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Music and modernity in A Brighter Summer Day.

Fredric Jameson, in his essay "Remapping Taipei," describes the experience of modernity thus:
 The social totality can be sensed, as it were, from the outside,
 like a skin at which the Other somehow looks, but which we
 ourselves will never see. Or it can be tracked, like a crime,
 whose clues we accumulate, not knowing that we are ourselves
 parts and organs of this obscenely moving and stirring zoological
 monstrosity. But most often, in the modern itself, its vague
 and nascent concept begins to awaken with the knowledge
 function, very much like a book whose characters do not yet
 know they are being read. (1)

Jameson describes the aesthetic sensation of modernity as requiring the existence of an omniscient presence, who, "rising over miniature roof-tops", (2) connects the disjointed, fragmented experiences of contemporary life, and provides sensations of connection, rhyme, and irony. This is the province of the artist, who alone is capable of converting the random events of daily life into "the material of storytelling, or Literature." (3) Edward Yang, in his 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, endorses this view of the nature of art. His film provides its viewers with a large-scale vision of Taipei circa 1960 that is consistently denied to its characters. We are given a series of visual and linguistic repetitions and filmic echoes that make connections, which are invisible to the film's characters. A Brighter Summer Day's relationship to the artistic urge similarly reflects Yang's positioning film, literature, and especially music, within the world of the film as revelatory of the complexities of the characters' lives. Yang uses these arts, most importantly music, as a means of rising over those roof-tops, and providing an understanding of daily life impossible to achieve in the real world. Music becomes the central point at which all the characters' lives connect, and their relationship to music illuminates the normally unseen framework of 1960s Taiwanese life.

The traditional and the modern are in constant tension throughout A Brighter Summer Day. Symbols of the two modes emerge everywhere, and reveal a society on the cusp of massive individual and institutional change. A Brighter Summer Day's placement in Yang's filmography, after his critically celebrated films Taipei Story and Terrorizer, both of which are set in present-day Taipei, is worthy of notice. A Brighter Summer Day is a step backward, a journey into the past, and its relationship to the earlier Yang films is one of explanatory prequel. A Brighter Summer Day documents the social and cultural changes that create the modernized, late-capitalist life of 1980s Taipei documented in the earlier two films. Such a task allows Yang the freedom to explore a society on the brink of a great transformation, from a traditionally based way of life to a modernized, urban existence. While the film exists in a number of versions, throughout this essay I will be referring to the 185-minute cut (a 237-minute version is the fullest, and most difficult to find).

The other great transformation shown in A Brighter Summer Day is from cultural domination by a series of invaders, including the Japanese and the mainland Chinese, to a new culture primarily associated with the United States. The film's cultural talismans illuminate this complex intertwining of old and new, Japanese, Chinese, and American influences. A Brighter Summer Day's characters treat their surroundings as archaeological, digging to find artifacts relevant to their contemporary existences. Their commingled presence in the film creates a hybrid existence where the traces of past military invaders mix with those of future cultural invaders.

In a similar vein to Yang's later masterpiece Yi Yi, A Brighter Summer Day takes in a year in the lives of a prototypical Taiwanese family, the Zhangs. However, unlike Yi Yi, A Brighter Summer Day focuses less on family life and more on the trials of one of the Zhang family sons, Zhao Si'r. Si'r is an adolescent wrestling with the complexities of his life, both at home and in school. Due to school overcrowding, many of the less gifted or rowdier students are forced to attend classes at night, and Zhao Si'r is one of them. These students understand their position as relative second-class citizens within the school (and social) hierarchy, and take out their aggression by forming gangs. Si'r and his friends belong to the Little Park gang, whose primary rivals are the older, rougher members of the 217 gang, led by the ferocious Shandong. Little Park's erstwhile leader, Honey, has been exiled for some time at the start of the film, having joined the navy as a means of avoiding jail time. Temporarily replacing him is his younger understudy Sly.

