Edward Yang, who passed away nearly a decade ago after only releasing a handful of films, remains one of the great missed opportunities of the cinematic world. The marathon-cinema of Yang, lugubrious yet furiously enlivened with the sheer kinetic lifeblood of color and mise-en-scene as flutters of incandescence and textual energy, is among the most challenging philosophical canons of the modern era, as well as the most rewarding and intoxicatingly cinematic. Curated but spasmodic, fleet but hearty, the deceptive perfection of Yang’s deliberate style only belies how nerve-frying his passion is; much like a modern-day Tarkovsky, he directs like the weight of existence is upon him, as if making a film is the only way he can inscribe meaning to the chaos of the world by transfiguring it into a medley of pure, experiential cinematic shape, geometry, and movement. It’s cinema as resilience against the fading of the light, and maybe, just maybe, cinema as a new light altogether.
Yang passed on knee-deep in new channels of light while working on his follow-up to his final film, Yi Yi, released just in time to third-wheel the trifecta of 2000 releases from across the globe that may still be the three most important films of the new century – the other being Bela Tarr’s luminous cinematic fugue Werckmeister Harmonies and Wong Kar-wai’s spellbindingly impressionistic romance In the Mood for Love (a film often compared to Yi Yi and Yang’s canon as a whole, which says a little too much about how scholars exoticize and lump together filmmakers from similar regions of the world without an eye for the ever-shifting volumes of their personal proclivities and formal eyes). Rapturous though Yi Yi was, the more inchoate, torn-and-frayed A Brighter Summer Day, one of the holy grails of semi-lost cinema in the West after waiting a quarter-century for home release, is arguably even better. Now available in a pristine Criterion edition, the film is primed and perched to reveal its harmonies and chord progressions to the world.
Set in Taipei, Taiwan in the early ‘60s, A Brighter Summer Day is the most bellicose pathway into Yang’s divining rod concoction of raffish youthful indiscretion akin to Nicholas Ray or Jean-Luc Godard and his more baroque anthropological grandness akin to a Fellini. Dabbling in many of the same anxieties as all three of those filmmakers, Yang indulges us in a whirlpool of a nascent, ever-engulfing worldly youth culture in constant motion, ricocheting us between effervescent rock ‘n’ roll, unscrupulous beat culture, brazen criminal underdogs, and the scrappy scrawl of manga. His style is both cosmopolitan and piratical, plundering influences with a liberating freedom from close-minded bourgeois hindrance or inhibition. Yang’s form, a mind-melting slurry of jazzy improvisation, hot-headed physicality, and a nearly byzantine interaction of trends and fashions, threads a constantly unfurling global line as it careens into culture coming into being, stop-gapping at all the breakages and bandages that keep culture just on the right side of out-of-control.
The comparisons to In the Mood for Love, also set at the turn of the ‘60s, drain away like the cultural Orientalism that instigated the comparison to begin with. Both films owe a more than a little to Western style, and neither are subsumed by the sort of pernicious Westward trek that has felled many in the world, but the buck stops there. Love, a work of restful ennui undercutting placid but vital barely-subsumed lust, is an evocative ice ray next to the fire-and-brimstone whirlygust of a motion picture Yang raises. In a vote, In the Mood for Love is the more composed and perfect motion picture, but the striking disobedience of A Brighter Summer Day to restrain itself or curtail the flotilla of rambunctious styles fighting for supremacy in the frame begs us to ask whether perfection really matters at all.
Yang’s novelistic, multi-chaptered style, borrowing obviously from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, threatens the torpor all bookish cinema does. But the film’s admiration by none other than Martin Scorsese – Coppola’s more pulsating, throbbing electro-shocked cinematic cousin and antithesis – prefigures the surprising dexterity and present-minded cinematic fury of Yang’s work. It’s more akin to Coppola’s The Conversation, if I had to draw a line we don’t need to, not in any literal-minded paranoid delusions, but in the way Summer Day is more smitten with the gut-first approach epitomized by Coppola’s second most famous (and better) 1974 release. Swirling around and constantly reigniting itself with cultural indicators and markers of strapped-on identity, the pugnacious film refuses to settle down; new cultures, new identities, are always being appended.
Epitomizing the idea of style-as-substance, the unbalanced, never fully formed film encroaches on the mental space of youth with uncommon deliriousness, encapsulating the dialectics of a child’s mind parsimoniously plucking and trying on identities piecemeal in a world where youth culture was only just coming into itself (one presumes main character Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen), a rebel without a pause, would be a big Jean-Pierre Léaud fan if he had the chance). It’s as if the film is devouring any identity it can in an attempt to become whole and cohesive. Notoriously unmanageable, A Brighter Summer Day also refuses to stagnate with Si’r or any one character, finding close company in the collective-minded culturally Asian cinema of old even as it acknowledges said cinema was never really as monolithically “Asian” as generalization-prone Westerners think it is. The spirit of Ozu and his teetering balances and more interaction-focused framing is alive in Yang’s film – Si’r is a point in a Seurat painting, an icon only imbued with vitality and meaning via his interaction with the communal world Yang never leaves behind.
Crackling with perspiration and modification, Yang refuses to ossify Si’r. Instead, he liquefies him depending upon who he is near – the Si’r in the secluded domesticity of “traditional” home and Si’r in the bustle of modern, public life are of the same body but of more flexible, antagonistic minds. Much like Ozu’s cinema though, this two-faced Janus head – one looking forward and one looking back – is no reductionist cultural commentary on the relative merits of Asian tradition and Asian modernity. Instead, it co-opts a more filigreed, unstable exploration of split selves and the constant restructuring of the individual personality as interactively formulated by the dialectics of the interior and the exterior. Unlike many Western heroes, Si’r – nor any character in the film – has no essential self; he is always a product of his environment, always in conversation with it, always asking that we understand how fluid and structureless our own minds are. That the character is conjoined with the film itself in its persistent, vacillating thirst for an elusive style or “self” suggests that art culture, public culture, is always a torrid affair between many interactive spaces, always an active, verbal machine in constant fluctuation. Cinema, much like the human mind, refuses to be defined in the singular.