Darren Carver-Balsiger’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review contains various thematic spoilers but only vague allusions to plot spoilers. Read at your discretion.
A Brighter Summer Day is a truth epic, a four hour journey into the abyss of teenage disillusionment. It's about the reality of growing up and the consequences of an aimless life. It's a quiet movie, of people kissing in the dark, with conversations happening between people offscreen, of themes muted in favour of shapeless ideas. It's paced like life itself, with threads weaving gradually into the story, some exit before the end, others remain forever. This is a tale of music, love, injustice. A brick to the face, a desk in an empty room, a beating watched through a window. The cinematography shows us things through the gaps, frames within frames, tucking the camera away as an observer of all. A Brighter Summer Day is one of the richest and most intricate human dramas in cinema history, a pinnacle of its era, and a film almost unmatched in scope and thematic weight.
The politics of Taiwan in the 50s and 60s lays the groundwork for A Brighter Summer Day. There's two layers of politics here, the adults' politics (oriented around Taiwan's precarious political situation) and the children's politics (dominated by gangs). Throughout A Brighter Summer Day, these two sets of politics reveal themselves to be similar and connected (the lives of adults and children being interlinked on a very personal level is an idea returned to in Yang's Yi Yi). Families in Taiwan lived in exile, having fled communist China. Their children are brought up in a place where their families have no identity. The parents in A Brighter Summer Day fondly remember first meeting, and it's a melancholic reminder of what they've lost. They've gone from being middle class in China to poor in Taiwan. They feel abandoned and like they're unable to cope. Taiwan is not the sanctuary they hoped for, with authoritarian systems in place (both politically and in broader life). We see strict teachers, strict film directors, a world of bureaucratic and nationalistic education. Life has become a series of hoops to jump through. As the poor central family travels on a creaky bus, tanks roll down the street. Taiwan belongs to the army, to the generation who fought, and the kids are treated as a societal footnote. The adults have failed the children, and the political situation and its effects have created a generation of children without an identity. With China and Taiwan separate and uncaring for these youngsters, gangs become their substitute state. They're trying to find an identity and gangs at least provide something. With gang warfare and leadership struggles, the social politics of these children's lives seems to mimic the pointless fights of the adults. Both create tension between people, both have rules that make no sense (emphasised in the adult world by an interrogation sequence), and both force people to pick a side even though they don't know why. The adults separate themselves from the children, berating the younger generation for dating and joining gangs, they seem to feel that values have changed. The young people go where the crowds are, they're shallow and fickle, but the petty squabbles of the adults don't make them appear better (if anything, both are shallow, but the children just have less responsibility). The children become pawns in the games of adults (emphasised by bitterness between families based on their children's respective educations), but they're also the pawns of the instigators of gang conflict. The lead character's father can't trust an old classmate, mirrored below by the betrayals of school friends littering the film. Parents fear that their children will turn bad because they are cocooned in a world of gang crime and other failing students. Early on, we see the children clapping because of obligation, not because they care. This parallels the lives shown in A Brighter Summer Day, with lives lived as an obligation, not because people care. There's dreams of America littered throughout A Brighter Summer Day. The culture slowly seeps in, through music, flags, films, discussions on the presidents. People dream of the land of skyscrapers, Disneyland, and no communism, but it seems less like they want what America has and more that they don't want what they have now. A Brighter Summer Day plays with its politics subtly (it's not a political film particularly) by showing us how, as death and conflict intensifies, the lives of teenagers become more like the lives of the adults. The lives of our parents affects us as children, and in the fragile, teetering world of A Brighter Summer Day, it feels destined to lead to suffering.