Si'r's presence at the conjunction of family and society allows us a large-scale vision of Taiwanese society circa 1960. Life in the classroom and gang are constantly echoed in the greater society surrounding these small groups. The echoes of history are also always present. Taiwan's 20th century history of subjugation is a palpable presence in the film, with the traces of past invaders everywhere. Early in the film, Si'r's mother complains at the dinner table of the music drifting in from a fruit stand outside, saying, "We fought the Japs for 8 years, and now we live in a Japanese house and listen to Japanese music." Her tone is intensely hitter, reflecting the viewpoint that military victory is useless if followed by cultural defeat.

A Brighter Summer Day's setting in 1960 places it at a moment of triangulated cultural subjugation. The recollections of Japanese role clearly still weigh on the memories of the film's adults, and those familiar with Taiwanese history will immediately grasp that 1960 was during the rule of Chiang Kai-Shek's mainland Nationalists, who had been defeated by Mao Tse-tung and the Communists on the mainland in the 1948 civil war. Still early in its development is the impending cultural hegemony of American films, music, and style. 1960 is a year in which all these factors, those that have departed and those yet to come, can all be seen.

Si'r and his friends have their closest cultural relationship with American rock & roll. Taiwan, not quite a full-fledged member of the modernized world, seems to only presently (in 1960) be discovering the astounding early singles of Elvis Presley recorded in 1956 and 1957, including "Don't Be Cruel" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The music of Presley and other early rock & roll stars galvanizes the adolescents' society, and becomes the primary distinction between themselves and the adult world. Two members of Little Park, Deuce and Cat, are the lead singers of the local band, and their performances become, in many ways, the heart and soul of A Brighter Summer Day. The relationship between performance and reality, between art and existence, forms the essential complex duality of the film.

Other arts are also present in the narrative of A Brighter Summer Day. The filmmaking world is the location of the film's opening scene, when Si'r and Cat hide in the rafters of the studio in the hopes of spotting the lead actress changing. The camera pans upward, slowly making its way up to the top rafter where the boys hide, and when it reaches them, they drop a book, and reveal their presence to the crew. The characters in the film are immediately identified as avid consumers of culture, rather than producers, a situation they attempt to remedy over the course of the narrative. In addition, the process of creative exploration is shown, in this scene, as a far from joyous affair. The lead actress is dissatisfied with the lack of respect shown her, the director is unhappy with his supposedly adolescent 40-year-old actress, and the cast and crew seem both dazed and bored, scanning the room in the hopes of finding a previously hidden exit. In a later scene, the director stops Si'r and his quasi-girlfriend, Ming, as they attempt to sneak out of the studio. He eyes Ming, and offers to give her a screen test, possibly seeing in her a freshness and authenticity absent from his aging, demanding actress. This, of course, is a point in favor of the film we are watching, whose lead actress is the very individual whom the fictional director singles out.

Literature, as well, makes a small but crucial appearance in A Brighter Summer Day. Honey, the returned leader of the 217 gang, talks to Si'r, and tells him that reading "swashbuckle novels" like War and Peace preserved his sanity during the difficult months in the navy. Honey also refers to Napoleon, and to a plot involving an enraged prince, which sounds suspiciously like Hamlet. Honey has discovered, in these works, a sense of history absent from his own life. Literature has imparted to him an understanding of life being lived in the context of history, all the more crucial to a Taiwanese people robbed of so much of their history by foreign interlopers. There is a humorous cineaste's joke in Honey's fascination with historical fiction, as his getup is reminiscent of nothing so much as the return of a particularly malevolent Jacques Demy sailor. Nonetheless, what Honey finds in these books is a sense of identification lacking in his surroundings. Literature identifies his place within the historical continuum, and allows him to take a step back from his own existence and grasp it as a whole. As he says, "I found people in the past were just like us in our street gangs." This discovery encourages Honey to reverse the equation, and provide a similar service to others like him. "If I could write, I'd write a novel for people like me to read in the future."

Yang grants wisdom to Honey, but it is a startlingly ironic bequest, for his understanding comes at the expense of a certain knife's-edge brutality, and he is soon murdered by his rival Shandong. Honey's enlightenment has revealed two important facts about the society he finds himself in: first, that such knowledge is an incredibly dangerous luxury in Taiwanese society of the time, and second, that no one in his immediate surroundings has any want or need for such a luxury. Enlightenment is something that the other members of the 217 gang, and the great majority of the characters of A Brighter Summer Day, cannot afford. Literature, as such, has a mind-expanding capability sorely lacking in any other aspects of these characters' lives, but the wide-angle portrait of society it provides also lessens the finely tuned attention to detail so necessary for survival. As we are shown, the pleasures of literature can be fatal.

