A Brighter Summer Day
A Brighter Summer Day is an ambitious film, seemingly trying to paint a full picture of Taiwanese society in the 60s, with a true ensemble cast of dozens over the course of its 4-hour runtime. While it does have a lead character - especially in its second half - it's not shy on seemingly random detours focusing on other characters.
My problem with this film was that I didn't particularly care about any of them. I'm not entirely sure why, either... they're all relatively complex, fully realized, and the acting is generally decent. I think my problem lies in Yang's direction : he certainly has an eye for composition and framing, and the film is generally interesting to look at... but there's a coldness to it, a certain flatness, an indifference. I'd describe this film as 4 hours of things happening, and none of them really stand out aside from one near the end. There's a whole section involving a character who has been talked about a lot and finally appears, and clearly he's supposed to stand out : the way he's dressed, the way he acts... but the film doesn't really follow the script, it stays firmly on the ground when it should be lifting off, especially given the things that happen with this character. This pattern is repeated again and again throughout the film, with plot developments and character evolutions being severly undercut by the direction and the editing, to the point where I have to assume it's intentional, and somewhat infurating.
In the end this strikes me as a deeply misanthropic film, and I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to. Maybe it's just because of the runtime : any film that long is going to get worse as it gets along if it doesn't grab you, and I did feel a growing resentment towards certain characters asthe film went along... but it's not just that : most of them are just unpleasant people. As a result, when the film turns tragic, I could only appreciate that from a distance : I was glad to see that the film had a certain purpose, but I was too far gone for it to redeem the film in my eyes.
From the first few frames alone, it's clear that M/Other fits in the naturalistic side of Japanese cinema, with Suwa clearly following in Ozu's footsteps, creating his own, distinct brand of quiet naturalism. When I had to review Tokyo Story, I kept coming back to the idea that it worked as much as a sociological case study observing Japanese society at a crucial time, and I can certainly say the same thing here, though the core conflict being explored here certainly isn't unique to Japan.
The heavy-handed title might indicate that the film focuses on the child in this situation, having to deal with this new mother figure, but the film is much more focused on the woman in question. It is a very simple situation that is extraordinarily complex emotionally for all involved, without even accounting for the actual mother who stays entirely off-screen. Where A Brighter Summer Day seeks to depict society by having a wide ensemble, this is a tight, focused film : three characters, you don't need more to explore the vast issue of family life in contemporary Japan.
Anything I can say about its themes will feel reductive, because this is a very deep, complex, and subtle film. It doesn't judge its characters, it doesn't point to easy solutions, it simple observes and lets the actors do the work. Instead I'll point out another detail which reminded me of Ozu (and specifically Tokyo Story) : almost all the conversations between the couple feature apologies, a sure sign of people who care for each other but aren't quite comfortable with the situation they're in.
Ultimately, this is a "small" film, which does overstay its welcome a bit and lack the kind of transcendental quality that would let me love it rather than like it (to continue the Tokyo Story parallel, that would be Setsuko Hara's breakdown at the end of that film), but it is a very solid, affecting drama with excellent performances.
Verdict: Obviously M/Other is advancing, which means A Brighter Summer Day is out of the bracket... I suppose that's one of the features of this bracket : no film is entirely safe from getting unlucky pairings... sorry, Yang fans. Worth noting that M/Other has garnered its share of enthusiastic responses in this bracket as well though.