In his 1991 masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang revisits the gang culture and rock and roll mania of Taiwan in the early sixties, recalling the true-life case of a schoolgirl murdered by a classmate that had fascinated him and his friends as a teenager. In seeking a meaning behind this appalling act, Yang utilizes a mammoth four hours and a similarly huge cast to uncover the wounds of history and politics as experienced by his generation, and that of his parents, on the island.
Here I offer an allegorical reading of the film, with spoilers necessarily included. Rather than providing a comprehensive scene by scene analysis, I am focusing my attention on the school building, the institutional structure given most weight in the film, and on the characters of Ming, Honey, and Jade, and their impact on the character of Xiao Si’r. I argue that the school represents the island of Taiwan, with each of the three characters symbolizing a different phase in the island’s modern history. Associated with each other, Honey and Ming contribute to a sense of duality that presides over much of the film, with its fade to black dividing the narrative in two, just as the night and day shifts divide the school. Jade’s importance comes to the fore as the film approaches its climax, pointing to a new way forward for the island.
A Brighter Summer Day begins ten years after the arrival of the waishengren, the name given to the wave of mainlanders who landed in 1949 following the defeat of the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Those who arrived from mainland China previous to this exodus, and who live largely apart from the waishengren, are known as the benshengren. Taiwan’s indigenous population, as Tony Rayns notes in his commentary to the Criterion Collection edition of the film, are absent from the film’s narrative.
With their hopes of returning to the mainland dwindling, the waishengren exist in limbo. The children are adrift, their parents’ attachment to the past depriving them of their own ability to regard Taiwan as home. They sleep in houses built for the former Japanese occupiers, while the icons of history and culture through which they struggle to find themselves, such as American rock and roll, Japanese swords, and Russian novels, also come from elsewhere. The young respond to their insecurity by forming gangs, in this case the Little Park or the 217s, while the adults seek to advance themselves by using their connections from the mainland, replicating a gang culture of their own.
In 1987, the year that Edward Yang began to conceive his film, thirty-eight years of martial law in Taiwan had come to an end. Reacting to the threat from China, Taiwan began an “indigenization process, recognizing its valid cultural roots … in the aborigines, calling for officializing and revitalizing the Taiwanese dialect and the tribal languages” (Beus 307). The differences between the waishengren and the benshengren have reduced as Taiwan asserts its own identity. The making of A Brighter Summer Day should be seen in this context.
Near the start of the film, Edward Yang provides some clues for reading his narrative. Xiao Si’r receives what David Bordwell describes as “probably the most unemphatic introduction of a protagonist in Taiwanese cinema”, the teenager sits with his friend Cat in the rafters of the film studio situated next to their school. Beneath them, a chaotic shoot is interrupted as the director argues with the lead actress. She doesn’t like the dress she is supposed to wear. “It’s a black-and-white film!” the director cries as he sends her to change her clothes directly below where Xiao and Cat are stationed. In introducing us to the movie set at this early stage in the film, Yang suggests a world in which there may be multiple ways of seeing. Actors break from roles to become their true selves and films may be in color or black-and-white. From his omniscient perch above the set, Xiao is confirmed as our guide to this complex world. However, as Cat loses his grip on the book that he is holding and it falls to the ground below, causing them to flee, we are warned his view may not encapsulate the whole story.
Xiao grabs a torch as he runs from the studio and its beam will soon be illuminating things better left unseen, be it lovers kissing in the moonlight, or the aftermath of a massacre. It is connected to a further motif, that of flickering light. Often associated with Xiao, who suffers from blurred sight, the use of erratic lighting symbolizes the absence of clear vision. Prior to the sighting of a mysterious girl whose identity will prove crucial, Xiao moves through the grade school at night, switching lights on and off. Much later, as he sits in bed the night before he kills Ming, Xiao’s confused state of mind is visualized through his repeated use of the on/off switch on his torch. Finally, when he has seen enough, Xiao will return the instrument to the studio. The motif also appears on a wider level, for example, regular power outages mask goings on at the 217 gang’s pool hall.
