The entry of Hong Kong cinema to the Taiwanese market in the 1980s brought with it a move to protect homegrown directors and maintain a national art scene. From this desire came the 1982 feature In Our Time, directed by Te-Chen Tao, I-Chien Ko, Yi Chang, and Edward Yang, this film seen as the ‘beginning’ of the New Taiwanese Cinema Movement. Involved in this first feature, director Edward Yang would go on to produce a number of acclaimed films over the next 20 years, but it is his 1991 release, A Brighter Summer Day, which is now seen as the defining work for the entire movement. In terms of ‘movement’, there are two approaches to take for the film: its place in the New Taiwanese Cinema Movement, and through its depiction of the movement of Western culture over Taiwanese tradition.
Set in 1960s Taiwan, the film follows Xiao Si’r, a young boy from a large Chinese family, whose settlement in Taiwan is part of the wider political period, seeing escape from the Communism of mainland China. The displacement immediately introduces one of the key themes of the movement as a whole: realistic portrayals of common problems in Taiwanese society, including in particular conflicts with political authority. Films of this movement were known for their slow pace, following genuine people using camera techniques which promoted a sense of realism, this shown especially in the distant camera angels often used to show a sense of time passing for the protagonist, Si’r.
Focusing on a single family, you feel by the end of the 240 minutes as though you are another seat at their table – the extended run-time is not taken for granted, every scene still feels necessary, tailored for this film, as though before the editing process the film had been twice the length, and what remains is irreplaceable to the narrative. It defines the movement through extended scenes of silence, using a steady camera which remains in one spot even when you feel you are ready for it to move on, but goes even further than its contemporaries in its pacing. The peacefulness typically associated with such stillness is distorted, somehow, images such as the early shot of Si’r and Ming’s shoes as they lean against a school wall kept from total, utter tranquillity by the time-frame placed on them, the pair only stopping to linger that a teacher may pass them by.
Asides from defining a cinematic movement, A Brighter Summer Day focuses on movement in a thematic sense, following the ‘move’, or, infiltration, of Western culture in the 1960s to traditional Taiwanese society.
This is depicted specifically through the presence of Elvis Presley, both in conversation, and in song, throughout. The title of the film is taken from Presley’s ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, bringing the promise of hope for ‘a brighter summer day’, whilst simultaneously rendering such hope useless by reminding of the loneliness which comes with wishing somebody was missing you back. So effective is this use of ‘Lonesome’ that every time I think of the song, Presley being a central figure in my music for close to a decade, I now think of Si’r and his navigation through life, the song thus irreversibly changed and redefined for me.
Even after he has committed murder, the audience hopes for Si’rs salvation despite knowing that it is hopeless, largely thanks to the homicide being portrayed with great subtlety, the movements filled with love thanks to the camera location being a distant angle from across the street. This idealistic mix of hopefulness and hopelessness at the same moment, at least to me, the goal of such a socially-conscious film, and such a socially-conscious film movement as a whole.