Of course Hou wouldn't have been voted best anything if his films had been opening here regularly for the past decade; most critics would have long since tired of dozing off in them. But then, the films didn't open in part for a very good reason: Lincoln Center special events aside, there's basically no audience for them. (Ergo, they must be Art.)
This is what happens when everything becomes hype. Hou, an important if uneven and problematic director, finally gets a New York retrospective, and the people who've been waiting desperately for a new art-film messiah go so batshit that they lose all sense of accuracy and proportion. Critics become cheerleaders, and susceptible audiences react accordingly; neither wants nuance or discrimination?to distinguish between good Hou and bad, say?because their common cause is to establish a brand name, to coalesce in the kind of worship once visited on Godard and Fellini.
You'd think we'd be a long way from the time when subtitles and high-toned obscurantism automatically equated with artistic greatness, but evidently many of New York's art-film mavens are as gullible as they ever were, just older. There was saving grace in all of this, however. Hou's electoral apotheosis coincided with the New York Film Critics Circle presenting a career achievement award to critic Manny Farber, whose derisive term "white elephant art" precisely captures the tendency in Hou's work to allow inspiration to congeal into lacquered objets d'art aimed at the precious exclusivity of Cannes, Lincoln Center, etc.
No, I didn't just say that the emperor was buck naked. I merely regretted that the coverage given him last fall was so heavily weighted toward sycophantic, boosterish puffery. It contained no suggestion, for example, that Hou's weakness for arid hyperformalism might be as shrewdly market-oriented as anything in Spielberg. And given the overriding imperatives of establishing a new cult of personality, it certainly didn't register that there are other contemporaneous Taiwanese films as great or better than anything in Hou's catalog.
Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, for example. I've written about this astonishing, four-hour 1991 film before?though it's never had a regular run in New York, it has played at festivals and retrospectives, including two at the Walter Reade Theater?but I'm doing so this time with a note of finality, as a way of bidding adieu to the last decade and the mid-80s-to-mid-90s blaze of glory that was the New Taiwanese Cinema.
The occasion is "The New York Film Critics Circle Looks at the 1990s," a festival that runs weekends Jan. 29-Feb. 20 at the American Museum of the Moving Image. Fourteen critics, including myself, Matt Seitz and Armond White, have each selected and will introduce at AMMI a film from the last decade that we think deserves more attention than it has thus far received. My selection, which I'll introduce this Sunday at 2 p.m., takes its title from the lyric of a song you just may remember.
Are you lonesome tonight Do you miss me tonight Are you sorry we drifted apart Does your memory stray To a brighter summer day When I kissed you and called yousweetheart
You'll note that the Elvis Presley tune does not radiate brightness, nor does it concern carefree summer days. That makes it a perfect emblem for A Brighter Summer Day, which, like Elvis' 1960 hit, roils with the impossible longings of youth, the haunted lures of memory, the ghostly echoes of separation and regret.
Set in Taipei in 1961-'62, the film is very much an epic of modern Taiwan. Yet it's also a deeply personal work for its maker, as perhaps it is for many viewers. The first time I saw it, at the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1992, I emerged not only overwhelmed by its artistic power and scope but also struck by a singular impression: that this vision of a culture far distant in space and time was somehow connected to my own memory. Like a long-lost photo album from childhood, suddenly rediscovered in a dusty attic.
I know other viewers, including Americans, who report the same sensation. In my case, there's a partial explanation in that I'm just old enough to recall the time that Yang conjures through a universal set of icons and associations: early rock 'n' roll, boys in white t-shirts and loose khakis, the fraught atmosphere of the Cold War, with its talk of A-bombs and the communist menace. Yet the movie speaks a language even more universal, and acutely personal, in its evocation of the inner turmoil of early adolescence, a time that comes rushing at the viewer as if from the dark recesses of a dream.
