I wrote this for the Christian Courier a year ago; it was published last month, and, as always, they kindly allow me to repost it here, as it was paywalled. Please do consider subscribing to the Courier. They do good stuff.
For some of us, there’s a season, a handful of months, on the cusp of young adulthood—around 16 or 17—when all the deepest failings and yearnings of your nature seem to announce themselves one after the other, like symphonic themes that the rest of your life will restate with far greater complexity, perhaps, but never again so pristinely. Adults view the struggles of teenagers as they pass through such times with pity, amusement, contempt: reactions that preserve our distance from our own memories of being so young, and so susceptible to the characteristic pain of this period, pain constituted, in large part, precisely by the absence of perspective. Every breakup, every lost fight, every death, every friendship lost to gossip or to moving trucks seems unsurvivable, precisely because you haven’t survived many such losses yet. You wonder, rightly, how it can possibly be done. (Really—how do we do it? And what does it say about us wise adults that we can repeatedly part with what is dearer than life? How coherent is a self that has grown used to losing, precisely, itself?). If adolescence lasted even six months longer than it did, it would certainly kill us all. And yet there is something admirable, even beautiful, about these storms of rage and sadness and fear, which recall the goddesses and gods of classical mythology, who also live outside the dulling and comforting repetitions of time.
Only an artist of extraordinary bravery even attempts to handle such radioactive material. (Most fiction aimed at the young doesn’t even glance at it.) And only an artist of extraordinary skill, perception, and wisdom could effectively evoke the feeling of those years from a viewer secure within the carapace of adulthood.
Edward Yang did it at least twice.
I say “at least” because Yang, the internationally acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker who died in 2007, is truly an unknown quantity for North American filmgoers. Until earlier this year, only one of his films was legally available in the US in any form. That one film, however, was Yi-Yi (2000)—which is sort of like being unknown except for the Sistine Chapel. A tragicomic study of a middle-class Taiwanese family, Yi-Yi is so quietly convincing in its observation of character, and so enveloping and thorough in its portrayal of people, that you finish the movie feeling as if you’ve just made and lost a circle of friends. The experience is of a deep and painful joy. There are many movies I watch more often, because they’re easier (The Big Lebowski; Cold Comfort Farm; Godzilla Vs. Megalon), but if anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, the answer is Yi-Yi. The answer will always be Yi-Yi.
For years I’ve heard whispers that Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is “even better.” This is silly. Is winning a legal victory against an evil corporation “even better” than holding your newborn niece? Is a mountain “better” than a flower? But now that Criterion has issued Brighter Summer Day in North America for, essentially, the first time (bar a few festival showings), I can certainly confirm that it, like Yi-Yi, achieves the kind of greatness that makes rankings impossible. Set in the years 1959-61, the film depicts the moral and social destruction of a thoroughly decent teenage boy, against a backdrop of Taiwanese youth gangs, Chinese refugee struggle, and US cultural incursion. If Yi-Yi is tragicomedy, Brighter Summer Day is tragedy, full stop: the self-destruction of a good person. The last hour in particular is crushing.
What unites the two films—and what accounts for the enormous emotional power of both—is the calm, honest gaze of Yang’s camera. Though there’s hardly a shot in Brighter Summer Day that isn’t exquisitely framed—it’s one of those movies where any given twenty-fourth-of-a-second could be mounted and shown in a gallery—the film never seems to be trying for an effect. Structural devices (similarly framed shots of characters in similar social positions; a flashlight that gets stolen early in the film and keeps reappearing) tie the film together and yet you only just register them; the characters, every now and then, make thematically important speeches, but they sound like they’re just talking. One of the teenage hoods in this film, during a period when he’s hiding out from the cops, reads War and Peace to stave off boredom. Yang is like Tolstoy in that, after you’ve spent some time with him, nearly every other artist seems mannered, straining for effect, while he is merely conveying life. This is, of course, the most difficult, and the greatest, artistic effect of all.