The most significant example of flickering light might be represented in the two shifts, day and night, that the teenagers’ school is divided into. The institution is symbolic of Taiwan itself, and hence the division embeds this murky vision into society as a whole, whilst simultaneously representing two populations of Taiwan, the benshengren and the waishengren. In their analysis of the tunnel vision perspective found throughout A Brighter Summer Day, Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh and Darrell William Davis claim that “schoolyard politics are a microcosm; they authorize and stand in for a militarized, authoritarian civil society” (104). This is true, and the symbolism extends beyond that, to the place of the island itself.
As befits an island under martial law, discipline is carried out by two masters of conduct, one civilian and one military. The basketball court embodies an outside influence on Taiwan and is an arena of conflict. Sporting instruments are constantly retooled as weapons by the teenagers. The injured repair to the school clinic, staffed by a kindly volunteer doctor who also maintains a practice serving the wider community. The doctor, for reasons that I will return to, represents the United Nations.
The Taiwanese border is represented by a vestibule that marks the entryway to the school. Occasionally, this is the site of skirmishes, as when a basketball is ‘fired’ out of the darkness at Xiao and his friends. To one side a stall is managed by Red Bean, a young woman who is an object of fascination for the teenage boys. The table on which she sells her wares represents an open gate, allowing easy passage through. As the boys pass her, they speculate on the color of her underwear (the basis of her nickname) and otherwise torment her. Red Bean was born in Taiwan during Japan’s fifty year occupation of the island. When Cat lifts the back of her dress, confirming the suspected color of her underpants, the view that he obtains, a red circle surrounded by a white dress, is that of a humiliated Japanese flag.
Taiwan’s relationship with the outside world is also represented elsewhere, by the radio that sits in Xiao’s house. It is through this instrument that his father listens disapprovingly to the result of Kennedy’s victory over Nixon in the 1960 election. Later dismantled and reassembled by Cat (the character most obviously associated with the United States) the radio works only intermittently. The static represents Taiwan’s isolation, while the awkward angles at which the radio must be placed in an effort to avoid it evoke Taiwan’s lopsided relationship with the world, an island occupied first by the Japan, and then the United States, its status uncertain and at the mercy of others.
If the school represents the structure of Taiwan, then the three characters – Honey, Ming, and Jade – symbolize different eras of the post-1949 island. Honey represents a moment of hope, the optimism that existed immediately after the flight from the mainland to Taiwan, a time when people believed they would soon be returning home, but also when another option was available to the new arrivals. The possibility existed to reach out to the existing population of the island and put down roots of their own. Ming represents the Taiwan that existed after optimism had faded, the long years in which martial law continued while the hopes of a return to the mainland dwindled. As Xiao will come to argue with the film director, it is an unnatural position. Jade, whose importance increases as the film moves towards its climax, represents a new Taiwan, the one that was beginning to emerge as Edward Yang made his film.
That Xiao is able to guide us through these periods is hinted at via another motif. Xiao’s mother possesses a watch that was a gift from a couple who live separately, the husband having returned to work on the mainland, providing a link between past and present. Whenever Xiao or his brother Lao Er need money, they steal and pawn the watch, reclaiming it later. Its disappearances and reappearances evoke a Proustian sense of time lost and regained, the stasis and backward looking that inflicts the waishengren. With this in mind, the film’s sole other mention of a watch appears significant. When Xiao, walking with Ming, is accosted by 217 gang members who want to rob him, it is established that he doesn’t possess a watch. This symbolically casts Xiao outside of the constraints of time, and thus able to relate to Honey, Ming, and Jade as representatives of different eras.
The differences between these three characters is highlighted in their respective attitudes to the possibility of change. The subject comes up in two conversations with Ming. The first before Honey’s reappearance:
“Honey’s like you. Everyone’s scared of him, but they don’t realize he’s straight as an arrow. He can’t stand things that are unfair. He takes it on himself to straighten things out. I tried to convince him that he can’t change the world by himself. He’d argue with me and blame me for discouraging him. But now that he’s gone, I miss him so much. I just cry and cry.”
The second comes within Ming’s last words:
“You want to change me? I’m like this world. This world will never change! Who do you think-”
Xiao discovers that Jade is happier than Ming. Change for her, rather than being impossible, is simply unnecessary:
“Now you seem eager to change me. Am I your little biology experiment, or what? You have a lot of philosophical ideas. I’m happy with the way I am, but are you?”
I will now examine the three characters in turn.
