A Brighter Summer Day
Among the most praised and sought-after titles in all contemporary film, this singular masterpiece of Taiwanese cinema, directed by Edward Yang, finally comes to home video in the United States. Set in the early sixties in Taiwan, A Brighter Summer Day is based on the true story of a crime that rocked the nation. A film of both sprawling scope and tender intimacy, this novelistic, patiently observed epic centers on the gradual, inexorable fall of a young teenager (Chen Chang, in his first role) from innocence to juvenile delinquency, and is set against a simmering backdrop of restless youth, rock and roll, and political turmoil.
Never seeing a legitimate home video release in North America despite its growing stature over time, the complete 237-minute version of Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is being released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is presented on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set.
Taken from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and restored by the World Cinema Foundation, the film looks pretty remarkable, which will be a relief to those who have only had access to the film through various bootlegs that appear to come from the Japanese LaserDisc (I haven’t seen it, but screen shots online show a pretty miserable presentation). Criterion does stuff the entire film (which is, again, nearly 4-hours long) onto one disc, which is maybe a bit unfortunate, but not as problematic as I had originally feared. A majority of the film looks really good, delivering sharp details, natural looking textures, and an overall filmic look. But there are moments that look off and compression becomes a more visible problem: a shirt presenting fine cross-hatching shows a shimmering effect, for example, and some darker scenes show blocking and pixilation to varying degrees. This latter problem is actually inconsistent and not always apparent in every darker sequence: one key moment that’s a little more action-packed, past the midway point, takes place primarily in the dark and compression is still nicely managed, and this is true in a few other low lit sequences, but unfortunately not all.
Those problems are more the exception than the rule, though, and I’d still say the majority of the film looks clean and stable, delivering those high details one would hope for. The restoration work has been very thorough, and blemishes are very rare. There are some colour fluctuations in places, which become a little more common in the middle section of the film, as well as sudden pulses, and there’s the occasional mark that shows up once in a blue moon, but the image is otherwise stable. Also, for about a minute into chapter 45 the quality does severely drop, where contrast levels go out of whack, blacks are severely crushed, the image takes on a sepia tone, lines run through horizontally, and detail is limited: I’m unsure if it’s a source issue or a problem with the transfer itself but It’s an odd moment that’s thankfully short lived.
(Update (Mar 23, 2016): It appears the issue is that this small section was so severely damaged in 5 he negatives that the scene had to be pulled from a previous restoration, done in 2000, and then upscaled to match the resolution of the rest of the film. This would explain the sudden deterioration in image quality.)
Despite a few problems I was pleased and surprised by what we get. I think there would have been some benefit to spreading the film over two discs (which would have called for a third disc for supplements since they’re quite lengthy themselves) but on the whole, despite a few hiccups, it still looks quite good.
The audio is delivered in lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono and despite the single-channel limitation it’s a strong presentation, with decent range and fidelity behind it. Dialogue sounds clear, music is also clean, lacking any edge, and I didn’t notice any background noise or damage. It sounds good.
Though it may not look like much, Criterion provides an extensive amount of material for the film, running just over 7-hours in all. Of course that time takes into account the audio commentary by Tony Rayns, recorded in 2014 and running over the entirety of the film. Rayns opens the track explaining that he dislikes commentaries that simply reiterate what’s on screen but here he feels he has to make an exception, stating that for many viewers (whether Western or Eastern) the film will more than likely be overwhelming and hard to follow initially. His assumption proved to be true for myself: this is my first time with the film and it’s very hard to keep track of every character, their relationships, the context for a lot of situations, the gangs they belong to, and so forth. By the midway point I felt I finally got a grasp on most of it and a second viewing certainly helped, but I admittedly didn’t get a full grasp of everything until I listened to Rayns’ commentary track.
So, yes, for a lot of the track Rayns does simply explain what’s going on. He does, at times, express a certain disappointment that that’s all he is doing (and I’ll just state up front that isn’t actually all he does), but from my perspective this part of the track proves to be an invaluable addition. It helps that when he’s talking about the story he doesn’t only reiterate what is going on onscreen, he also offers some historical and political context to the scenes in question, giving a rather decent history lesson on Taiwan, at least between when the film takes place and when it was actually filmed. He also talks about the editing and framing of sequences and how this conveys the story and also points out instances where Yang is either foreshadowing things to come or referencing things that have already happened that a lot of viewers may miss (he’s of course assuming you have already seen the film at least once). All of this really does help and going back to the film again the viewer should find the film far easier to follow if they had trouble initially.
