Identity is crafted in the formative years of youth, during school days and gatherings with friends, discovering hobbies, bonding with family, exploring one’s culture. Yet, if the world around this developing mind is rife with hardships, is itself lacking an identity, then these children, as we see in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, will find any means, no matter how dangerous, to create one. Taiwan in the time of the movie is under its own identity crisis which causes this qualm in the children’s minds. Many adults had recently fled mainland China to Taiwan to escape the Chinese Communist Party only to find an island unlike anything they expected. It is a part of China, yet also dense with Japanese culture having recently been under their rule, and in turn bereft of any traditional Chinese cultural touchstones they are used to. With this struggle to impart their values and identity onto their children, the kids form street gangs to seek other means to develop this themselves.
The children’s entire identity is formed around this gang as they try to find a culture outside of their Chinese heritage – they listen to and sing solely American music, they occasionally indulge in American film, and many question the superiority of the Chinese language over English. Certain aspects of these American influences make marks on their mind. The films they watch seem to be Westerns, reinforcing those violent outbursts. The music is Elvis or similar artists, giving them overly romantic notions of love and lust.
But it is not only the choices of the children that lead to this lifestyle, it is as if the entire country is working against them. The schools punish the guilty and innocent equally and treat the children as if they are all delinquents. The government mentally breaks their parents leading to a lack of support at home and when they need help. The community fails to see the struggles which the children are experiencing and only looks at the benefit they can receive from them or the faults which they possess. Yet, despite all of this, the children continue to attempt to find meaning in their lives. This leads to beautiful moments and revelations for them. They discover love, have tender moments with friends and family, and help each other succeed. And still, there is seemingly no hope for them because at every success they have dozens of entities working against them to remove any possibility of a meaningful life or identity.
The movie shows the various layers which work against them coming down in steps as if to give an answer for how this world can change. At first, we view the children, alone, acting out. Then the school’s corruption and authoritarian culture slowly reveal themselves. The parents begin to show true colors – some being alcoholics, some a part of more terrifying gangs. And finally, the government reveals its high level of control over the citizens, how by just controlling the next level down, they can ensure control over everything. If the children have virtually no hope of fighting against the will of the school or of their families, there is certainly no chance they can fight against any higher power.
The culmination is Si’r’s murder of Ming. Despite the love he has for her, her identity did not match up that which he believed to be correct. His realization that her identity was as meaningless and vague as his own proved too much for him to mentally handle. He needed to destroy that which brought on this realization and he did so almost involuntarily, unaware of the deed until it was too late. Even the prison system went on to fail him, striving for punishment over rehabilitation – they hid away his friend’s messages and even attempted to secure the death penalty until it was voted against.
A Brighter Summer Day is a difficult movie to watch emotionally, but also from a perspective of ignorance. This era of Taiwanese history is virtually unknown in the Western world, and much of the plot and themes revolve around it entirely. Because of that, I found much of the film challenging to understand or enjoy, but that is my own fault. Having now researched more about this era, it is a movie that I feel the need to rewatch and I can imagine its impact would be even greater with this knowledge. However, even without this history, the movie is worth the four-hour run time. It is a beautiful and tragic coming-of-age story, a powerful community epic, and an intense character study that rivals many of the best.
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