Guling jie shaonian sharen shijian – A Brighter Summer Day

Taiwan, 1991

Directed by Edward Yang

With Chang Chen (Xiao Si’r), Chang Kuo-chu (the father), Elaine Jin (the mother), Chang Han (Lao Er), Wang Chuan (the eldest sister), Chiang Hsiu-chiung (the second sister), Lai Fan-yu (the little sister), Lisa Yang (Ming), Wong Chi-tsan (Mao, aka Cat), Lawrence Ko (Airplane), Tan Chih-kang (Ma), Lin Hung-ming (Honey), Chen Hung-yu (Sly), Tang Hsiao-tsui (Jade), Alex Yang (Shandong)

In 1959, in house in Taipei, a man is intently listening to a radio program reporting on the results of national exams teenagers have passed to enter the university, the speaker reeling off the names of the successful students. Clearly something is wrong and the rest of this prologue shows the man pleading with an official as the bad grades his son got in literature kept the boy from entering a college. The importance of a good education cannot be overstated: as hinted by an intertitle, the man and his family belong to the droves of mainland Chinese who have fled the winning communist armies to settle down in Taiwan and now struggle to cement the new life the Chinese civil war has forced on them.

But the following academic year proves to be a let-down in that case: the son, Xiao Si’r, flounders in the evening classes he attends. Xiao Si’r’s father tries to pull some strings to get the kid in a more ordinary, day school, but to no avail, and he would time and again pay a visit to the provost to convince him not to expel Xiao Si’r even as the son’s behaviors are increasingly disruptive and his work increasingly disappointing.

A heartbreaking, unforgettable teenage romance: Lisa Yang (left) and Chang Chen

There are reasons to the problem, which are beyond the psychological troubles of growing-up: as another intertitle explains, the Taiwanese youth is divided in rival gangs that act as more likable and exciting groups that the traditional families, youth leaders wielding more power, seduction and credibility than fathers eking out a living and clinging to old beliefs which have little relevance in a small state trying to survive and caught in a new, media-based modern culture coming from the United States. That tension between Chinese culture’s weight and the seduction of the American one is pleasantly captured in a lesson taught by a literature teacher extolling the elegance and simplicity of the Chinese calligraphy over the dull, complex jumble of the alphabet, a simplistic statement that brings smiles to the lips of Ma, also known as Cat, one of the two best friends of Xiao Si’r with Airplane, and sparks a confrontation with the teacher.

Xiao Si’r falls into these new dividing lines, and not just through his bond with Ma, who is clever, sassy, very young and the gifted singer of a small band playing the brand-new rock music, the kind that is crooned by Elvis Presley (the English title of the film refers to the lyrics of his hit “You’re Lonesome Tonight”).

He gets caught up in the rivalries between the 217 gang and the Park gang, especially as he is tipped off as the source of a rumor concerning the love affairs of the brash and aggressive interim leader of the 217, Sly.

But the most critical development of this turbulent school year of 1960 is the chance encounter, at the school’s infirmary, between Xiao Si’r and Ming, a delicate young girl who is yearning for Honey, the runaway leader of the 217. Xiao Si’r is fascinated by the sadness of Ming and both eventually get along well. A walk on a field belonging to the rival gang does not make their lives easier but they like each other fine. When Honey comes back their relationship must change but things take an unexpected, tragic turn when Honey is assassinated by the rival Park gang’s leader, Shandong. Xiao Si’r is enrolled in a bloody revenge operation and then vows to do whatever it takes to help a deeply shocked Ming. His story becomes a love story that is consuming him but is eventually broken up by the behaviors and words of others: Ma, a new student, who seems to flirt with Ming, Ming whose desire and goals are hard to guess and Jade, the former girlfriend of Sly who discloses unpalatable facts. The narrative ends with Xiao Si’r brutally killing Ming.

The Chinese title means: “The Youngster Homicide Incident at Guling Street​”. The film actually purports to reconstruct the life of a teenager who became the first minor ever charged and condemned for homicide during the nationalist government of Taiwan, a case that divided the public opinion as the defender was sentenced to death – he was eventually sentenced to a long prison term. The film vows to capture the feelings that could have lead to his senseless, callous act but it gives itself a remit that is far wider than simple psychological explanations, which are few in fact. It paints a wider background that puts the lead character into context. The incident enables a survey of an entire section of the Taiwanese society and the contradictions tugging the young state apart; the film is a contemplative take on an individual caught in a destabilizing environment and in the struggles of the transformative coming-of-age period he has reached.

Edward Yang belonged to a generation of young filmmakers looking to create a new kind of cinema for their native Taiwan. The other big name of this generation is Hou Hsiao-hsien who has already made films looking both modest characters and their environment with an unusual, careful, moving attention, using long takes, a nonchalant style and a subsumed approach to emotions. As soon as 1985, Hou released “Tongnien wangshi – A Time to Live, A Time to Die”, a bold 140-minute feature weaving the personal life of a young man into the political history of Taiwan. “Guling jie shaonian sharen shijian – A Brighter Summer Day” seems to follow the same path but it is both less and more ambitious.

