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Film / A Brighter Summer Day

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A Brighter Summer Day is a 1991 Taiwanese film directed by Edward Yang and starring Chang Chen.
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The film takes place in the late 50's/early 60's at a time when many Chinese have fled to Taiwan. This has led to many teenagers forming street gangs. After failing to get into the day school, Xiao Si'r is forced to attend the night school which is filled with gang members. Si'r gets involved with Ming, who is dating Honey, the leader of the Little Park Gang, who has gone into hiding. The film examines what it means to be a teenager, mid-century Asian politics, and the increasing Americanization of Taiwan.


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  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Ming moves on from Si'r quickly after the latter is expelled and has to focus on his studies.
  • Alliterative Name: Si'r's real name, Zhang Zhen.
  • Based on a True Story: The film is loosely based on something that actually happened in Taiwan in the fifties.
  • Book-Ends: The film starts and ends with the radio listing students accepted to various schools in Taipei.
  • Bully Hunter: Deconstructed. Si'r is highly moved by acts of injustice, which results in him joining the Little Park Boys to get revenge against the bullying of the 217s. Unfortunately, Si'r's attempts to protect others and himself only drive him to more violent extremes. In the end, he's too self-involved to recognize how his short-term violence is for himself instead of for the sake of others.
  • Desperately Craves Affection: Implied to be Ming's core struggle and why she Really Gets Around.
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  • Dirty Coward: Shandong pushes Honey in front of a car while Honey's back is turned.
  • Downer Ending: Si'r kills Ming when he learns that she is cheating on him and faces fifteen years in prison for it, though this is commuted from a death sentence; his family's reputation is now ruined. Cat brings him a tape he recorded for Elvis, only for the wardens to throw it away.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ming's mother attempts suicide after Ming's death, but she ultimately survives.
  • Epic Movie: Known as more of an "intimate epic," the film was an unprecedented production for a Chinese-language film, made over four years, employing more than 100 unknown actors in a large-scope film that lasts nearly four hours.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Used creatively to indicate Si'r gradual breakdown. In the final hour, Si'r is often placed off-screen and his face obscured as his sense of self as Ming's "protector" begins to deteriorate. His face is never shown again after his murder of Ming.
  • Fille Fatale: Played with. Ming is deliberately played as an unknowable character. How genuine her affections are for Si'r or the other men in her life is left ambiguous and its assumed by a few others that she's playing them for her own ends. Its ultimately deconstructed when she lashes out at Si'r. The perception of her as a seductress or an innocent maiden are imposed on her by others. She's ultimately just a normal girl trying to find friendship, only to be controlled or encouraged to change by men. Si'r's inability to understand this leads to Ming's death.
  • Foil:
    • Jade is introduced as a sexually free, blunt character compared to the pure and reserved compared to the "pure" and reserved Ming. It eventually becomes clear that Jade is much more responsible and savvy than Ming, able to communicate her thoughts easier and remain her own person. Ming is technically more promiscuous than Jade, but can't actually express what she wants and struggles to get her boyfriends to respect her individuality.
    • Ma and Wang are privileged individuals who promise Zhang the younger and Zhang the older ways of propelling their lives upward. Ma seeks out the favor of Si'r and Sly as fellow rebels. Mr Zhang is the one to seek out his old friend Wang, whose reliance on the rules of society hurt Zhang's advancement in government. Wang fails to stick up for Zhang and even privately mocks that Zhang held onto a radio they bought together. Despite this, Zhang never turns his back on Wang. In comparison, Si'r slowly rejects and resents his friend Ma and eventually plans to kill his old friend. The betrayal of friendship devastates Ma, who truly cared about his former friend.
  • For Want of a Nail: If Si'r had gotten into the day school instead of the night school, he probably would not have gotten involved with Ming or the gang members.
  • Irony: Wang is introduced as person of high class and means who can help others (such as Si'r's father) rise up in society. Its implied that its precisely because of Mr. Zhang's relationship with Wang that he's arrested by the secret police, which leads to the destruction of his life.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Ming dies as she's trying to tell Si'r off.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The film features dozens of characters, many of whom are only known by nicknames (if they get any name at all).
  • Love Hurts: Si'r's life begins to spiral the more he becomes obsessed with Ming, who cares for him but doesn't experience the same depth of feeling for him.
  • May–December Romance: One of Ming's flirtations is an older doctor, who is treating her mother.
  • Meaningful Echo: Frequently used to connect seemingly different scenes to one another. Both the secret police and Ming use the phrase "we have plenty of time," indicating to the viewer that time is not on the side of the characters.
  • Narrative Filigree: Although the film is about one teenager's downward spiral, many scenes don't contribute much to the plot and instead focus on the everyday lives of the characters.
  • No Name Given: None of Si'r's family members have names.
  • Not So Different: Si'r and his father are both quiet men, but Si'r is a rebel while his father is a dutiful worker. Yet their narrative arcs end up following the same path. Both try to associate themselves with successful people they admire (Honey for Si'r, Wang for his father), only for those idols to bring them into more danger. Both have their futures destroyed as they descend into violent paranoia.
  • Nothing but Hits: Popular 50's music, especially Elvis Presley, is used to great effect.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Most of the secondary characters are known by their gang nicknames.
  • Parents as People: Si'r's father is a thoughtful, kind-hearted man who works hard and has his children's best interests at heart... for the first half of the film. After his arrest, traumatic interrogation and the loss of his job, he is left a broken man, nearly catatonic most of the time and prone to paranoid, violent outbursts at home. Near the end of the film he delivers a horrific beating to his eldest son, behavior completely uncharacteristic of his depiction up until the arrest.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Played with. Much of the conflict emerges from the inability of young teens able to communicate accurately, which Taiwan's restrictive society only exacerbates. In particular, Ming tries to explain to Si'r that his promises of returning to her after his expulsion only reminds her of Honey's broken promises to stay with her. Unfortunately, Si'r wants to be like Honey and can't see the stress this puts on Ming. Examples such as these indicate that Si'r can't understand the true feelings people try to convey to him. This conversation, among many, is what results in Ming's stabbing.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: All of the music in the film is music that the characters play.
  • Really Gets Around: Ming is known for having lots of boyfriends. This doesn't bother any of the boys except Si'r who ends up killing her over it.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ming gives one to Si'r towards the end of the film, berating him for trying to change her (as Jade also did) and telling him that he's just like all the other boys. He stabs her in the middle of it.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Little Park Boys massacre the 217s during a dark, rainy night.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses: Inverted. Si'r is noted to have poor eyesight, which may be why he ended up in the night classes to being with. It also indicates that he can't see situations clearly as he thinks he can.
  • Shout-Out: Honey mentions that he read War and Peace while in hiding, and he compares the gang war to the events in the book.
    • At one point the characters go to see Rio Bravo.
  • Slice of Life: Though a touch more violent than the lives of most, it's overall a story of frustrated, aimless youth affected by the choices and circumstances of their struggling parents.
  • Title Drop: As Si'r's sister is transcribing Elvis Presley's Are You Lonesome Tonight?, she references the lyric. The film also plays a snippet of the song that includes the line.
  • Tragedy: The film is one for Xiao Si'r. He goes from being a upright student to being a murderer.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: After being built up for more than an hour off-screen, Honey is murdered by Shandong after only being developed onscreen for a few minutes.
  • Wham Line: Jade reveals that the girl Sly was kissing at the start of the film was Ming, not herself.
  • Yandere: Si'r can't handle Ming's flirtations with other boys, especially is old friend Ma; he attempts to ambush Ma with a knife after school, only to encounter Ming, who dies instead.

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