Whichever side of America’s immigration debate you’re on, you’re likely making the same assumptions: Immigrants want to come here, they want to stay here, and they’re better off if they do. The new world is always better. After all, it’s ours.
The filmmaker Edward Yang—whose melancholic 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day is finally being made available March 22 by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection—had a slightly more nuanced take on the subject, one not entirely irrelevant to current U.S. chatter: The film suggests that there might be a cosmic cost to immigration, one you can pay without even leaving home.
A kind of Far Eastern West Side Story, Yang’s epic, set in 1959, features gang wars, tragic romance, murder, and a portrait of youth betrayed. In his first screen role, the Chinese film star Chen Chang (of last year’s The Assassin, directed by Yang compatriot and onetime collaborator Hou Hsiao-hsien) plays 14-year-old Si’r. The character, though respectful of authority and even his parents, is also a kind of aggregate of Taiwanese indignity: Banished to night school for one bad test score, Si’r will see his father’s spirit crushed by the authorities, his calamitous girlfriend (Lisa Yang) pushed toward prostitution by her own needy mother, and his self-righteous society eaten by corruption. He follows a path to crime straight out of a ’50s Hollywood potboiler about juvenile delinquency.
Which is apt: Yang’s point throughout the film is that youth denied a cultural identity will lunge for one wherever they can find it—in this case American pop, tough-guy Hollywood, and the samurai swords left behind after Japan ended its occupation in 1945. (If you put a samurai sword onscreen in Act 1, it has to be used by Act 3.)
That Yang was among the first generation of modern Taiwanese was not coincidental to his filmmaking philosophy, his perspective, or even his gifts. Taiwanese cinema by the early ’90s had undergone a creative eruption of the sort Irish literature experienced about a hundred years earlier—an explosion of genius wildly out of proportion to the country’s population or importance. Immigration, of course, was key to both countries—in Ireland they were leaving; in Taiwan they were coming. Yang’s parents were among the millions who fled the Mao-conquered mainland in 1949, sweeping aside a native population and reshaping the island into an anti-communist fortress state and a mechanism of U.S. Cold War foreign policy. Immigration invented modern Taiwan. The idea that Yang’s generation might grow up with identity issues could hardly have been anyone’s primary concern, given the existential threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. But what Yang experienced and what yesterday’s Taiwanese (and today’s Americans) seem to consistently overlook is the traumatic effect on the young of a belittling political exchange being waged just over their heads.
Among A Brighter Summer Day’s many virtues—including Yang’s eloquent cinematic language, his uncanny way with actors, his elegantly insouciant eye—is the astuteness with which Yang depicts a childhood spent culturally unmoored, grasping for meaning while domestically adrift. The parents in A Brighter Summer Day nurse an impossible dream of retaking the mainland, where things were always better till the Commies overran it. In many ways, it’s a universal story, one not unfamiliar to children of immigrants everywhere. The motherland was sweeter. An undeserved paradise. The dream is to go back—to the land, preferably to the past.
The parents of 1950s Taiwan consider their island a godforsaken atoll, and their ongoing insult to what they see as a temporary home—the only home their children have ever known—is translated by the young into an insult to themselves. The reaction to a parental insult, as one might expect, is anger, resentment, and, occasionally, violence. (The film was inspired by a real-life crime.) Left to their own devices, the kids grasp for something greater than the fractured culture from which they’ve sprung. They form street gangs. They turn tribal.
A Brighter Summer Day, the fifth of Yang’s seven completed features (an animated film went unfinished at the time of his death in 2007), reflects the director’s own conflicted feelings about his Taiwanese upbringing. He was born an artist—something dealt with in his other masterpiece, 2000’s autobiographical Yi Yi—yet he strove to be a “good Chinese son,” as he once said, suppressing his creativity, studying engineering and, for seven years, working in Seattle on computer design. At age 33, he finally made the move into film, and his Americanization—and that of Asian culture—would be a recurring theme in his movies. So would the thwarting of hope and dreams, by a country whose insecurities gave birth to ideological rigidity.
In an atmosphere like late ’50s Taiwan’s, things get grasped, and warped. The title A Brighter Summer Day is from an Elvis Presley lyric misheard, a signifier of how culture gets twisted in translation. Yang concedes his own weakness for imported Americana right from the start of the film: Si’r and his little buddy, the Elvis-loving Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), are up in the rafters of a Taipei movie studio, overlooking a dysfunctional production and, coincidentally, paying homage to a similar scene in Citizen Kane. A number of like allusions in the film allow Yang to point out that he’s as susceptible to imported culture as anyone else, though far more adept at using it for his own ends: The long languorous shot at the beginning of the film recalls the last shot of The Third Man, another story of betrayal; there are hints of old gangster cinema that suggests everything from Angels With Dirty Faces to Scarface.
The appetite of Si’r and his pals for significance is desperate, and what they’re served is empty calories. During a shot in a movie theater, the characters are watching the John Wayne western Rio Bravo, which co-starred insipid American pop idol Ricky Nelson (and, like A Brighter Summer Day, includes virtually no close-ups). An Elvis tribute group in powder-blue suits plays a concert at a local hall and elicits the kind of squealing teenage reaction worthy of the King himself. The movie that Si’r and Cat have watched being made from above—a production rife with the kind of corruption and incompetence Yang finds at every level of Taiwanese society—is being led by a director who dresses like Akira Kurosawa (regarded as among the most Western of Japanese film masters).
The influences are everywhere, but they’re consistently second-rate. And, of course, secondhand. And dismissed by the elders as trash—which brings us to the major moral in Yang’s major movie: that a familiarity with contempt breeds more contempt. One wonders if there’s a Muslim or a Mexican Edward Yang out there right now, plotting a film about walls and Trump, rather than commies and Elvis.