On Sunday, March 20th, Vancouver movie-goers will have a unique opportunity to see a highly sought after film that has long been unavailable. It’s called A Brighter Summer Day and is directed by one of the main figures of the Taiwanese New Wave, Edward Yang. When it was released in 1991, Yang was already an accomplished director, having made two remarkable films, Taipei Story (1985) and The Terrorizers (1986), the former of which starred fellow Taiwanese auteur, Hou Hsiao-hsien.
This personal epic runs four hours long and has never been released in North America, until now, 25 years after its initial release. Those who have been fortunate enough to have seen it may have caught its 2011 World Cinema Foundation restoration in one of several one-off screenings scattered across the globe. However, most people who can claim to having seen it can do so because they braved a bootleg copy that has been available on the internet for years—a terrible digital rip of a VHS copy that is barely watchable at all. Finally the folks at Janus Films and the Criterion Collection are releasing it on DVD & Blu-ray later this month. But we can catch it the way it’s meant to be seen: on the big screen.
Having not yet seen the film myself, I can only describe it based on having seen several of Yang’s other films, and from tidbits of information gathered from various articles. Its length may sound somewhat intimidating, but by all accounts A Brighter Summer Day is a very classical and effortlessly watchable film. For those who may be familiar with his more widely seen masterpiece Yi YI (2000), Yang’s approach to filmmaking is deeply observant and richly novelistic, requiring time to unfold patiently. Inspired by real events that the director recalls from his youth, it “centers on the gradual, inexorable fall of a young teenager from innocence to juvenile delinquency, and is set against a simmering backdrop of restless youth, rock and roll, and political turmoil.” (Criterion).
The film takes its title from the lyrics of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” From his 2011 review in The New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott describes, “American pop music is a tendril from the outside world that has penetrated this claustrophobic, hectic island, and it expresses the universal longings and the specific frustrations that dominate the lives of Mr. Yang’s characters. The film, at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early ’60s, like East of Eden or Rebel Without a Cause. Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, A Brighter Summer Day also belongs to a tradition that stretches from I Vitelloni to Mean Streets and beyond.”
Yi Yi was Edward Yang’s final film. After its completion, he battled cancer for seven years before passing away at the age of 59 in 2007. He leaves behind what may appear to be a modest filmography, but is actually monumental in its scope of emotions, wisdom, and human understanding. Still far too few people have seen his most touted work, A Brighter Summer Day. Those few that have count it among the greatest movies of all time. On March 20th, we can join that exclusive club.
A Brighter Summer Day plays Vancity Theatre at 2:50pm on Sunday, March 20th. Tickets available for purchase here.
The Criterion Collection release will feature a commentary track by VIFF’s own Tony Rayns, one of the foremost experts on Asian cinema, and specifically the life and work of Edward Yang.