"A person who'll apologise for wrongs he didn't commit is capable of all sorts of terrible things." Xiao Si'r is told this by father, and it's an idea which plagues the film. A Brighter Summer Day is filled with lies, and the lead character, Xiao Si'r, takes his father's message to heart. It turns this truthful boy into a tragic figure, someone who never learns when it's right to apologise and this becomes his downfall. He just learns to stay honourable and that inflexibility ruins him. He's so honourable that it gets him into trouble, for any stain on his honour leads to anger. Xiao Si'r's father attempts to be honourable through honesty and that has only gained him enemies and poverty (which makes him feel dishonourable). He wants Xiao Si'r to be honourable but that means nothing in this world of either gangs or politics. The state sees loyalty as honourable, and harshly interrogate the father to check his honour. Here, loyalty and truth are what provide honour, and that extends to Xiao Si'r as well. The secret police re-define lying, seeing unintentional omission as the same thing. Xiao Si'r applies this same logic to his love interest, Ming, seeing her omissions as lies that prove betrayal and a lack of honour. A Brighter Summer Day has many examples of righteous lies in its story, showing lies used to protect others, or to hide uncertainty, or to attempt to create fairness. Lying does bring struggle, but people will always do it. People need to learn to negotiate and sometimes accept a loss, perhaps apology has its place.
The character of Honey doesn't appear in A Brighter Summer Day for quite some time, but his presence is felt from early on. Honey is talked about as if he is a living legend and everyone seems to know a story about Honey. These children have no other idols in their world, so Honey becomes some kind of prophet to them. Throughout the turbulent first act, we get the sense that Honey could restore order, if only he were there. When Honey does turn up, in a uniform that commands respect, he speaks and everyone listens. He speaks with a quiet, comforting authority and needn't move, just sit and talk. Honey's gang is falling apart as the character of Sly attempts to unite the gangs (for peace, personal power, and perhaps Ming), but Honey knows everything and understands the complexities of everyone around him. He's like a vengeful God, seeking peace by violently crushing others and not by negotiation, and his followers split apart in fear, thinking that Honey is seeing the warfare as personal. Honey can't write but he's a clever guy, sharing some of the film's most profound wisdom. Honey knows of War and Peace, and parallels the complex life he leads with it. He knows that street gangs have a historical basis, that history is made from all these silly conflicts. Honey rejects the authoritarian status quo, refusing to stand still for the anthem. He walks, a moving man who lives by his own rules, and the only character unrestricted. Peace may come if Honey dies, but a subtler chaos will ripple beneath the surface if one gang has a monopoly on power. Honey too lives by honour, and would willingly take a beating from a group of people if he has to - no dishonour in losing when outnumbered. Yet, as is a recurring element of A Brighter Summer Day, such pride and honour is the downfall of Honey. When a typhoon hits, we see the ugliness of tribalism. There's a purge of the gang members. We see torchlight shining on a dying body, heavy rain pouring down as blood pours in the street, a bearer of light leaving a room as screams intensify. Yet despite all this talk of peaceful resolution, this purge is actually what stabilises the area. Sometimes violence and pain eventually leads to peace. It seems that Honey, like a God, is never wrong.
Midway through A Brighter Summer Day, the film changes. What started off as a gang movie becomes a family drama and fatal romance. The departure of Honey from the story (the screen goes black for a brief second) feels like the signal of this change. A Brighter Summer Day merges into a broader piece on identity. These children are unable to have an identity and through troubled adolescence they try to find one. It's difficult, and people are often not what they pretend to be. One hit and they all run away, people put up fronts that don't take much to break. A Brighter Summer Day is about forming an identity, and the ways in which deceitful love makes you question your identity. "One's own future is determined by one's own efforts" is something stated in A Brighter Summer Day, another line proven incorrect as we see how outside influences can also shape the future. Social cohesion is falling apart in A Brighter Summer Day and this is why the gangs have formed. They provide an identity to their members because they're part of a collective and don't have to consider themselves. These children can't find themselves, and that will very much determine their futures. Xiao Si'r very much struggles with his identity, and the film starts off in an expansive nature before slowly contracting around the lead. We see how just a few moments can determine identity, whether we're seen as good or bad. Xiao Si'r is ready to attack a man, but then saves him moments later when he has a heart attack. Just a few seconds difference and he'd have been a villain. Xiao Si'r struggles to find out who he is, and also struggles with his father's similar concerns. Interrogation can make you lose identity, as you start saying what you need to and stop being yourself. The interrogation in A Brighter Summer Day changes the father, moulding his identity. As Xiao Si'r slowly becomes stronger in his identity, his father becomes meeker. A swinging lightbulb is smashed in anger, almost a statement on frustration towards the father's weakness. The only thing that gives Xiao Si'r an identity is his relationship with Ming. Without such a connection, everything would unravel. We all want stability and security, and when something threatens that with uncertainty (uncertainly over loyalty, safety, or something else), we become unpredictable. When Xiao Si'r is faced with uncertainty, everything falls apart. His religious sister is the only one who understands his pain but no religion can save a soul in this much turmoil, lacking an identity so much. The inability to grow to be who you want to be is the defining through-line of A Brighter Summer Day. It's a story of a young man who can't become who he wants, through circumstances of his own making and those he can't control. It's a terrible tragedy.
