A brighter summer day in Chicago


I want to commend Doc Films programmers for their monumental achievement for bringing two monumental films to Chicago this month: A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang and City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao Hsien. I have never seen the former on big screen (costs them 2000$, I heard). Therefore I feel obliged to write a few words, if only to mark the occasion.

The print has dual subtitles (and that’s what you get in the present circulating VHS). The English does a good job, but I am not sure it is as significant as the Chinese. I have a claim, or merely a feeling, that I may work on later, that the sense of authenticity of a narrative fiction relies much on its dialogue. Brighter is exemplary in this aspect. Compared to Edward Yang’s trilogy before it, the quality of the dialogue reaches new height. Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun has the same effect, presumably to Wang Shuo’s credit, although Jiang’s later two films show less spontaneity in their dialogues.

Perhaps I need not to point out that kids speak differently than adults. But kids never got to make a film or write a novel. So it is always up to the adults to put words into their mouths. Not every such attempt has been successful. Otherwise The Catcher in the Rye wouldn’t be a classic. Wang Shuo as an adult novelist can be successful in doing this, not because he is extremely talented, but because he is an example of paidomorphosis. At one point of his childhood he simply stops growing (Salinger too?). But I feel this is not the case for Yang. Yes, for this reason he does have to fake evidence, and therefore get heavy-handed at times. Nevertheless it is clear that Brighter is less so than his two previous urban films. The reason, again, is the way these teenagers talk. The film relies much on dialogue, with the notable exception of the rain night killing scene. I am particularly amused by the vivid retelling of Pierre’s survival in Napoleon’s taking over of Moscow. “A dude goes to assassinate Napoleon but eventually caught by the police.” If this was what I heard, I would not have been so impressed by it. But perhaps there is no way to translate it without losing its flavor. The story, of course, has its own strength, which you can convey by a synopsis, even an academic one. But if that’s how the film is made, how good would it be?


Don’t get me wrong. I see things, much of which can be articulated in analytical precision that builds up to a coherent system. What I am saying here is that we have yet to find a way to articulate what we hear.

In a I-hope-soon-to-revise paper I deal with something that is found in both films: the dialectal speech. In Brighter it is first a formal gap, as there are many others, between these teenagers and the adults. The younger generation’s language is strikingly homogeneous. In comparison, the adults are man/woman with heterogeneous accents. Many of them speak only dialect (almost all school teachers); some speak with noticeable accent; others switch between several languages. The parents of Zhang Zhen, for example, speak Shanghai dialect, Cantonese and mandarin. These languages evoke respectively their own temporality and in general layer their simultaneous onscreen presence. Cantonese is the past where the father is from (and perhaps the mother too). In this particular case it is a rural past, “tu”, as the mother emphasizes several times.[1] Inside the mosquito net the father’s burst of anger “you women know nothing between us men” and his brief comment to his son “trouble with everything with a hole in the middle” confirm this language as being a vestige of patriarchal society. Shanghai dialect, however, signifies a civilized state of this “educated” man (his education apparently brings no conflict to his misogynist heritage). Unlike Wanggou, however, this is a state that doesn’t appear to him as entirely becoming. He never speaks the language unless being spoken to. And when he does he keeps his voice slow and indistinct. Contrary to Wanggou’s 120 percent identification with this language, the father’s using of the language shows signs of reluctance and discretion. Mandarin is the language of the present. And it will be that of the future since it is the language used by those teenagers. But even there multiple layers of sub-dialectal differences exist—I see no point not treating mandarin as a dialect. Between a broad category recognized as a dialect and the individual Saussurian parole, these differences help to delimitate a group of speakers from another, each having an idiosyncratic vocabulary of its own. The teenagers in Brighter use a vocabulary that is not only different from adults (age group), but also from teenagers from mainland china (geographical group) by the same time, and finally, from the teenagers of today in Taipei (generational group). The authenticity I perceive in such utterances does not entail my identification (I do not belong to such a group); nor do I recognize its authenticity through my linguistic knowledge (I do not have such knowledge). The authenticity perceived is an artistic sensation of its richness of expressivity, its coherent usage and its nuanced applicability to different life situations that members of such linguistic capacity will likely to encounter.

In Yang’s later films the spoken language also plays a prominent role. The impression one gets from A Confucian Confusion (1994), and especially Mahjong (1996) is that the characters establish their individual onscreen personality by the way they talk. Nobody can forget Red Fish’s characteristic way of saying “nopoben”—the very word that nicely summarizes all his problems, or indeed all the social problems embodied in him.

Recent I read somewhere that Olivier Assayas claims that he is basically a Taiwanese filmmaker working in France. Watching his recent Summer Hours I wonder what he had learnt from these masters. Being of a similar origin with Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon, which gives me the reason for a comparison, the distance between the two is all the more visible. Assayas’s new work does not rescue his declining reputation handsomely, although one could argue it is much better than the previous disaster.

[1] What she gives for this single word is a triple meaning. First she claims her school girls are “westernized”, and she mentions Wangou shows him the “real world”, thus establishing a western world/China, developed/developing, metropolitan/rural contrast; then she uses the word in conjunction with “qiong”, the poverty; finally she uses the word again, this time refers to him being ignorant of love experience.


1 comment:

Adrian said...

Hi Liang Dong - My name is Dr. Adrian Martin from Monash University in Australia (and Co-Editor of ROUGE magazine) - HarryTuttle directed me to your excellent blog. I would like to ask you some questions about any good Chinese textbooks on contemporary film theory (post 1975: post-structuralism etc) that I could recommend to my Chinese students here in Melbourne. If you like, you can contact me directly at adrian.martin@arts.monash.edu.au

many thanks ADRIAN

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