The film encodes that movement in both its narrative and its look. In the first scene, the story's 14-year-old protagonist, Xiao Si'r (Zhang Zhen), and his best friend, Cat (Wang Qizan), awaiting a class at Night School, are in the rafters of a nearby movie studio watching a scene when a guard spots them and gives chase. Though briefly collared by the man, Xiao Si'r escapes, taking with him the guard's long, heavy flashlight.
Moments later, Xiao Si'r and Cat use the light to sneak a peak at two smooching lovers whose identities remain unclear and, in an unexpected way, dramatically crucial through the rest of the story; the incident doesn't feel so important at the time. Likewise, that flashlight also courses its way through the tale, as an implement of discovery, a reminder of a time when electric light was weak and erratic?and an emblem of the film's own way of piercing the shadows of personal and collective memory.
Fitfully illuminated by the filmmaker's darting gaze, the world Yang revisits is itself uneasy, culturally and politically. Taiwan had been a Japanese possession for a half-century, until it was ceded to China at the end of World War II. Thereafter, the victory of Mao's Communists on the mainland caused the island to be invaded by millions of Nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang (KMT) party would rule as a military dictatorship for four decades, until the late 80s.
The kids and families we see in A Brighter Summer Day are mostly transplanted mainlanders (like Yang, who was born in southern China in 1947 and came to Taiwan with his family as an infant). Their culture is traditional Chinese, but it's framed by the native Taiwanese, who have their own language, and by the lingering Japanese influence: As one character in the film ruefully notes, "We fought the Japs for eight years, and now we live in a Japanese house and listen to Japanese music."
But a far greater source of cultural tension emerges from a convergence of internal and external forces. The kids in Yang's film are, to paraphrase Godard, the children of rock 'n' roll and comic books. As such, they're as distant from their parents as Elvis is from Mencius. With nicknames like Deuce and Tiger, Sly and Airplane and Sex Bomb, they're recalcitrant, uniformed students by day; at night, away from home and school, they run in gangs, fighting, guarding turf, looking for kicks and something even more elusive?identity.
Xiao Si'r has every teen's Janus-like duality. He's one person out in the world, quite another?sulky, withdrawn?at home. The fourth of five kids (the nickname Xiao Si'r means "Little Four"; his real name is Zhang Zhen, which is also the name of the actor playing him), he has two older sisters, a younger sister and an older brother nicknamed Lao Er ("Number Two," which is also slang for "prick" and thus the source of jokes). Mr. Zhang (Zhang Guozhu), a low-level civil servant, and his wife (Elaine Jin), a teacher, met and married in Shanghai; their presence, the father's especially, becomes increasingly important in the story's second half.
Earlier, we are immersed in a world of teenage passions and passing fancies. Leaving the school infirmary one day, Xiao Si'r is asked to escort a fellow student, a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), back to class. They play hooky instead, visiting a remote rifle range and, later, the movie studio of the first scene, where the director of the film in production spots Ming and asks her to come in for an audition. Xiao Si'r, at this point, may already be in the first stages of a crush, but he knows not to let it carry him away: Ming is Honey's girl.
For a long while, Honey isn't so much a person as a phantom, a legend, a name to conjure with. Two teen gangs vie for this bit of Taipei turf, the Little Park boys and the 217 Village boys. Xiao Si'r belongs to neither but is closest to the Little Park gang, which was led by the charismatic Honey until a deadly fight, supposedly over Ming, forced him to leave the city and go into hiding. In his absence, the gang is being led by his shifty lieutenant Sly?the name, while apt, could be Iago?who's in the process of undercutting Honey's rule in several surreptitious ways, including striking a peace accord with the 217s that will allow the two gangs to stage a rock concert together.
Along with the diminutive Cat, who sings falsetto parts in Little Park's own rock band, Xiao Si'r observes all these machinations and rivalries?with its scores of speaking parts, the film is dense with subplots and minor characters?from the periphery. The gangs' menace doesn't reach him till one night when a group of 217s invades his classroom bent on punishing him for being with Ming at the rifle range. He is saved, abruptly, by a new boy in the class, a general's son named Ma, whose notoriety stops the 217s in their tracks: he is known citywide for having sliced up a kid with a samurai sword.