When he feels you, the viewer, are caught up, or feels a scene is self-explanatory, he then veers off and covers other subjects, like giving a back story to how Yang got into filmmaking to a solid overview of the New Cinema movement. What’s especially vital, though, is his account of the production. Rayns did write a story about the production for Sight & Sound, actually visiting the set at one point, but he was also good friends with Yang and the director wrote him a number of letters about the production during its development and filming, which Rayns reads excerpts from here. It’s obvious from these letters that Yang actually planned this to be a small indie film but it grew, obviously (amusingly Yang knew the film was probably getting out of control but at one point he seemed confident it would only be 150-minutes at most).
If there was one disappointment to the track it‘s the fact he doesn’t talk a lot about the shorter version of the film, which was made to maybe make the film more commercially viable for foreign markets; he simply mentions its existence and why it exists but doesn’t really explain the differences, other than it drops a few story threads. I was hoping for more on that, but the track is a solid one. Yes, half the track is probably Rayns explaining the story but the other half ventures out, covering various topics about the production, Yang, and Taiwanese New Cinema, even mentioning other notable and less known films (like Ko I-Chen's Blue Moon, which sounds quite interesting but, like just about every other film he mentions, seems to be impossible to find sadly). What’s most impressive is that, other than a few seconds here and there, and a deliberate pause during a key section midway through, Rayns actually talks non-stop for four hours, an impressive feat since he also keeps it interesting and doesn’t repeat himself. He jokes that the viewer may feel relief when he does take his planned pause but I thought it was an excellent track that I think will prove most valuable to those new to the film, Yang, and Taiwanese cinema. It’s long but I’d say certainly worth it.
Thankfully Criterion places the remaining supplements on a second dual-layer disc, instead of stuffing everything on one like they did with their over-packed Blu-ray edition of The Last Emperor. The second disc first presents the full 2002, 113-minute documentary on the New Taiwan Cinema movement, Our Time, Our Story. Directed by Hsiao Chu-chen the documentary is an excellent primer to the movement, offering the political background that gave rise to it, as well as the many ups-and-downs that further molded the films that came out of the industry. As the political climate changed (like, for example, Martial Law coming to an end in the country) so did the films, with the films addressing certain anxieties or social issues usually doing quite well. Interestingly, though the government preferred films that painted a rosier picture of the country, audiences usually preferred downbeat and therefore—to them—more honest films. Certain key figures, such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien (the latter one of the many interviewees to be found in the documentary) are covered in quite a bit of detail, and there’s also a fairly thorough history about the government run film house, CMPC. With the added bonus of providing a great chronological list of films for any newcomer to dig into (if they can actually find them—some are impossible to locate on DVD, let alone Blu-ray), this wonderful crash-course is a thoughtful inclusion to the release.
An exclusive interview with actor Chang Chen is up next (and like the commentary was also recorded in 2014). Running 19-minutes he talks about getting the role, thanks mostly to his father, Chang Kuo-Chu, who also played the father in the film. Chang talks about how the film moved him more towards acting, and how the experience changed him overall, while also sharing stories about learning about the film’s time period and working with Yang, and there are a few interesting little trivia bits like the fact Lisa Yang’s performance was dubbed over because her accent was too American. Another good addition.
Another interesting inclusion is a video tape recording of the premiere of Yang’s one-act play, Likely Consequence. The play revolves around a married couple who have to deal with a dead body in their apartment. While trying to figure out how to dispose of it certain things begin to come out between the two, until finally the husband comes up with an idea that obviously benefits him more than her. It’s a fairly sharp social satire, impressively acted, certain actions mimed with sound effects beautifully timed to them. Unfortunately the presentation is from a video tape and the burned in subtitles are a bit rough in their translations, but it’s a great document and I’m shocked Criterion was able to locate this. It runs 45-minutes.
The release then closes with an insert featuring a surprisingly brief essay by Godfrey Cheshire, going over how hard it was to see the film through the years while also giving some more context to the politics behind the film. It nicely rounds up things already covered in the features, though actually going through the features will prove more worthwhile.
In all, Criterion provides a terrific set of features that wonderfully cover the film, its director, and the Taiwanese New Cinema movement, and all of it is worth going through.
It’s insane to me that this film has never received any sort of home video release in North America prior to this one, but Criterion nicely rights that wrong with this edition. The presentation may be open to improvement but on the whole I thought it looked very strong and will be surely a welcome sight to those who only saw the film through lackluster bootlegs. Topped with a very strong selection of special features this edition comes highly recommended.