All my creativity seems to bust out of its dormant state during the examination season. I practise my piano, I make progress in the new language I promised myself I’d learn during the summer and most importantly, I think about movies. It isn’t a productive preparatory leave unless I think about Edward Yang’s 1991 masterpiece, “A Brighter Summer Day”. There are so many facets to this film that make it worth your time. I don’t even know where to begin.
The movie’s English title “A Brighter Summer Day” doesn’t give out much about what the movie is about. The Chinese title, “The Murder at Guling Street” should give one a better idea about the movie. The movie begins on a very lackadaisical note with a man negotiating with someone to get his son a place in the day school. The movie, as the audience gets to know, is about the adventures his son, Xiao Si’r has after transferring to the ‘night school’ where kids with relatively poor scores study. There, surrounded by the members of the local ‘the little Park gang’, he ends up in the middle of the gang’s activities. The gang, just like him, is going through a period of change, as the lack of a leader makes them vulnerable to tensions within the group and attack from other local gangs.
The gang becomes an outlet for all of Si’r’s suppressed emotional turmoils. As he watches the reality of the times through the gang activities, he goes through a range of emotions that finally take control of his life towards the end. This movie is no doubt set in a time of war and uncertainty. The insecurity felt by the adults is faced by the teenagers as well. These teenagers join and form gangs to find a sense of belonging and reliance. This often demands loyalty, and these kids, in their vulnerable and slightly unhinged phases, give their loyalty to the gang and get involved in activities that they shouldn’t. The importance of the storyline is replaced by the story itself. Yang, through his cinematography, gives us a story with a lot of blank spaces to fill and make it our own. The movie remains in one’s mind weeks later and makes us wonder how it struck a chord in us.
The psychology portrayed in this movie is brilliant and accurate. There is not one moment in the movie where the audience questions the character development of the various people in the film. The four-hour movie uses time to its advantage and is generous in providing time to the very necessary blank spaces. The director pauses and gives a perspective of things in a raw manner, sans the dramatised or staged window given in movies otherwise to perpetuate the plot in one way. The lack of a soundtrack only speaks volumes on how raw and subtle the movie is. The use of sound, lighting, frames, and symmetry in the movie is bound to get one hooked to Edward Yang.
Despite the quiet, and as I have stated many times before, subtle filmmaking, I was sitting on the edge of my seat all through the movie. There are scenes whose dramatisation lies in its nudity. In the beginning, when a boy of 14 or 15 hits another of 12 with a brick on his face, the realness of the scene punches you straight in the face. You can’t help but flinch, but you keep watching, drawn in by the lack of change in the tone of the scene. There is so much violence in this movie that is presented without much cover that it doesn’t scar you, but it does make you feel for not only the victim but also the perpetrator. It makes you feel for both sides and accept it as something of the everyday. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a scene where our protagonist goes on a date and, afterward, kisses his date as if it was a requirement more than anything else. The scene, despite making one squirm in their seats also bleeds with the reluctance and the reservation that the 13-year-old boy faces. The scene captures the sort of get-it-over-with feeling most teenagers even today face, with their first kiss, or more accurately their first anything that is borne out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine curiosity.
This scene also brings out another reason why the movie was so stimulating. The psychology portrayed, despite showing the progress of extreme cases, is universal. The turmoils faced by the characters is something that most people face even today. Knowing that our mental delusions and struggles can lash out in murder is scary, but that realisation helps us view the characters as an extension of ourselves. We feel the pain and confusion faced by the characters at a higher emotional level. Through the movie, we are given a pedestal to watch our own mistakes and actions. Whether you are a teenager or an adult, you are reminded of the times you acted like an irrational person because of your insecurities, of the times you looked at someone hoping they’d understand what you felt, of the times you had to choose to overlook things and deal with the repercussions later on your own, and mostly, of the times you sat and stared at the helplessness in you.
Visually, this movie is perfect. I felt like one of the judges who gave Nadia Comaneci a 10/10 for her floor routine. I couldn’t find any fault. Everything was used to perfection. The set designed by Edward Yang uses light touches of detail to give a notion about the cultural influence at that time. The whole movie is wrapped together like a poem to truly make the movie tug at your heartstrings. The geometry in the set helps us focus on certain props while giving a visual treat to our eyes. The scene where Xiao Si’r first meets Ming, the female protagonist helps explain the use of visual stimuli in the movie. He meets her while he goes to the nurse’s office to get a shot for his eyes. He walks in and sees a girl standing with her skirt pulled up as she gets treatment for her injured leg. One can feel his judgment as he tries to make sense of her and where he knows her from. Although he doesn’t glance at her for no more than a minute, the story the director is trying to tell you is quite understood. Later in the movie, the courting styles employed by various boys around Ming gets more and more discrete but we, like the spectators in the movie and Xiao Si’r, see her as the ‘perceived teenage harlot’ as she teases boys, while understanding what led her to be perceived this way.
It won’t be justified if I don’t talk about the use of sound in the film. The lack of a soundtrack is hidden as Yang makes use of all the background voices to not only dissolve the scene but also to bring out the realness he is trying to portray via the film. The story portrayed is nothing but an explanation for what happened that eventually led to a murder. Through the movie, Yang tries to justify the murderer’s actions and give a reasonable explanation as to why things ended the way they did.
Watch this movie with whoever you want. There is no explicit nudity or violence. Although making children watch this would be forcing them to go through a scarring psychological thriller they might not understand and aren’t ready to go through yet. Watch it on a Sunday afternoon when you have nothing to do, and perhaps you may just feel a bit wiser. I would, a hundred percent, recommend this movie to anyone who asks, but the psychological impact would be heavy and make you think about things you always avoided. Hence, watch at your own comfort and know, despite everything, the movie is worth it. It is nothing less than a true work of art.