If it only focuses on a short period of time and the theme of youth, the films does so with a stunning range of means. The camera segues one narrative thread into another with astonishing fluidity and striking confidence, and the factual starting point, boys hiding away in the beams of a studio while a film shooting takes place and then running away, leads to a complex web of events that liken various characters together over time. This is a superb ensemble film, featuring in different kind of parts and as extras a remarkably high number of non-professional actors and actresses, a vast group of people that skillfully animate the school, the gangs, the streets – and the family, as Xiao Si’r has an elder bother and no less than three sisters.

The meandering plot can feel a bit confused, as it is not always easy to connect right away the individuals and the groups. The importance of the gangs is underlined by the fact that no one can escape their grips or be indifferent to their presence: Lao Er, Xiao Si’r’ bro, gets entangled with Shandong’s pool business while Xiao Si’r becomes friend with Ma because the latter rises up one evening to keep him from being beaten up by Park thugs. The wider image that is slowly emerging evokes a dangerous world where bloody fights become troubling rites of passage, contagious disorders that engulf a quiet life.

What becomes amazing in this sprawling narrative is that it barely loses sight on the struggles of Xiao Si’r to grow up, to be part of a group and to love for the first time. In an incredible and masterful stroke, the incident that sparked the anger of Sly, the fleeting night scene when Xiao Si’r and comrades Airplane and Ma play with the flashlight they have stolen in the film studio and discover a young couple kissing against a tree, gets a new sense when Jade, the girl who was in theory involved in the incident, tells her truth, which rushes the events forward to the final tragedy.

Yang’ s talent is impressive as he manages to make an anecdotal, fleeting image resonate through the film and eventually destroy the illusions of Xiao Si’r. As layers of events keep expanding the scope of the film, painting a broad and intricate picture of the world around the boy, while time seems to flow slowly and naturally (and the camera captures this tranquil and realistic flow scrupulously, with a running time reaching 233 minutes), the sentiments and reactions of the boy are carefully scrutinized. This is a subtle and heartbreaking story: his confusions and desires seep through his demeanor and outbursts, his mind gets embroiled in more and more troubles, his case becomes impossible to handle. Xiao Si’r grows up in a short time to stand as a rebel dissatisfied with the world and expecting love to bring a better outcome. But he would be failed by Ming as much as the adult world fails his generation.

It is significant that the police is acting only when Xiao Si’r has committed his crime, and in a tough way that was sorely lacking when a gang was massacring another. The state is inefficient, as suggested by an education system that feels irrelevant. More tragically, this is a state eroded by its own, secretive, corrosive violence – Taiwan has been under martial law since 1949 and that would end only in 1987. The father is arrested one night and brought to a distant place to face a disturbing, harassing, shocking questioning. The sequence, built on the harsh succession of darkness and light in carefully composed shots capturing empty rooms, a stifling atmosphere where time is on hold, going by slowly without any way for the arrested fellow to know the hours and days, and where everything hinges on a suave interrogator who keeps pressing a point that his victim fails to gather, fully conveys the secret terror that was part of the dictatorial system running Taiwan and tragically exposes how suspicion was widespread and threatening. The rebellious youth looks like just the counterpoint of a malicious political system.

By the way, the import of light cannot be overlooked: the very first image of the film, upon which the title appears, shows a hand switching on, with a cord, a lamp hanging from a ceiling. It is the light of the filched flashlight that sets on motion part of the tragic events Xiao Si’r must cope with – and when he carries out the most gruesome act, he has left back at the studio that flashlight that has led him in troubles. This is a story that strives to find the right light to get facts and deeper truths exposed, a hard task that in fact leads to the exploration of the darkest corners of the streets and the people.

At one point, Xiao Si’r mocks the grumpy director working in this film studio which is adjoining the school, claiming he cannot work properly since he cannot tell truth from lies and see reality. Opening with the boy and Ma spying on the director’s work, the film strives to give a naturalistic, precise, empathetic vision of a personal tragedy and an era. The stunning wide shots of that start, taken from high angles, are a testimony to the will of embracing the wider view – but the film never forgets to focus on the faces as incidents and emotions take their toll, especially in Xiao Si’r’s case. Yang offers the audience a great film that feels genuine and fair, a dive into a moment in life and a milieu, an artistic endeavor that catches a wealth of emotions and details telling a lot about the tough journey the new immigrants had to make to be part of a rump China and the solitude and malaise a teenager can experience. Running delicately a whole gamut of emotions – it must be underlined that the film is also full of humor – Yang has shot a deeply felt and brilliantly crafted milestone for his nation’s cinema.

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