When it comes to the Taiwanese New Wave (or New Taiwanese Cinema as some call it), Edward Yang (楊德昌) is a name that is almost synonymous with the movement. The computer-engineer-turned-director’s magnum opus, A Brighter Summer Day, is one of the most significant films of the movement (and often lauded as one of the greatest films of modern cinema). It is not only one of the largest projects of its time, but it most potently reflects the spirit of the Taiwanese New Wave to realistically present the lives of Taiwanese people, by returning to a period when reality itself is a sensitive subject.
“Millions of Mainland Chinese fled to Taiwan with the National Government after its civil war defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949. Their children were brought up in an uneasy atmosphere created by the parents’ own uncertainty about the future. Many formed street gangs to search for identity and to strengthen their sense of security.”
Despite the Nationalist Government’s omnipresence in the society, for most of A Brighter Summer Day’s duration, it remains out of focus, sitting at the edges of the frame. Yang replicates the air of eeriness from that era on film by averting the gaze from the beast itself, rendering its presence a malign force that seeps in against all will. The only instance where the political situation is explicitly laid out is during the opening text above. It’s very effective, but it might also cause confusion to those who are unfamiliar to the setting. To fully grasp the suffocating purposelessness that permeated post-WWII Taiwanese society, and how it weighs on the society and ultimately caused Xiao Si’r’s descent, some further historical context is needed. As a Taiwanese myself, I aim to provide some insights into our history and culture.
The history of Taiwan is tumultuous and soaked in the sweat and blood of Aboriginals, immigrants, and the rulers. The Han-Chinese majority that immigrated to the island over the centuries had gone through Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese colonization, Qing and Japanese rule, before finally being claimed by the Nationalist Government after WWII. The national identity of “Taiwanese” is a complex and much-debated issue till this day, and rifts between people open up with each regime change.
It may not occur to the viewers reading the subtitles, but A Brighter Summer Day’s dialogue is comprised of various dialects and accents. The millions of people who fled from China brought with them the not only their speech, their customs, but also their provincial baggage. Tension and tribalism arise when different people are confined to an island. The gangs of Janguo high school (it’s hard to imagine that it’s the most prestigious high school of the country today) closely follow their provincial ancestries, and the gangs are just a microcosm of the society at large. Workplaces and social circles are separated by class and borders which the refugees will never see again for the rest of their lives.
In A Brighter Summer Day, the students unleash their pent up frustration through gang violence, but the Lord of the Flies style campus is just a product of absenting mentor and parental figures. The school bureaucrats and parents shirk away from their responsibilities at every opportunity—only halfheartedly or even indifferently involved in their children’s lives. Xiao Si’r’s father exhibits this inner retreat when he turns from an outspoken father into a father who can’t stand up for his son. But what seems to be the cause?
The title of this film takes after the lyrics of Elvis’ Are You Lonesome Tonight?—the Elvis tape thrown away by the prison guards near the end of the film symbolized the wasted youth. But in Taiwan (and other Chinese territories), A Brighter Summer Day goes by another name: The Homicide Incident of the Youth on Guling Street, which shares the name with the 1961 teenage murder case the film is based on. The cause of the murder which shocked the nation was a lover’s quarrel, much to the relief of the authorities (as it isn’t provincially motivated), but the outrage is disingenuous at best. Is it really a loss of innocence when the innocence was already lost?
In 1947, before the Civil War was lost, the provincial tension and discontent stemmed from governmental corruption culminated in a riot that was swiftly and violently put down by the police and the military, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. The February 28 Incident sets the tone for Kuomintang’s (Nationalist Party) terrible rule for the following decades. The Party enacted martial law two years later, and for the next 38 years, it was wholesale slaughter and imprisonment of Communists (perceived or otherwise) and dissenters, many of whom were falsely reported in exchange for monetary rewards. The exact number of innocent victims is still unknown today, but conservative estimation puts it at around 140,000. The interrogation of Xiao Si’r’s father was merely a tip of the iceberg. This era of fear and atrocities was later known as the White Terror.
