Directed by: Edward Yang
Written by: Hung Hung, Lai Ming-tang, Edward Yang, Alex Yang
Starring: Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elaine Jin, Wang Chuan, Chang Han
Systems set to separate students based on grades definitely help those on the advanced and more privileged side, but it leaves all others scrambling for the limited resources left behind. A Brighter Summer Day shows what festers when subjugated to being in a lower class as compared to others, which includes violence, groupthink, and unrest.
After failing a class, Si’r (Chang Chen) must now attend night school, which is known for the bad behavior of its students and other shady dealings. Si’r’s introduction to this new world allows him to strike a friendship with Ming (Lisa Yang) but also witness the tense gang rivalry of the Little Park Boys and the 217s.
Coming in at nearly four hours, A Brighter Summer Day promises to provide plenty of story and the way it comes to fruition allows you to live in the narrative and experience everything this new environment presents. We go along with Si’r, as this new world is as novel to him as it becomes for us, learning the political machinations on display and how violence can spring at a moment’s notice. What makes the story all the more jarring is all of this occurring with kids. We’ve seen many films of rival gangs doing battle, but they center around adults where violence almost becomes the expectation, but this all occurs with students.
It makes for the moments of violence to feel incredibly abrupt along with emotionally draining because it comes without warning and lands with no remorse. The formation of the Little Park Boys and the 217s further demonstrates the class divide causing much of the friction between these children. The Little Park Boys all have the commonality of being the children of service workers while the 217s are the children of military officers. Si’r finds himself in a different position, as his father works as a government employee. These teenagers form these divisions based on the profession of their parents, but it truly stems from the lifestyle they have back at home and the hatred it creates for those they view are beneath them. Even with the hatred they have for each other, as they attempt to play adults, their demeanor reminds us of their young age.
The moments of violence and harshness feels so sharp because it’s easy to forget these teenagers should simply be attending their classes instead of getting involved in all of these shenanigans. Their desires prove to be incredibly childish at times, like simply having a girlfriend and what that represents as a status symbol for them. It makes the relationship between Si’r and Ming such a driving force in his experience in this school and the rest of the plot.
What starts as a friendship, becomes incredibly menacing to the other gang members because Ming is dating the leader of the Little Park Boys, but he happens to currently be in hiding. At many points, Si’r receives threats to stay away from Ming. It highlights Si’r’s place in this new world. He does not fit the standard of either gang, so his relationship with Ming does not necessarily draw as much malice as a rival gang member. Si’r becomes a passive observer of everything occurring but he cannot escape the impact being around this new environment has on him. An attitude of trying to control others, including women.
Director Edward Yang does not waste much time with the story and effectively utilizes the incredibly large runtime he opted to have. He’s done it before with Yi Yi and it works once again with this howler of a feature film. He guides the story through its mood rather than having any sort of conventional plot structure. It materializes in a manner effectively connecting us to these characters and the feelings they take on as they progress through the story. The moments of helplessness only get deeper and the few moments of elation feel earned because we get to live with these characters. Yang builds an entire ecosystem for these characters to thrive and struggle in, which lays the foundation for the truly horrific events but also the strong moments of growth.
A Brighter Summer Day displays the systemic issues of putting together all of the lower-achieving students into one group. With fewer resources, behavior gets out of hand and creates a battleground for whoever wants to establish control. The melancholic story told through the narrative highlights the issue and does so with a character simply trying to absorb everything he sees before him. He witnesses much more than he ever imagined he would. It makes for such a fantastic and grueling feature film, which truly puts you through the wringer to experience all of the harsh emotions it forces you to feel. I hope everyone takes the opportunity to sit with this film and truly engage with the topic at-hand because Edward Yang captures this story in such a humanistic and emotional manner.