The real tragic victim in A Brighter Summer Day is Ming. Ming's tears of sadness show a life of difficulty and pain that goes unrealised by everyone. Many people rely on Ming to keep things stable, meaning she keeps an intricate web of secret knowledge that will all unravel when people learn more about her. Ming has many boyfriends and her affections lead people to trouble. So many boys are idiots, with nothing to cling onto of their own, and so rely on Ming as their only hope. But this leads to destruction, as more and more people get distracted by her, and eventually it'll hurt Ming too. Boys, and men, feel they deserve loyalty in A Brighter Summer Day, regardless of Ming's feelings. She's an object to be passed around; Honey basically bequeaths her to Xiao Si'r. When Honey goes, Ming doesn't cry, but she is sick for days. Internally she suffers deeply. She possesses a quiet nature, as if she's often mourning, and this disguises her occasional loudness and exerted control over her life. Her situation, of acting passive in a world where she could be active, is endemic to the women of A Brighter Summer Day. Whenever they get involved in the world of men (gangs or politics), the men blame them for the problems even though they often provide reason to the situation. Ming truly suffers in A Brighter Summer Day, but she unintentionally brings a lot of pain on herself. Ming is another all-knowing character, like Honey, and able to tell what people really want. She understands what people expect from her and acts accordingly. She blurs the line between the real Ming and the fake Ming, destroying the identities of those she's entangled with. People often say they love Ming but all end up running away or leaving at some point. Xiao Si'r appears to be the only one who sticks by her, and with her he becomes who he wants. Yet she has taken away his new identity. He's become one in a long line of other boys, and she lies and fakes who she is. Whether he realises or not, he's built an identity dependent on a lie, on a lie which shaped the identity of many others. He's not unique, he's not himself. In a world as shrouded in turmoil as the one in A Brighter Summer Day, Ming's shaping and breaking of Xiao Si'r can only lead to further tragedy.
For the first three hours of A Brighter Summer Day, it's clearly a great film, a masterpiece even. Then, in its final half hour, it tops all that came before. Everything that's been building up comes to a head in a slow climax that solidifies all the moments that came previously. It's a slow buildup to an inevitable end, the endpoint of an identity-destroying society. The character of Ma warns Xiao Si'r about getting involved with girls but hypocritically gets involved with girls himself. He's a liar (and hence dishonourable), but Xiao Si'r is very slow to realise this. Xiao Si'r spends A Brighter Summer Day wanting revenge on Sly, Honey's betrayer and a boy who hates Xiao Si'r, but Xiao Si'r eventually realises that Sly is an honourable liar and that Ma has truly wronged him. Ma's selfishness has helped make Xiao Si'r selfish, and Xiao Si'r expects total loyalty from Ming because of his worries about Ma. Yet Ming is also selfish and it seems a lot of selfish people have shaped who Xiao Si'r became. Although, of course, Ming's suffering at Xiao Si'r's hands are far greater than Ma's; the women always get a worse deal. Earlier on in A Brighter Summer Day, we see Xiao Si'r imitate a cowboy movie, pretending to turn around swiftly and shoot, aimed at Ming. This playful scene takes on greater significance later, retroactively becoming foreshadowing. Xiao Si'r and Ming also play with weapons in an earlier scene, and Ming almost shoots Xiao Si'r. If he'd been stood in a slightly different position, he'd be dead. Small moments like these determine everything - who we are, our state of mind, our state of existing - and Xiao Si'r's miraculous avoidance of being shot is almost like fate. Fate is everywhere in A Brighter Summer Day, with all moments fatefully converging on the finale. It seems Ming's final suffering in A Brighter Summer Day is fate. She has no will of her own, just people around her to determine her future (will alone cannot break fate). She's part of the ultimate objectification, with no say in what happens to her. She's comfortable in her identity, and yet Xiao Si'r wants to change her. In the completion of his rising selfishness, Xiao Si'r demands change from those who don't want it, a compensation for his own uncomfortableness in his identity. He arrogantly dismisses God, questioning why an omnipresent God would allow him to feel