When the Nationalist Government did settle down in Taiwan, it didn’t come to terms with its defeat until many decades later. For most of Republic of China (not to be confused with People’s Republic of China) government’s existence, it views the Communists as an illegitimate regime and their hold on Mainland territories a mistake soon to be corrected. The Nationalist Government pushed propaganda at every level and plunged the country into a collective denial. Point out the emperor’s new clothes, then you risk imprisonment, or worse. Today, traces of authoritarianism still linger; statues of the dictators remain erected, and military officers you see in the film are still posted in high school and university campuses all over the country. Even at the time of A Brighter Summer Day’s shooting—years after the martial law has been lifted—the crew had to present a fake script to get approval for the use of old tanks.
Though the U.S. opposed Chiang Kai-Shek’s invasion plan, it did provide billions of dollars in financial aid. American pop culture was imported and appropriated alongside civilian supplies, forming a paradoxical image. It is Xiao Si’r’s friend, Cat, wiring a rock-n-roll record to a radio—a typical propaganda tool for the government—and failing to produce a sound. Western pop culture was alluring but barely understood; Cat covers Elvis Presley’s songs without knowing a single word of the lyrics.
During the White Terror, every art form is subjected to rigorous censorship. As a result, anything that isn’t state-propaganda, or isn’t banned avoids commentating on or is far removed from the current reality, and cinema during the White Terror is no exception. The studio Xiao Si’r, Cat, and Ming occasionally sneak into was shooting period-drama. Propaganda films are mostly military-themed, anti-communist movies that promote patriotism. There are also a few government-sanctioned projects such as Beautiful Duckling that endorse “healthy” lifestyles.
The most popular civilian productions during the 60s to 80s are Taiwanese-Hokkien language movies, martial art movies, and romantic melodramas. The Taiwanese-Hokkien films’ success lies in combining folklore with Taiwanese Opera and found a foothold in the market where propaganda films couldn’t, but they were surpassed by Mandarin movies and their superior production values. 1967’s Dragon Inn set box-office records, but the Wuxia/martial art genre really peaked at the 70s, taking up 40% of all film release at that time, and Chiung Yao’s romantic novel adaptations dominated the melodrama segment—the prolific author has over 50 movies under her name. However, Taiwanese cinema at this stage offers entertainment and escapism, but little more.
Censors loosened up after the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the first presidential election in 1996, and Taiwanese New Wave films sprang up with the aid of new governmental creative policies. Filmmakers like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien frequently compete in film festivals around the world. Unfortunately, decades of having no critical space has a negative impact on culture. Local box office of the acclaimed international darlings was abysmal since Taiwanese audience was (and to some degree, is) not used to slow and contemplative movies. Critics themselves were split on the New Wave. The commercialism-centric and conservatives Film Critics China even denounced the movement for “overt pretentiousness” and “chasing after foreign praise”. Chiang family’s military dictatorship hampered generations’ cinematic literacy.
A Brighter Summer Day perfectly encapsulates and channels the anxiety and helplessness of a time of stifled speech. In the end, Xiao Si’r failed to change anything or anyone, he was ground down, buried, and silenced by the state machine. Ironically, as one of the leading directors of the movement, Edward Yang’s creative voice was often disregarded. A Brighter Summer Day was cut down to 185 minutes by a distributor to increase the number of screenings. The full version—restored by Criterion Collection—was never screened at its birthplace until November 2016. Similarly, Yang opted to not release Yi Yi due to distributors and theater chains. Yang may have outlived the White Terror, but he did not outlive its impact. Between 1998 and 2001, the government opened up to western markets and struck down Taiwanese film quotas in order to join WTO. Hollywood blockbusters replaced Taiwanese movies as the main venue for escapism, crushing Taiwan’s film industry. It still did not fully recover.