Summer Day, for its namesake alone, is bound to draw optimists closer and drive pessimists away alike; but this is the movie where one may acknowledge the deception titles can lure one into.

Darkness sets in (on) A Brighter Summer Day

It is not only in the title that deception conceals itself, but it is equally a part haunting the very nature of the characters. A Brighter Summer Day is a simple narrative with complicated characters. It has as its focal point the second generation of Chinese Diaspora in Taiwan. Haunted by their parents’ past, traditions, and economic instabilities, a large portion of the school-going youth forms gangs. Gangs signify a sense of security, as the film itself prompts. Dominantly consisting of males, such gangs enable schoolboys to exercise their fears, hatred, and passion out. All in all, the gangs sweat enormous beads of masculinity.

Gang violence in A Brighter Summer Day
Gang violence in A Brighter Summer Day

Despite their proximity, many schoolboys also get saved from becoming a part of one. Cat, the diehard admirer of Elvis, finds his outlet, for instance, in music. In fact, his musical aspect gives one a glimpse of the sweeping American influence that the island undergoes. Rock n roll is only a part of it. However, rock n roll gives individuals like Cat a medium, who, saved from the influence of gangs, need to exercise their youthful spirit somewhere. This becomes all necessary provided the troubled times that the plot depicts.

However, even the mere organizing of a concert is not inherently isolated from the influence of the gangs. It is only after a dispute between members of Little Park Boys and Gang 217 regarding a concert, that death raises its head with a murder. Until then, A Brighter Summer Day is joyously youthful, and only occasionally violent.

The necessity of several outlets and the discrimination of one in respect to another (A Brighter Summer Day)
The necessity of several outlets and the discrimination of one in respect to another

Conflicts of adolescence in A Brighter Summer Day

The protagonist Xiao Si’r is another individual untouched by any gang’s influence. He is in the ripe age of adolescence, caught firmly in its pangs. Xiao Si’r lives with his three sisters, a brother, and both parents. His parents are immigrants who escaped the mainland for Taiwan, bringing in issues that still constitute their debates. Growing up in Taipei, Xiao Si’r falls in love with Ming, but is not very comfortable admitting it.

Although not a member of any prevalent gang, Xiao Si’r finds himself intertwined with them anyway. It is because of the war-trophy attitude displayed by the gangs towards girls in general. Like “turfs”, girls are viewed in their relation to a member of a gang. As for Xiao Si’r, when he gets more comfortable around Ming, he begins questioning her morality. Ming is at crossroads where there is no way to turn. The boys only desire her, the school is full of rumors about her, her friend looks down on her and to her sick mother, Ming is the only support she has.

Girls viewed under the light of their involvement with a gang member in A Brighter Summer Day
Girls viewed under the light of their involvement with a gang member

Ming likes Xiao Si’r, but the death of her former lover and the moralistic attitude of Xiao Si’r complicate things. For Xiao Si’r, he is caught in the adolescent conflict between desire and morality. He is not decisive. In this respect, Ming is wiser. Even the simplest of her questions render Xiao Si’r speechless.

External deceptions…

The intimidating length of the movie puts effort into expounding the plot with the fewest elements. The usage of time, as well as the sequential arrangement of events, are capable enough to adhere its viewers to itself.

The simplest of shots do not feel out of place. Quite often, one may see still shots of objects and people with accompanying dialogues. Instances may be the focus on Ming sitting alone while Honey talks to Xiao Si’r about War and Peace; or that of the radio while Mr. Wang speaks about the same.

…and the subtleties lying underneath

What such stills do is to evaporate any sense of detachment with the subject, by overfilling its image to the viewers’ eye-brims. Ming, who is soft-spoken, holds firm to raging ambitions inside her heart. The only way she can voice those is in the form of a longing desire; like her description of the army upon seeing the barracks and the oft-rolling tanks on the streets. In reality, even younger boys role-playing soldiers stop her from playing a “boy’s game”. When one sees the solitary Ming in the aforementioned shot, the shot itself is not a solitary instance of showing an individual in a momentary state. It only propounds on something already emphasized -the loneliness of Ming. What accompanies this shot is Honey describing a crazy person who stayed behind to assassinate Napoleon, failed, and got caught.

