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The English title of "A Brighter Summer Day," Edward Yang's chronicle of disaffected youth in Taiwan in 1960, comes from "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," which was a hit for Elvis Presley that year. One of the teenagers in this sprawling, melancholy and surpassingly beautiful film sings in a rock 'n' roll band, and he tries, phonetically and with the help of a friend's sister who studies English, to decode the song's haunting, enigmatic lyrics.
American pop music is a tendril from the outside world that has penetrated this claustrophobic, hectic island, and it expresses the universal longings and the specific frustrations that dominate the lives of Mr. Yang's characters. The film, at bottom a true crime story about a murder, seethes with the spirit of confused, ardent rebellion that you also find in Hollywood movies from the 1950s and early '60s, like "East of Eden" or "Rebel Without a Cause." Focused mainly on the restlessness of a group of young men, "A Brighter Summer Day" also belongs to a tradition that stretches from "I Vitelloni" to "Mean Streets" and beyond.
But this film, completed in 1991 and only now receiving a proper American release (thanks to restoration efforts by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the adventurous programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center), is much more than the sum of its references and associations. Colored by Mr. Yang's memories of the world he grew up in, it is one of those movies that, by slow accretion of detail and bold dramatic vision, disclose the structure and feeling of an entire world.
Mr. Yang, who died in 2007 at the age of 59, is best known in the United States for "Yi Yi," his brilliant, inexhaustibly insightful chronicle of family life in modern Taipei. Of his half-dozen other features (all of which were part of Lincoln Center's recent retrospective, "A Rational Mind"), "A Brighter Summer Day" is, by critical consensus, the masterpiece. And it deserves that overused designation in several specific ways. In every aspect of technique — from the smoky colors and the bustling, off-center compositions to the architecture of the story and the emotional precision of the performances — this film is a work of absolute mastery. Its imaginative authority and the scale of its achieved ambition make it not just a wonderful movie but also an essential piece of modern cinema.
It is also — fair warning — four hours long. But they are not difficult hours, given Mr. Yang's novelistic interest in character and his skill as a choreographer of dramatic incidents. At the center of the story is Xiao Si'r (Chang Chen), a skinny, diffident student whose daily circuit takes him from a chaotic, authoritarian school to a cramped home to the danger and camaraderie of a street gang. Xiao Si'r's parents (Chang Kuo-Chu and Elaine Jin), like Mr. Yang's, emigrated from Shanghai after the Communist victory in 1949, and more than a decade later their lives are still unsettled.
The forging and unraveling of alliances — and the periodic eruption of battles that are sometimes comic, sometimes lethal — give "A Brighter Summer Day" its intrigue and momentum. It is a crowded, complex crime story that is also a tale of sexual awakening and an understated exercise in kitchen-sink realism. In short — or rather at mesmerizing, necessary length — this film has everything, and is well worth a day of your life.— A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Sun December 10, 2:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Taiwan; 1991; in English, Mandarin; 237 min
Director: Edward Yang, Writer: Edward Yang, Hung-Ya Yen, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Cast: Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, Chang Kuo-Chu, Elaine Jin, Chuan Wang