Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day is the War and Peace of Taiwanese juvenile-delinquent movies. It is also part of a tradition of films that use the process of a character slowly learning a single song as a narrative-building device. In that tradition, the song might originate with volcanic major characters, like Ally in the 2018 version of A Star Is Born, who spontaneously composes “Shallow” in a supermarket parking lot and later sings it in a full arrangement on stage. (This shows her love interest—and the audience—that she is a star.) Or it might be handled by quieter secondary characters, like Tim and Annie in Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, who learn a four-hands piano version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” on a living-room upright. (This shows that they are allies on the perimeter of a roaring family drama, and that they need relief from it by diving into the rigors of bebop.)
In A Brighter Summer Day, the song is the Tin Pan Alley waltz-ballad “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” written in the mid-1920s and made most famous by Elvis Presley. Does the song contain a secondary meaning or introduce a guiding metaphor? Does it stand in for the main character? Does it explain the film or illustrate its setting? Is the song worthy of its role?
Yes and no; a lot and a little. It is never heard in full during the multinarratived, hundred-charactered, four-houred bonanza. It is not sung or even particularly cared about by the film’s main character, Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Si’r (“Four”) and played by the actor Chang Chen. The fourth of five kids in a government worker’s family in Taipei in 1961, Si’r is a perfectly rendered young teenager—sensitive, feckless, neither good nor bad, nice to his parents but close to the boil with his teachers, full of fears and rages he can’t name.
Instead, the song is sung by Cat (Wang Chi-tsan), who is a universe unto himself. He looks about ten, but he’s probably older. Small and intense, he’s not content to play the mascot in his social cohort. A lot of his friends seem gullible or deluded, as if they’re playing some dumb role someone far away has written for them; Cat presents as savvy by comparison. He sings with a rock-and-roll band at the local ice-cream parlor. He’s put up a gallery of Elvis pictures around his desk at home but doesn’t explicitly identify with his hero; he doesn’t look, walk, or talk like Elvis. No Elvis songs are played during the memorable gig scenes in which Cat has to stand on a chair to sing harmonies into the microphone with his taller bandmate.
Nevertheless, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” returns and returns again in Yang’s movie as a strange totem, a kind of moon rock.
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