Ming, the protagonist lesser understood (A Brighter Summer Day)
Ming, the protagonist lesser understood

The only outlet that Ming finds amidst the violent gangs, flashy militant exhibits, stories caused by her romantic affairs, and the seemingly growing distrust for people, is the theater. However, despite her efficiency, her adverse circumstances do not permit even that. This is what we see on the surface. As for what undergoes in the unconsciousness, one can only perhaps view subtle glimpses in the movie. For, why Xiao Si’r does what he does, in the end?

An attempt of understanding

Although Xiao Si’r and his generation are the focus, A Brighter Summer Day also encompasses the struggles of the previous generation. The generation of Xiao Si’r grow up only in the latter’s shadow, and whose influence cannot be discerned. Xiao Si’r is neither a popular guy like Honey, nor does he have a force behind him. However, ironically, it is in the very absence of this that Xiao Si’r lacks any medium to vent himself out. When he does so, it is to the point of extremity. One may recall his bursting out with a baseball bat at the principal’s office while in the presence of his father.

Like father, like son
Like father, like son

In the father of Xiao Si’r, one finds the intellectual rebel, who is still grasping on to the nostalgia of his mainland past. This nostalgia, along with his former connections, land him into severe consequences. The influence of his pent-up aggression is reflected in Xiao Si’r. Perhaps his father admires his rebellion and sees in him his younger self. It is evident from his bias in choosing between Xiao Si’r and his brother, Lao Er. Xiao Si’r is younger, but all the more capable of upsetting his father for a theft both brothers commit in unison.

Being lured into deceptions

Xiao Si’r is an example of pent-up rage and suppressed behavior; although, in their free-flowing form, they range to the extremes. He is like Ming -often alone and left to himself. However, he lacks ambitions. Unlike Ming who shows freedom of mind, he is one tangled in the meshes of desire and honor. Unable to discern his emotions or study them, he resorts to making his surroundings a subject, a battleground of action, for these.

Although A Brighter Summer Day is a coming-of-age movie as one follows the development of Xiao Si’r, it also works in favor of a shattering that is only unexpected. The psyche emerges as a whirlpool of conflict where nothing is discernible. As Xiao Si’r remarks in respect to Sly that change is possible, he perhaps forgets that such change can be possible in several manners. As Jade remarks to Xiao Si’r that he cannot change people according to his philosophies, he proves her wrong by exercising the extreme of changes with his own hands.

Summing up an ode to adolescence

The irony of a name

A Brighter Summer Day ends bordering itself on three territories -that of shock, hope, and melancholy. It is, roughly speaking, an ode to adolescence, and the possible consequences if emotions go unchecked. Between a felt emotion and an action to conclude it, lies a wall. Although vulnerable and fragile, it only often escapes breakdown due to the mind’s unwillingness. This unwillingness often comes intertwined with socially induced fears; for instance, the thought of decapitating someone and holding it back from turning into action, fearing imprisonment.

A glimpse of willingness is what contributes to the shock factor; shock -for it somehow deceives the entire developmental portrait of an individual constructed throughout the movie. By the end, the individual is gone, letting behind only the several consequences resulting from his actions. Despite the saddening consequences, there is still a ray of hope. This ray illuminates various other possibilities for children apart from a gang life; as one sees in the success of Cat for instance. As for what is done and cannot be rewound, the film ends with, again, a still shot and in a cyclical manner with the repetition of one of its opening moments.

To conclude, the title “A brighter summer day” can both be misleading and subtle. While taken from a song of separation, the movie stays true to the motif of separation. While, on the other hand, what is suggestive immediately from such a title also stands out. A brighter summer day is indeed glimpsed by the end of the dark tunnel of four hours. With Cat’s contact with Elvis, the movie has as its concluding ode the outshining of the musical outlet that, as a lesser path, has throughout, only remained suppressed underneath.

Cat, the Elvis admirer
A Brighter Summer Day, eventually

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