Music, however, is the axis on which Yang's film turns. Yang frequently chooses cultural talismans as centerpieces for his films, from baseball in Taipei Story to photography in Terrorizer and Yi Yi. A Brighter Summer Day is the only film in his oeuvre, though, in which Yang expresses any interest in rock & roll as a cultural medium. Specifically, the characters in the film are tied musically and emotionally to the groundbreaking work of Elvis Presley. Elvis as talisman connects A Brighter Summer Day, in at least a superficial way, to American Graffiti and its scores of imitators among American films of the 1970s and 1980s. In this light, A Brighter Summer Day becomes a negative of those American films, a story of cultural and sexual awakening through music that runs parallel to its American cousins. By virtue of Taiwan's gnarled history, and the specific milieu of the film, the story it tells, while superficially similar, is markedly different in tone and scope from the Lucas film. The aura of nostalgia that the two films share is augmented in A Brighter Summer Day by pervasive reminders of the era's harshness- a reality principle absent from the sugar-coated fantasia of American Graffiti.

The relationship between music and life in Yang's film is continually complicated by the way one bleeds into the other. Each of the film's musical performances is surrounded or interrupted by details of the plot that reflect, in one way or another, on the music. In many of the scenes, the performances are ironicized, their yearning romanticism at odds with the threat of violence that is constantly swirling around them. In other scenes, however, the romantic, questing nature of the songs are only intensified by their surroundings, the performance of these songs a direct revelation of the characters' emotions, as in a more traditional musical. A Brighter Summer Day belongs to the backstage genre of musical, in that all the performances are justified by the plot- i.e., a character would never burst into song if not on stage before a paying audience, or emoting into a tape recorder. The songs the characters sing are all American pop songs of the early rock and roll era, and as such the subject matter is almost exclusively love and romance. The selection of these songs, their performance, and their placement within the body of the film, reveal much about the relationships in A Brighter Summer Day.

In the first musical scene, the bumpers to the performance indicate the precise relationship of song to life, and the ways that the songs articulate emotions too complex to be otherwise expressed. The scene opens with Si'r standing across the street from a house, gazing longingly at Ming, the object of his affections, as she enters. The camera is placed directly behind Si'r, aligning our gaze with his. As the scene progresses, there is a slow fade up on the soundtrack of a crooning singer. The singing gets progressively louder, until there is a cut from Si'r's point of view to an interior shot of the performance, with Deuce, one of the leaders of the Little Park gang, serving as lead singer. What is most striking about the band is their remarkable re-creation of an American rock band, circa 1956. Deuce wears a white T-shirt, rolled up to reveal his biceps, and the band's guitarist sports the clunky black glasses favored by American stars like Buddy Holly. Their stage presence is completed by the mural of a lone palm tree and flashing multicolored Christmas lights that serve as decoration. The replica of an American band, while slightly threadbare in stage presence, is assisted by the astonishing imitation of American singing in English, a language which none of the characters in the film (with the exception of Si'r's sister, their song transcriber) evince any ability to speak. Deuce and his sidekick, the falsetto Cat, emit a pitch-perfect imitation of American singers virtually indistinguishable from the genuine product.

Cat replaces Deuce after the first song, and his number is a litany of positive changes in the singer's life, keyed around the repeated phrase "because you love me." As he sings in his pre-pubescent falsetto, Deuce storms offstage and into the concert hall's kitchen, where he engages in a violent, angry altercation with Sly, the gang's other leader, over Sly's indiscretions with Deuce's girlfriend Jade. Deuce attempts to attack Sly with a garbage can lid, and is repeatedly held back from lunging at Sly. Cat dashes offstage between songs to speak to Si'r, standing outside, and informs him that the entire ruckus was his fault, emerging as a result of his having indiscreetly informed on Sly. After imparting this information, Cat dashes back onstage for the next song, whose chorus is, "It's just like heaven, being here with you- you're just like an angel, my angel baby."

