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Video: The Essential Chinese Movies

What are the critical movies that anyone curious about Chinese cinema needs to see?

 

THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN

The macho physicality of ‘One-Armed Swordsman’ continues to charm.

Among the many recent additions to the Fandor catalog, I am most excited by several classic Chinese films that I consider to be among the very best to have ever been made in that language: The Big Road, Street Angel (a film I love so dearly that I modeled my wedding photos after some of its iconic shots), Crossroads, Spring in a Small Town, to name a few. The sight of these titles got me thinking: what are the essential movies that anyone curious about Chinese cinema needs to see? The following video of 50 essential Chinese language films – and expanded list of 100 essential films found further below – is my attempt at an answer.

Video: 50 Essential Chinese Movies

Such a project necessarily comes with caveats. Having participated earlier this year in a roundtable post-mortem on the greatest films poll conducted by Sight & Sound, I’ve discussed the problems inherent in making such lists and canons, problems that are even more apparent when attempting to recognize Chinese cinema in its full breadth and depth. I’ve actively followed Chinese cinema for many years, but I don’t consider myself fully qualified to make a definitive list on my own. The problem is partly one of access – there are so many films that I’ve read about but as yet have found no way to see.

Eleven years ago I first came across a major attempt at forming a Chinese film canon, a list of 100 films compiled by several Chinese film experts for Asia Weekly magazine, and made available in English by Chinese film expert Shelly Kraicer. At the time I lived in no less a cinephile hub than New York City, but even the legendary Kim’s video store only carried the more popular and recent titles from the 1980s and 1990s. So I took that list on an extended safari through various branches of New York’s Public Library and Chinatowns (both the one in Lower Manhattan and in Flushing, Queens). All in all I found 21 of the 100 on the list, which attests to the degree of success that someone earnestly trying to learn all about Chinese films could achieve back then.

Fast forward to today, as I search through that same list on Chinese websites like Tudou and Youku, and even YouTube, and find over 80 of the 100 titles, though in most cases not uploaded legally—credit goes to Fandor in making their films available through a legitimate distribution channel. So people not just in New York but all over the world now have greater access to a greater number of Chinese films. We may not even be aware of just how many classic films are now available to us, which makes lists valuable as guides to discovery.

Since the publication of that Asia Weekly list, two more prominent lists of the 100 Greatest Chinese Films have been published : one by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005, the other by the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival last year. I have aggregated the three lists to produce a combined result, one that takes into account the number of times each film is mentioned, as well as its rankings (the HKFA and GHFF lists ranked their selections whereas Asia Weekly lists the films chronologically).

I’ve also opted to present the new list in chronological order, so as to de-emphasize a noticeable prejudice towards more recent films, as they tend to rank more highly than the older films in both the HKFA and GHFF lists. On the other hand, in order to bring the list up to date, I’ve also incorporated results from the dGenerate Films international poll of the greatest Chinese language films of the 2000s, plus my own personal selection of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, which I consider the most important Chinese film so far of this current decade.

This method of list-making is certainly far from perfect, as it relies on lists that are themselves bound by whatever limitations of viewing scope and orientation prevail among their constituents. (For example, the Hong Kong Film Awards list is glutted with Hong Kong titles, while the Taiwan Golden Horse list favors Taiwan films.) So this is by no means the last word, but more of a starting point for how to approach and further explore the world of Chinese cinema. And we can only hope to encounter more films from beyond this list that will both challenge and expand our understanding of what Chinese films are, have been and may become.

———-

As part of that understanding of Chinese cinema as progress and process, one goal of this list is to present a concise history of Chinese cinema over the past 90 years, a perspective that is still under-emphasized, partly due to a lack of awareness of and/or access to older titles. Arranging the films in chronological order, a story starts to emerge, not just of Chinese cinema but of greater China over the past century, and of how history shaped these movies.

There’s the lost golden age of the 1930s Shanghai studios, with iconic stars like Ruan Lingyu (immortalized in films like Little Toys and The Goddess, she is still undeniably the greatest Chinese actress of all time) and matinee idol Zhao Dan (Street Angel, Crossroads). This period saw both politically progressive filmmaking (The Big Road) and promising forays into Hollywood-style genre (Song at Midnight), developments tragically stunted by the Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945.

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH

‘City of Life and Death’ (2009) is a more recent must-see on the list of 100 essential Chinese films.

The triumphant end of World War II only yielded more upheaval, reflected in the socially despondent films of the mid-to-late 1940s (the supreme expression of this despair being Spring in a Small Town, still considered by many to be the greatest Chinese film ever made). With the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Communists assumed control of mainland film production while Nationalist filmmakers fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Socially critical realist drama maintained its influence on both sides for much of the 1950s (whether seen in PRC’s This Life of Mine or HK’s In the Face of Demolition), but the popularity of both Li Han-hsiang’s classical opera movies (The Love Eterne) and Grace Chang’s pop musicals (Mambo Girl) heralded Hong Kong’s blossoming into the pan-Asian entertainment powerhouse it would later become. In this light, it’s interesting to see a PRC masterpiece like Two Stage Sisters adopt the attractions of the musical genre to a Marxist agenda, only to have it backfire: director Xie Jin would be banned from making films for over a decade, and the Cultural Revolution left a devastating mark on Mainland feature filmmaking that would take two decades to recover from.

