An era on screen

‘A Brighter Summer Day’ comes to Boulder’s International Film Series

Lisa Yang (left) and Chang Chen in 'A Bright Summer Day.' Courtesy: Cine Qua Non Films

A crime drama about rival street gangs, a romance between two high schoolers, a history of shadow politics and a young man who feels destined to become the Taiwanese Elvis — these are the components that comprise Edward Yang’s 1991 historical drama, A Brighter Summer Day. But cinema is so much more than its components, and this movie defies simple description.

A Brighter Summer Day — screening Dec. 10 as part of the International Film Series9 Days of ’90s: Movies That Defined a Decade — is a dense and complex look at Taipei in the early ’60s. The film takes place following the Chinese Civil War that left the communists in power of mainland China, dubbed the People’s Republic of China, while the nationalists fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China. It’s a movie stuffed with equal parts history and invention and enough space for everything to develop and echo. For the anchoring action, Yang draws on a real-life event anyone alive during that moment would likely remember. Everyone else would just see it as Shakespearean drama. 

In short, Yang does for Taipei what James Joyce does for Dublin, Ireland, and William Carlos Williams does for Paterson, New Jersey. But don’t let those lofty comparisons frighten you: A Brighter Summer Day is as lush as it is dense. Yes, there are over 100 speaking parts, and some of the narrative strands benefit from a working knowledge of political turmoil in Taiwan, but most of the film revolves around Si’r (Chang Chen) and Ming (Lisa Yang), two young actors who are effortlessly believable on screen. 

Yang, who died from cancer at 59 in 2007, was part of the 1980s Taiwanese New Wave, a rejuvenation of national cinema designed to give new voices a platform on the world stage to feature autobiographical experiences and artistic developments. Thanks to both,  the reputation of A Brighter Summer Day has grown in status over these past 30-plus years, so much so that it placed on the once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies ever in 2012 and 2022.

ON SCREEN: A Brighter Summer Day. 2 p.m. Dec. 10, International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, CU Boulder, 1905 Colorado Ave. $9