The sharp contrast between the innocently romantic tone of the songs and the anguished, tortured nature of the romantic relationships on display is emphasized by Yang's thorough integration of the two realms in this sequence. Neither Si'r's feelings for Ming, nor the complex roundelay of jealousy between Sly, Deuce, and Jade conform neatly to the romantic cliches of pop songs. Music, and art as a whole, as a beautiful lie is a motif that recurs throughout A Brighter Summer Day. The elevated sentiments of the songs are overwhelmed by the violence constantly simmering underneath the surface.

A short shot during the concert sequence provides the key for understanding these adolescents' behavior. Sly walks into the concert hall with a girl on one arm, strutting and emitting a glow of cocksureness while jauntily smoking a cigarette. This brutal parody of gangster/businessman's behavior is an indication of the entire adolescent society's basis in emulation of the adult society surrounding them. The random brutalization experienced in school is repeated in their relationships with each other, with hostility and violence as the only acceptable solutions to the problems at hand. The aping of behavior swings both ways- in an early scene, Si'r's father and his more influential friend confer in a dark corner at a party about the possibility of a promotion, and there is a remarkable similarity between their conversation and that of Si'r and his friends in posture and attitude. We come to understand that they, too, are in gangs of sorts, and that their lives operate by codes just as binding and restrictive as those of their sons. The lives of Si'r and his friends become a microcosm of Taiwanese society as a whole, reflecting the confusion, uncertainty, and violence of everyday life.

In the second performance sequence, the same elements are present, but intensified. Honey appears uninvited outside the concert hall like an avenging angel, hell-bent on starting a ruckus. He arrives during the singing of the national anthem, while everyone is stock-still, standing at attention. Honey's smooth, gliding walk manages to convey the impression of each step being his last without ever pausing. Again, Yang cuts between the ever-escalating fight and the performance inside, utilizing a shot from the side of the stage that includes the swooning girls standing onstage as well as the performers. The third segment of this triangulated sequence (the song performed has a chorus of "it couldn't be anyone else but you") is of the repeated exchange of glances between Jade and Ma, Si'r's new friend. Love and violence intertwine here as in the first sequence, forever inseparable. The music fades out as Honey and Shandong walk together down the darkened, empty road. Honey is talkative and excited, while his counterpart silently lurks behind him. As a car passes them, Shandong shoves Honey into its path, and Honey lets loose a strangled cry in the moment before he is killed. Yang immediately cuts back to the concert hall, where a new band is performing "Don't Be Cruel," complete with Elvis' trademark vocal yelps. The threat and the sadness of violence are ever-present inside the performances of the songs. By virtue of Yang's cross-cutting, the audience possesses an understanding of the harsh undercurrents beneath the songs that the adoring crowds seem to lack. Yang's recurring shots of the cheering (mostly female) audience highlights the growing gap in knowledge between the approving crowds and the film's audience. We (the film's audience) are repeatedly allowed glimpses of the sadness behind the romance, the experience behind the songs' innocence. The songs are not allowed to stand as is, but are complicated by their relationship with the characters' lives, made deeper and sadder by their surroundings.

The only performances left in A Brighter Summer Day, following the two concerts, are Cat's, and both involve a tape recorder rather than an audience. In Si'r's sister's room, surrounded by pictures of Elvis on the walls, Cat records his performance of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", complete with the mis-transcribed line that provides the film's title. Following the song, Cat tells Si'r about Ma's discovery in his house's attic- a Japanese samurai sword, and a picture of a young American woman. These two artifacts, in addition to the tape recorder, stand as indices of the presence of a melange of cultural imperializers in the film's Taiwan. The place of honor accorded to American music by A Brighter Summer Day's adolescents fits this pattern of Taiwanese cultural domination and reappropriation. These objects are constant reminders of Taiwan's inbetween status, caught between the Japanese, Chinese, and American empires. Rather than attempt to ignore this status, Si'r and his friends seek to celebrate the unique position of "this unknown place," as Elvis Presley refers to Taiwan later in the film.