like there's so much injustice. Honey spread a similar message to God in a way, trying to get others to be less selfish and consider what others (i.e. Honey) have done for them (although Honey, like God, doesn't seem to follow his own message). But Xiao Si'r becomes too wrapped up in his own thoughts and spends the final act trying to quickly forge an identity for himself. Forcing identity (whether through religion or otherwise) doesn't truly satisfy the soul, and Xiao Si'r's attempts to force identity onto Ming becomes their downfall. His earlier promise to protect Ming becomes ironic in this moment. His arrogance, in thinking that only he can help Ming, is reminiscent of Honey. Xiao Si'r wants to be the next Honey, the only person who can supposedly change Ming. He doesn't realise that changing someone is the same as controlling them, and that being nice to someone just so they're nice back (and make you feel secure), is incredibly selfish. Yet Ming sees and knows everything, she is like the world. She will only superficially alter, because everyone is almost the same; the world knows that people always come down to the same basic desires and needs in every generation. We want external things to define our identity (religion, politics, lovers), because we want to feel powerful over those things (to be our own God, our own decider of destiny). But the world (and Ming, in Xiao Si'r's case) won't let us. We can never be our own controllers of destiny because so much of the world can never be altered and will always remain. The same cycles will exist, each generation will have the same pain, the same politics, the same identity struggle. Some eras, like the setting of A Brighter Summer Day, bring these to the forefront but we each grow up unsure of who we will become, until fate intervenes. We need to adapt and live in harmony with people, but our own insecurities prevent that. Xiao Si'r refuses to change, expecting Ming to change whilst he stays the same. Neither plays it right, with both refusing to change for the other. They allow fate to take its course, because they refuse to consciously try to change who they are and where they are going. That doesn't mean they act the same though. Ming seems to let events pass her by, being a passive observer in it all. Xiao Si'r tries to shape events, because of his unconscious intention to keep his honour, and this leads to provocative interactions with the gangs and culture around him. This all leads to a devastating finale, where two characters who firmly intend to remain the same, find themselves at odds. One wants to allow events to happen around them, one wants to alter events to their own worldview. Xiao Si'r becomes an ignorant fool, thinking the world is his to change. Two all-powerful entities, the world and God (Ming and Honey), have already shaped everything around Xiao Si'r, one has given him an identity and the other has created the culture he exists in. God is dead, and the world will follow soon enough. Xiao Si'r's sister attempts to get Xiao Si'r to follow God. God has given her an identity, but Xiao Si'r sees it as not genuine. God has an identity, but his followers merely attempt to be subservient copies of his values. The first young male character we see in A Brighter Summer Day who truly has an identity is Honey. We know Honey has an identity even before we meet him, because his character looms large over the picture. Xiao Si'r wants an identity, and so wants to be Honey. He wants to be the moulder of events, the man who shapes the world, the man who gets the world. Not because of power, but because then Xiao Si'r would know who he really is. So, when Xiao Si'r meets Ming for the last time, what follows isn't an unexpected tragedy, but the inevitable end of an unapologetic, selfish existence that only wants to find a place in a world of turmoil.
A Brighter Summer Day is a cinematic high point, a film from New Taiwanese cinema that truly extends to a universality that we can all understand. It's very specific, and yet its themes are the broadest possible. Xiao Si'r repeatedly turns light switches off and on, as he can't see what's happening in the dark. Similarly A Brighter Summer Day needs to be watched so you can believe it to be the masterpiece so many people talk of. It's a dense tale of love and suffering, and a stroke of cinematic genius. A character crying, drinking from a bottle, asks "do you know how lonely life can be?" After spending four hours watching cultures clash, identities be re-defined, happiness evade all, you gain an affirmative answer to that question, and it's totally worth it.