Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project: Adolescent Masculinity in ‘A Brighter Summer Day’

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project: Adolescent Masculinity in ‘A Brighter Summer Day’

Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is a film that follows two major threads. The first one involves a former Shanghai intellectual (Chang Kuo-Chu) experiencing middle age in the 1960s. But the film’s major focus is on that intellectual’s son Xiao S’ir (Chang Chen). He’s a budding romantic and, ahem, gang member. This first paragraph exists to remind the reader that half of films is about who’s watching it. This is important to remember that in watching a few months in the life of a teenage gang member. Because my instinct is to tell myself that I can beat these children up.

Investigating these instincts involve projection, this idea that men don’t find each other scary. The film explores that possibility even in showing these young characters mark their territory. And that territory involves the girls they want to date. There’s a specific girl in question, Ming (Lisa Yang), who they’re all fighting about. Their ‘turfs’ and their ‘girls’ are important to them. Everything is important to people who are trying to establish their identity in a world with oblivious adults. Adult audiences, presumably, have more complex ideas about property and love. They also consider themselves smarter and less threatening than these characters.

In depicting these characters, A Brighter Summer Day also plays around with the idea of race. There’s that and the idea that the Western gaze don’t see Asian men as threats. And I, an Asian man, am guilty of adapting that Westernized gaze. The film shares the same era as West Side Story and yet the Jets and the Sharks seem scarier than the 217 and the Little Park Boys. (I had trouble remembering the Little Park Boys’ name because the name is an intentionally deceitful one).

Anyway, botched release aside, the film is by and for Taiwanese people but Americans and Europeans still exist within the periphery. The film depicts its characters invading each other’s physical space but those threats fall flat purposely. Below the line crafts within film making also play into this false bravado, as Eastern men wear baggy Western clothing. It its defense, Yang made this film in the 90s when everything was baggy. But that costume choice still effectively made its characters seem less threatening.

Yang sometimes indulges, rightly, on vintage cool. But he doesn’t turn the bodies he shows on screen into weapons like most directors of crime dramas do. He shows Xiao S’ir and his friend ogle one girl after another. Xiao S’ir puts his hat on the ring in winning Ming’s heart. His ogling puts his loyalty and future actions into question. Yang lets his camera and his young characters’ gazes drift. Their short attention span reflects an adult audience’s indifference and underestimations. And it’s wrong to underestimate children who can, spoiler alert, stab and shoot each other as capably as adults can.

There’s also an irony in A Brighter Summer Day with its important events taking place at night. Xiao S’ir and the other young characters go out at night and go to night school. And teenagers running amok after dark is a logistical nightmare. The film imbues itself with the right amount of that emotion. It also brings out the other adult instinct to be anxious at the idea of anything scratching these teenagers. It also stretches itself to that four hour running time. This is enough time for us to settle on its rhythms, rhythms ripe for disruption.

The final violent act in A Brighter Summer Day is also ripe for contemporary audiences to put labels on Xiao S’ir, labels that he probably deserves. It gives enough story line to Ming and her pragmatism, but some might wonder why the film focuses on Xiao S’ir. The film I think makes the right decision because it doesn’t try to humanize him. I thought I could beat him up because someone needs to kick the shit out of him.

While watching this, I kept thinking of colleague and friend Thomas Wishloff, who is half-Chinese* and is an expert on his country’s films. His piece, coming out in an hour or so, is, to paraphrase him, elephantine. I aimed low and he aimed high and wrote one of the best things anyone will ever read about any film. I will also try to finish this World Cinema series but another just caught my eye.

A Brighter Summer Day is available on The Criterion Channel.

*I edited this piece after Thomas corrected me on his background.

This post was written by
While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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