This is more of a placeholder than a review. I watched A Brighter Summer Day under less than ideal circumstances, and don't really feel competent to evaluate it yet. It's just under 4 hours long, and I had figured I'd have to at least invent an intermission. But then the Criterion Channel didn't want to work properly in my browser, and by the time I realized that and switched back to the TV, I'd already lost a day. And I was half asleep for that one. So I ended up watching about 90 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, and the rest of the movie on the third day. Since this is a movie that rewards close attention, I was not giving it the respect it deserved.
I had trouble keeping the characters straight. This might have been a result of my fragmented viewing, I can't say. Also, Paul Dano notes on one of the extras that he thinks it would be useful for viewers to first learn a bit about Taiwanese culture (it takes place in a few years around 1960). I was often confused, and I think Dano is right. I'd just read an essay about how spoilers are actually good for you, and it's possible I'd have had an easier time following the film if I already knew what would be happening. (This makes it a good candidate for a second viewing.)
Finally, I was reminded a bit of the great City of God, one of my favorite movies. Like A Brighter Summer Day, City of God deals with youth gangs. But that movie's characters were a lot like the gangsters I was used to from the U.S., in particular Menace II Society. I lacked a deep understand of life in the favelas, but I felt I knew the characters. The young boys in A Brighter Summer Day are connected to American pop culture as well ... the title comes from the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" But they seem to draw their cues from a different place than what I'm used to as an American. City of God was easier for me to connect to, compared to this film.
In the meantime, I must mention the exquisite visual compositions in the film. I've only seen one other movie by Yang, Yi Yi, which I liked but which I confess I don't remember very much about.
Here is a scene I particularly liked, in part because it makes an American pop culture reference you know I'll love: teens are at the movies, and on the soundtrack, you can hear that they are watching Rio Bravo:
#123 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.