The Taiwanese film director Edward Yang died on June 29th 2007 at the age of 59, and at the time of writing my newspaper of choice still hasn't run an official obituary (though their website has a rather touching tribute from former Edinburgh Film Festival boss Shane Danielsen). It's a disgrace, frankly. After all, Yang's last film - Yi Yi, also known as A One And A Two - won him a Best Director award at Cannes, and had a successful arthouse release in the UK. Back then in 2001, he was even considered popular enough for the ICA to programme a season of his earlier films.
And this is where it gets personal: because the ICA's screening of Yang's 1991 film, A Brighter Summer Day, has a special place in the mythology of myself and The Belated Birthday Girl. In comics terms, it was our #0 date movie: the last film we saw as just friends, before realising there were other things we could be doing together. In fact, in between that screening and our first proper date, I visited Hong Kong and brought back a souvenir for The BBG - the Video CD version of the four-hour director's cut of A Brighter Summer Day (the version we saw at the ICA was the three-hour international release). So you can see, it's an important film for both of us.
Fast forward to July 2007: we've been going out for six years, Edward Yang is dead, A Brighter Summer Day appears to be currently unavailable in any video format, and we suddenly realise that we still haven't watched that four hour version. Which means that I'm about to review a film that you probably can't see anywhere right now. But, hopefully, that will change soon.
An early caption sets the scene - it's Taipei in the summer of 1960, and we're following a group of teenagers through one of those After That Summer Things Would Never Be The Same Again scenarios. In particular, we're looking at the children of the mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communist uprising: so aside from the usual teenage alienation, they also have to cope with feeling like outsiders in the country they currently call home. Many of them form street gangs to generate some sort of sense of belonging: petty thieving and gang fights are pretty much the norm.
Si'r (played by Chang Chen, a decade before he found worldwide fame in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is a typical example. Only three things give him any sort of respite from the trouble he's continually getting into at school. His friends' obsession with Western rock 'n' roll music (their flawed transcription of an Elvis song explains the title): hanging around the local film studios: and cultivating his crush on local girl Ming (Lisa Yang). Unfortunately, Ming's already tied up with Honey (Lin Hongming), another gang member who's currently on the run. Inevitably, Honey's return takes the powderkeg atmosphere of the town and pours petrol all over it.
This isn't the ideal way to watch the film, of course. VCD always has sub-par image quality when compared against DVD, but this particular one looks so ropey you almost expect the dodgy camera view to be spoiled by the one person who really needed the loo. Not to mention the Chinese and English subtitles that look like they were hand-stencilled onto the print. But somehow Yang's quiet, understated style manages to come through even in these reduced circumstances.
He captures the random cruelty of adolescence beautifully - your own teenage rivalries may not have escalated the way they do here, but the petty grudges and sudden switches of allegiance feel desperately familiar. Chen's performance is especially noteworthy, capturing Si'r's growing confusion as he realises he doesn't really understand people at all - his enemies changing their point of view as they mature, his friends moving on without him, his family having their own problems. The tension is beautifully built with lots of long, static takes - but when violence eventually breaks out, Yang denies the viewer the satisfaction of release, shooting those scenes from a distance (apart from one notable exception) and refusing to make them look like anything other than an ugly brawl.
The extended running time isn't a problem (which is surprising now that I've just re-read my review of Yi Yi, which I complained at the time was pushing it a bit at three hours). Actually, one of the few advantages of the VCD format is that the film's split across four discs: sure, the breaks are all in wonky places, but it helps you think of the film as a four hour, four episode miniseries. Yang's pacing in the extended cut is remarkable: I particularly liked the tragedy that comes roughly halfway through the story, and the way the film takes a metaphorical deep breath before carrying on - a quiet three-to-four minute montage showing people slowly getting their lives back together again. (And the lack of music - apart from the rock 'n' roll tunes played on screen - makes it feel all the more real.)
The pictures may be fuzzy, but the performances of the young cast are all superb, and the four hours simply fly by. So it's positively criminal that rights problems are currently preventing anyone from seeing this, unless they bought the VCD back at the turn of the century like I did. Yi Yi has recently had a fine re-release on DVD courtesy of Criterion, and it'd be lovely if the company could do a similar job on A Brighter Summer Day. The film deserves it: so does Edward Yang.