The title of A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s engrossing, four-hour-long coming-of-age/crime drama, may be a quotation from the Elvis Presley standard “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But Yang’s anti-nostalgic slice of 1960s Taipei life suggests a Tolstoy-size expansion of the ballads from Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Like the Boss’s unsentimental songs about small-town strife, the film views adolescence and romance through the lens of toxic blue-collar machismo. Teenage wallflower Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen) nurses a bad temper by joining a juvenile gang and courting Ming (Lisa Yang), an absent mentor’s girlfriend. Si’r’s hormonal anger does not, however, make him an abuser-in-training; he resents his refugee parents and can’t stand sadistic rival gang members.
The sprawling, multi-character-driven narrative focuses on Si’r because he’s not sure who he wants to be yet. Like so many other angry young men, the teenager has more passion than common sense: He kisses Ming for a half-minute before attacking his school principal with a baseball bat. Reaction shots of a blank-faced Chen — Si’r often is deciding whether he should throw or pull a punch — are consistently moving.
Yang’s impressionistic, period-specific detail lets you get lost in all the believably naturalistic conversations about mysterious vaccines, high-stakes snooker-hall wagers, and malfunctioning transistor radios. You won’t relish the thought of spending four hours with Si’r, but A Brighter Summer Day will leave you wanting even more.
A Brighter Summer Day
Directed by Edward Yang
Opens March 11, BAMcinématek