Academic journal article CineAction

Music and Modernity in A Brighter Summer Day

Academic journal article CineAction

Music and Modernity in A Brighter Summer Day

Article excerpt

Fredric Jameson, in his essay "Remapping Taipei," describes the experience of modernity thus:

   The social totality can be sensed, as it were, from the outside,
   like a skin at which the Other somehow looks, but which we
   ourselves will never see. Or it can be tracked, like a crime,
   whose clues we accumulate, not knowing that we are ourselves
   parts and organs of this obscenely moving and stirring zoological
   monstrosity. But most often, in the modern itself, its vague
   and nascent concept begins to awaken with the knowledge
   function, very much like a book whose characters do not yet
   know they are being read. (1)

Jameson describes the aesthetic sensation of modernity as requiring the existence of an omniscient presence, who, "rising over miniature roof-tops", (2) connects the disjointed, fragmented experiences of contemporary life, and provides sensations of connection, rhyme, and irony. This is the province of the artist, who alone is capable of converting the random events of daily life into "the material of storytelling, or Literature." (3) Edward Yang, in his 1991 film A Brighter Summer Day, endorses this view of the nature of art. His film provides its viewers with a large-scale vision of Taipei circa 1960 that is consistently denied to its characters. We are given a series of visual and linguistic repetitions and filmic echoes that make connections, which are invisible to the film's characters. A Brighter Summer Day's relationship to the artistic urge similarly reflects Yang's positioning film, literature, and especially music, within the world of the film as revelatory of the complexities of the characters' lives. Yang uses these arts, most importantly music, as a means of rising over those roof-tops, and providing an understanding of daily life impossible to achieve in the real world. Music becomes the central point at which all the characters' lives connect, and their relationship to music illuminates the normally unseen framework of 1960s Taiwanese life.

The traditional and the modern are in constant tension throughout A Brighter Summer Day. Symbols of the two modes emerge everywhere, and reveal a society on the cusp of massive individual and institutional change. A Brighter Summer Day's placement in Yang's filmography, after his critically celebrated films Taipei Story and Terrorizer, both of which are set in present-day Taipei, is worthy of notice. A Brighter Summer Day is a step backward, a journey into the past, and its relationship to the earlier Yang films is one of explanatory prequel. A Brighter Summer Day documents the social and cultural changes that create the modernized, late-capitalist life of 1980s Taipei documented in the earlier two films. Such a task allows Yang the freedom to explore a society on the brink of a great transformation, from a traditionally based way of life to a modernized, urban existence. While the film exists in a number of versions, throughout this essay I will be referring to the 185-minute cut (a 237-minute version is the fullest, and most difficult to find).

The other great transformation shown in A Brighter Summer Day is from cultural domination by a series of invaders, including the Japanese and the mainland Chinese, to a new culture primarily associated with the United States. The film's cultural talismans illuminate this complex intertwining of old and new, Japanese, Chinese, and American influences. A Brighter Summer Day's characters treat their surroundings as archaeological, digging to find artifacts relevant to their contemporary existences. Their commingled presence in the film creates a hybrid existence where the traces of past military invaders mix with those of future cultural invaders.

In a similar vein to Yang's later masterpiece Yi Yi, A Brighter Summer Day takes in a year in the lives of a prototypical Taiwanese family, the Zhangs. However, unlike Yi Yi, A Brighter Summer Day focuses less on family life and more on the trials of one of the Zhang family sons, Zhao Si'r. …

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