In his fugitive status, Honey embodies both the actual circumstances of the waishengren and also their dreams. Like them, he is exiled from home, in his case because he has killed a leader called Redhead. The Nationalist exile is due to their failure to kill a ‘redheaded’ leader of their own. Honey’s absence weighs heavy over the first half of the film, blamed by Cat for divisions within the Little Park gang. When he reappears from his hiding place in Tainan (a place commonly known as Phoenix City) having established a respectful relationship with the benshengren gangs, we feel momentarily that now the gang’s troubles will be resolved. However, if Honey represents a sweeter “brighter summer day” of the title, then the hope that he represents is already fragile. The missing ’s’ from the translation of a line in Elvis Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? signals a brief and singular respite.
When Honey makes his appearance he is disguised in a sailor suit, the perfect costume for the symbolic representative of an island. While Ming runs to speak to him, the two of them are only seen together for a few seconds and we don’t hear what is said. Suddenly she runs crying through the middle of the screen, and out of the parlor. These brief moments represent the only time in the film that we see Honey and Ming together. Narratively the two remain bound, but if they do indeed represent different periods of time, it is impossible for them to share a frame.
Honey’s connection with Taiwan is such that when he arrives outside the concert for his third and final scene he ignores the Chinese national anthem, to which all the other youth are standing to attention (except for Jade who, inside the auditorium, is making eyes at Ma). A few minutes later he is walking with the new 217 leader, Shandong, whose very name (Shandong is a province of China) traps him in another time and place. Honey’s final words are the last of an hopeful Taiwan: “You look so dark and dreary. Don’t be so unhappy. What’s there to be afraid of?”
The death of Honey, pushed off the screen and under an approaching car, occurs out of sight. It might be said that this early hope for Taiwan was lost while the attention of the world was focused elsewhere. Perhaps, like the teenagers of this movie, the world was distracted by American pop culture. From the fade to black that follows Honey’s fall, Yang cuts to a suited band singing Don’t Be Cruel in the concert hall. The death of Taiwan’s “heart that’s true” is later deemed an accident. While Xiao’s torch isn’t present to shine its beam into “what should be left unseen,” car headlights in this instance serve the same function.
With Honey dead, the potential for positive change that he represented lies with Xiao. Ever since Ming’s description of Honey as someone who “can’t stand things that are unfair,” Xiao, himself a frequent subject of unjust accusations, has seen a connection between himself and the gang leader. Honey has asked Xiao to take care of Ming in his absence, and through the second half of the film, Xiao is driven by the twin desires to ‘protect’ Ming and to ‘become’ Honey. He makes some progress with the latter objective, in the first instance meeting with Honey’s friends in the benshengren gang who will wreck vengeance with a massacre at the 217 headquarters. More significantly, when Uncle Fat, a benshengren store owner with whom his family have constantly fought, suffers a heart attack, Xiao overcomes an initial impulse to beat him and instead saves his life. Fat’s gratitude opens up a business opportunity for Xiao’s father, who is compromised by suspected links to the mainland communists. The offer goes nowhere. Had Xiao’s father taken the position, it would have represented a second instance of the waishengren allying itself with the benshengren.
As we have seen, the ‘hope’ of Taiwan died as the teenagers listened to the songs of Elvis Presley. The film’s last overt reference to Taiwan is made by the American singer himself. In a letter to Cat, he makes reference to “that unknown little island.” We might relate these words to Ming, the “unknown girl” first encountered by Xiao running out of the grade school classroom.
Leaving the room, Ming crossed a map of China. This is the first of three scenes where she is seen in a state of discomfort in relation to the mainland. In the second, her knee bandaged following an accident on the baseball court, she and Xiao stand round the corner from the vestibule while the homesick military school officer talks to Red Bean about his home region. “We can’t stay here forever,” she symbolically states, and the couple are next seen climbing over a school wall. Later, Ming has her knee examined in the clinic, while the disembodied voices of the same homesick officer and a nurse conduct a similar conversation in the next room.
Ming lives in a more precarious situation than other characters. That her father is dead and her mother suffers from serious asthma is symbolic of the island’s loosening connection to the mainland. With this comes a lack of agency, as is Ming forced to move across the strata of Taiwan’s waishengren communities in a way that no other character does. She is alternately ‘claimed’ by both the Little Park gang and the 217s, and can therefore be seen to represent the waishengren as a whole.