A Brighter Summer Day shifts its narrative focus at this point, moving away from the members of the Little Park gang toward a concentration on the Zhang family. Si'r's father is taken away by the secret police and interrogated for a number of days, an experience that permanently scars him. He becomes a harsher parent, brutally beating his son Lao Er for the crime of pawning his mother's watch. Si'r is expelled from school, and must spend his days studying for the Day School entrance exam. In the meantime, separated from Ming by his expulsion, he becomes increasingly jealous of Ming's infidelities. His friends all seem to have changed as well- Sly, the former proto-capitalist hothead, has visibly calmed, not even flinching when Si'r slaps him, where in his first appearance in the film, he had brained a terrified boy with a brick. Si'r's frustration at his helplessness, and at the suffering inherent in the world, grows more palpable with each passing moment. While walking with Ming, she tells him to slow down his dogged pursuit of her affections, saying, "We have all the time in the world." Ming repeats word-for-word the interrogator's response to Si'r's father's complaints. The repetition draws a connection between Si'r's father's interrogation and Si'r's relationship with Ming, with both serving as trials by fire that neither can pass.

Si'r meets Ming one more time, promenading with her in a public square. Si'r offers his help in changing her for the better, which raises her ire. Yang cuts to Ming in close-up, angrily telling Si'r, "You're just like all the rest. You can't change me ... You want me to change? I'm like the world. The world will never change." Si'r, in response, stabs Ming, embracing her as the life ebbs from her, her head lolling on Si'r's shoulder. He screams at her, "You're hopeless and shameless," a retort that applies equally, in his equation, to the world at large. Yang cuts from the medium two-shot of their dance of death to a longer shot that takes in the activity surrounding them. The crowd of young people continues enjoying themselves, taking no notice of the catastrophe unfolding in their midst. Life flows on around them, oblivious to their personal tragedy.

In the film's crushing final two scenes, Cat brings his tape of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" to the prison where Si'r is incarcerated. He pleads with the jailers to bring his tape to Si'r, and as he walks away, we hear the song, and the contents of Cat's letter. Over an image of the prisoners sweeping up the lushly green yard in the dappled midday sunlight, Cat tells Si'r about sending his recording to Elvis Presley, who responded that he was surprised to hear of his music's popularity in "this unknown place", and has sent him a ring. The letter and the song are harshly interrupted on the soundtrack, and Yang cuts from the placid prisoners' scene to the guards' tossing Cat's tape into the garbage.

In a subtle match, the prison guard has the same intricate tea glass as Si'r's school principal. Yang never shows the guard's face, shooting him from the back only, and as a result the two men are joined, becoming the same figure of corrupt, jaded authority. The junked tape stands for all the missed communication of the film, as well as for Taiwan's aspirations as a whole. "This unknown place" loses its innocence, its desire for wholeness amidst the detritus of other empires, in Si'r's tragic fate. We never see Si'r again after he is arrested- he exists only as an absence in the lives of those left behind.

In A Brighter Summer Day's final scene, Si'r's mother and sister listen to the radio as they hang laundry to dry. The camera follows his sister, then pans right to look out a window to the garden, where his mother unfolds clothes. In the middle of unfolding one garment, she freezes, having heard Si'r's name on the list of students accepted for enrollment in the prestigious Day School, in the foreign language department. The credits begin to roll over this final image of a woman frozen in the unbearable awareness of exactly what she has lost. Taiwan, too, has lost- lost its opportunity for change at a crucial moment, choosing instead to follow the path of continued cultural domination that will create the Taiwan of Yang's contemporary films. As per Jameson's dictum, Yang creates a book whose characters do not know they are being read, a realist document of Taiwanese society that provides a God's-eye-view perspective of their lives. In the confluence of the two concluding scenes, Yang provides a unity of the personal and political, cultural and social spheres of the film for a literarily fitting finale accessible only to his viewers, and not his characters. And across the continuum of Yang's oeuvre, the story of modernization, cultural confusion, and personal anguish will continue onward toward the present. The Zhangs will become the Jians of Yi Yi, perhaps more successful than their forebears, but equally disoriented as to their place in Taiwanese society, and the world as a whole.


(1) Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic. London: BFI Publishing, 1992, p. 114.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance film critic in New York City.
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Author:Austerlitz, Saul
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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