Through all of this, the drama's spiraling fascinations are matched by the film's mounting visual spell. It's impossible to see A Brighter Summer Day without recognizing it as the product of a unique?and perhaps uniquely Chinese?stylistic language. In part this stems from Yang's dark palette, his pervasive use of master shots rather than closeups and his use of camera movements only to follow characters. All three techniques tend to draw the viewer's eye into the image, with a subtly mesmerizing effect. But even more subtle, and more crucial in eliciting our complicity in that language's creation, is that Yang almost entirely avoids the most basic component of Western film grammar: cutting from a person looking to the look's object, especially when that object is another person's gaze. You know: He looks (at her); cut; she looks (at him).
In virtually every movie you see, the device is used 40 times before the end of the first scene. In A Brighter Summer Day it is used, in the full classic sense of matching two closeups, only once?the first time Xiao Si'r and Ming really seem about to connect, smiling at each other across a table in Little Park's ice cream parlor. But here, rather than being normal, the matching cut seems to produce an effect that's literally uncanny; a split second later, a phantom named Honey strides into the film. And everything changes.
There follow three bravura sequences that comprise the mid-film crescendo of A Brighter Summer Day. In the first, Honey, while tacitly "bequeathing" Ming to Xiao Si'r, describes his life in the romantic terms of his favorite novel, War and Peace, a soliloquy that effectively predicts this romantic hero's own imminent demise. In the second, the Little Park and 217 gangs stage their collaborative rock concert only to find their detente challenged by Honey, whose knowingly futile stab at reasserting control ends in violence and death in the street outside the concert.
In the third sequence, revenge is wreaked. Two gangs who had been allied with Honey, accompanied by Xiao Si'r and others, swoop down on the headquarters of both the Little Park boys and the 217s. The attackers arrive on a rainy night in rickshaws and hoods, wielding samurai swords. The cataclysm that ensues is made all the more stunning by the fact that we experience it mostly as screams and clatter?the only flickers of illumination come from candles, one dim and wildly careening light bulb and that flashlight.
Then, something really strange happens?and doesn't happen. We never hear of the gang slaughter again. Instead, the Secret Police arrive at the Zhang home and haul Xiao Si'r's father off for what turns into a long and humiliating ordeal of interrogation over his past political associations. This certainly is the personal heart of the film: the same thing happened to Edward Yang's father, who remained so embittered that, the day after his retirement, he got on a plane and left Taiwan forever.
If that seems an ill-fitting autobiographical intrusion on the film's drama, consider that the drama's entirety is a meditation on an essential Confucian question that has hardly been rendered irrelevant by the turmoil of 20th-century China: the question of proper authority. In their different ways, Honey and his father represent that to Xiao Si'r. But since both live in a world of illegitimate authority, they inevitably fall. Where that leaves Xiao Si'r, as the story wends toward its dark conclusion, is in the midst of usurpers, like Sly, and pretenders, like the aristocratic samurai-boy Ma, who not only snakes Ming (or so Xiao Si'r thinks) but also offers his friendship on terms that are full of homoerotic (and misogynistic) undertones.
Yang made a subsequent film called A Confucian Confusion, but the title could also fit A Brighter Summer Day. Bereft of any beacon of proper authority, Xiao Si'r spirals off into a darkness where he commits a crime that's no less horrific for being so ill-aimed, so fundamentally confused. After the deed removes him from the drama in its final minutes, we are reminded again that it is women who pay the heaviest price for these confusions. We see Xiao Si'r's mother, her back turned, staring at the shirt of her lost and doomed son. You can almost imagine her hearing the second verse of that old Elvis song?as if the ghostly voice singing it were Xiao Si'r's:
Do the chairs in your parlor Seem empty and bare Do you gaze at your doorstep And picture me there Is your heart filled with pain Shall I come back again... Are you lonesome tonight?