Various males appear to fall for Ming during the course of the film. Symbolically, the need of so many to possess and to change her reflects a lost generation’s thwarted desire to build and belong to a country of their own. The secretive deals between Sly and the 217s ostensively relate to the concert, but they are directly linked to Ming. Sly’s need to keep her presence at the grade school secret and his rivalry with Tiger for her affections are what drives him to sell his gang out. These meetings might plausibly be interpreted as representing the international agreements concerning the status of Taiwan to which the island itself is not party.
In this vein, we might note that although Ming is sought by many, we do not see her consummate a relationship in any sense of the word. Other than towards Honey, there is only one hint of an emotional bond on her part. Ming’s jealousy on learning of the engagement of the young doctor is hard to make sense of unless looked at in the symbolic context that I have already raised. His engagement to another woman represents the 1971 expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations, the affections of which are now directed elsewhere.
As befits the representative of an island under martial law, Ming has an affinity for the military. Her father was an officer, and at the time of her death she is living in the house of a General. Her favorite place to spend time alone is the army training ground, and she tells Xiao that were she a boy, she’d want to join the army. One evening, she and Xiao stand to one side as tanks drive past them both. She holds the torch as a guide, motioning the vehicles forward.
For all the connections between Ming and the military, she is revealed as being essentially harmless. Playing with weapons at their friend Ma’s house, Ming fires what she believes is unloaded pistol in Xiao’s direction. To her surprise, the gun is loaded, but Xiao ducks and miraculously the bullet misses him. Or does it? There is no apparent damage caused by the bullet that she fires. Just as she has no kind of physical relationship with a boy, with the gun she is revealed as fundamentally impotent. All militarized Taiwan’s displays of weaponry are revealed as purely bravado.
Both Ming and Honey die in a public space. Whereas Honey’s death occurs away from the eyes of the world, Ming dies in full view, except that for some time no one seems to notice. “You’re hopeless! Shameless and hopeless!” Xiao cries. These words for Taiwan stand in sharp contrast to the message of comfort contained in Honey’s final question before his own death.
While Honey represented the possibility of change, and Ming the futility of pursuing it, Jade offers a third way. When Xiao, struck by the example of a transformed Sly, talks of the comforting nature of change, Jade responds that she is happy as she is. In other words, that it is possible for Taiwan simply to be happy as it is. She reveals a noble gesture in her past, having agreed to “become” the unknown girl in the grade school classroom in order to protect Ming, out with Sly while her own boyfriend was missing. Having already taken her place on that occasion, Jade will again take Ming’s place as a new Taiwan comes into being.
Tony Rayns recalls that when preparing for A Brighter Summer Day Yang rehearsed with his young cast for a full year. Beyond the work at hand, the director saw his role as a nurturing of the next generation of Taiwanese actors. While the narrative recalls the past, the project itself was looking towards the future. In two scenes that form a coda to the film new connections to the outside world are established. Cat receives the ring in the mail from Elvis Presley, and the radio establishes a clear signal. It is early yet, but signs are emerging that from a tragic history, this island can find its place in world. Taiwan’s youth may at last find the home that has always been denied them.
(Tragically, Xiao Si’r will not benefit from the new Taiwan. Chang Chen, the actor who debuted in the role and has subsequently enjoyed a successful career, certainly did. Six years after the release of “A Brighter Summer Day,” Chen appeared in “Happy Together” (1997), Wong Kar-wai’s allegorical work anticipating the handover of Hong Kong to China. Chen plays a philosophical young Taiwanese man who reveals that, like Xiao, he had suffered from eye problems as a child, and that he developed stronger hearing as a result. As motifs associated with the senses prove so important to A Brighter Summer Day, their careful use will continue to be important for regions within China’s orbit in the years to come.)
Yifen Beus. Far Away, So Close? Nation, Global Chinese Cinema and the Question of Identity. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 25:4. 306-314. 15 July 2008. Web. 23 March 2017.
Bordwell, David. “A Brighter Summer Day: Yang and his gangs.” Observations on Film Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Rayns, Tony. Audio commentary. A Brighter Summer Day. Dir. Yang. Perf. Chang Chen, Lisa Yang, and Chang Kuo-Chu. Criterion Collection, 1991. Blu-ray.
Yeh, Emilie Yueh-yu., and Davis, Darrell William. Taiwan film directors: a treasure island. New York: Columbia U Press, 2005. Print.