Edited for Clarity
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, flutters of visual incandescence and roiling textual energy, is among the most challenging philosophical canons of the modern era, as well as among 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 while 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 two 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 textures). 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 direct conduit to Yang’s astounding cinematic mind, his tempestuous balancing act of raffish, youthful indiscretion (akin to Nicholas Ray or Jean-Luc Godard) and more baroque grandness (similar to Fellini). Dabbling in many of the same anxieties as all three of those filmmakers, Yang bridges many of the consummate themes of the Euro-art films from the era in which this film is set, above all a modernist concern about cinema as an exploration of the self and a desire to descend into the whirlpool of nascent, ever-engulfing mid-century 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 from films the world over, borrowing exuberantly from his influences without any 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 of films from around the world.
Thus, 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. Love, a work of plaintive ennui undercutting placid, barely-subsumed lust, is an evocatively mournful fireplace next to the fire-and-brimstone whirlygust of a motion picture Yang raises. In a vote, In the Mood for Love is probably the more thoroughly perfect motion picture, but the striking disobedience of A Brighter Summer Day, its disinclination to restrain itself or curtail the army of rambunctious styles fighting for supremacy in the frame begs us to ask whether perfection really matters so much after all.
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. Defiantly unmanageable, A Brighter Summer Day also refuses to stagnate with Si’r or any one character; rather, it finds close company in the collective-minded culturally Asian cinema of old even as it acknowledges, in its feverish independence, that said cinema was never really as monolithically “collectivist” as generalization-prone Westerners think it is. The spirit of Ozu and his more interaction-focused framing is alive in Yang’s film – not collectivity as a given or an Eastern cultural “essence”, but a point of consideration to ponder. Si’r is a dot in a Seurat painting, an icon imbued with vitality and meaning via his interaction with the communal world Yang never leaves behind. To paraphrase Faulkner, he is a commonwealth.
Speaking of Faulkner, Yang’s novelistic, multi-chaptered style, borrowing obviously from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, could threaten torpor, the way that 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 – also suggests the surprising dexterity of Yang’s distinctly cinematic work, the work of a mind that loves cinema and lives to try on other films. (It’s more akin to several of Coppola’s later, more feverishly hedonistic features than The Godfather, if I had to draw a line that need not be drawn). Swirling around and constantly reigniting itself with cultural indicators and markers of fluctuating identity, the pugnacious film refuses to settle down; new cultures, new identities, are always being appended.
Fittingly then, Yang refuses to ossify Si’r, a youth who crackles with perspiration and self-modification. Instead, Yang 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 to Asia’s future and one looking back – is no reductionist cultural commentary on the relative merits of Asian “tradition” and Asian “modernity” construed separately. Instead, it co-opts a more filigreed, unstable exploration of split selves and the constant restructuring of the individual and social 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 our own minds are, how we shape to our containers even as we try to punch holes in them and expand them to our liking. 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.