The video’s historically linear progression also allows us to witness the evolution of the wu xia/martial arts genre, whose films all too often get lumped together as an indistinct mass of chop socky. I hope just a few seconds from each clip are enough to mark clear distinctions between the macho physicality of Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman vs. the psychedelic splendor of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen; the sinuous charisma of Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury vs. the Keatonesque playfulness of Jackie Chan in Drunken Master; the high-flying sensory overload of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain vs. the classy refinement of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What they all have in common is their landmark impact in shaping the genre into what it is today, while standing tall as outstanding films of any kind.

All three polls seem to agree that the 1980s were The Golden Age of Chinese Cinema, with a preponderance of 1980s titles on each list—in fact I made a conscious decision to pare down this decade so as to strike a better balance with the others. Still, one marvels at the artistic flowering on all three fronts: the mainland Fifth Generation led by Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou; the Taiwanese New Wave of Hou and Yang; and HK art filmmakers like Wong and Stanley Kwan. Delving into the national past becomes a prevailing theme for each of these movements as never before in Chinese film history, as seen in Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, A City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day, Rouge, Center Stage, In the Heat of the Sun, Comrades: Almost a Love Story and In the Mood for Love.

The shared set of thematic concerns may also reflect a greater cross-pollination between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan during this period. Mid-90s Hong Kong films like Comrades, Almost a Love Story and Made in Hong Kong express an anxiety over the colony’s 1997 handover to the mainland and what it means to live in Hong Kong. At the same time, the influence of Hong Kong pop culture swept through the  mainland like wildfire, exemplified by A Chinese Odyssey, a wildly popular parody of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, anchored by king comedian Stephen Chow, whose special brand of absurdist humor has become so pervasive that it can be detected in almost every Chinese internet joke.

With HK’s handover and improved relations between PRC and Taiwan in the 2000s, filmmaking borders continued to open, perhaps exemplified best by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the spawn of transnational big budget productions it would inspire throughout the 2000s. Mainstream Chinese filmmaking seemed to get bigger, glossier and arguably emptier in its attempts to cash in on an expanding market (in this sense Let the Bullets Fly can be seen as a cynical commentary on a profiteering mentality run rampant throughout greater China). At the same time a wave of independent filmmaking pushed the boundaries of both form and content, led by the likes of Jia Zhangke (Platform), Wang Bing (West of the Tracks) and Liu Jiayin (Oxhide).

Liu, one of the most original filmmakers of our time, who filmed two extraordinary features (Oxhide and Oxhide II) within the confines of her parents’ apartment, also happens to be one of three outstanding women directors who made the list, the others being Tang Shu Shuen, a visionary who introduced avant garde techniques in films like The Arch; Ann Hui (Boat People), who for four decades has occupied the top tier of Hong Kong filmmakers (her last film A Simple Life is among my favorites of this year). As in Hollywood, women directors are grossly underrepresented in Chinese filmmaking, though women have helped define Chinese cinema since the days of Ruan Lingyu’s subversively disquieting performances (a matter explored in depth by Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage). May their shining examples inspire many others in shaping the future of Chinese cinema.

———-

Here is the full list of 100 essential Chinese films, with titles in English, Chinese (simplified for PRC productions, traditional otherwise) and pinyin; year of production, director, state of production; and placement on other lists (AW= Asia Weekly; HKFA=Hong Kong Film Awards; GHFF=Golden Horse Film Festival).

A * indicates that the film is included in the “50 Essential Chinese Movies” video essay. I should acknowledge the editorial decision to include no more than two films by a given director in the video, so as to reflect a greater diversity of films and filmmakers. Otherwise directors such as Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien would have surely had three or more films in the top 50.

PS: Bragging rights go to the first person who can correctly answer this question:

Which actor and actress appear in the most films in the “50 Essential Chinese Films” video?

———-

100 Essential Chinese Movies

Romance of a Fruit Peddler (aka Laborer’s Love) / 劳工之爱情 (Laogong zhi aiqing)
(1923, Zhang Shichuan, China) AW

*Little Toys / 小玩意 (Xiao wanyi)
(1933, Sun Yu, China) AW, HKFA #70, GHFF #91

Twin Sisters / 姊妹花 (Zimei hua)
(1934, Zheng Zhengqiu, China) AW

*The Goddess / 神女 (Shennu)
(1934, Wu Yonggang, China) AW, HKFA #29, GHFF #23

Song of the Fisherman / 漁光曲 (Yu guang qu)
(1934, Cai Chusheng, China) AW

*The Big Road (aka The Highway) / 大路 (Dalu)
(1935, Sun Yu, China) AW, HKFA #30, GHFF #50

*Street Angel / 馬路天使 (Malu tianshi)
(1937, Yuan Muzhi, China) AW, HKFA #11, GHFF #19

*Song at Midnight / 夜半歌聲 (Yeban gesheng)
(1937, Ma Xu Weibang, China) AW, HKFA #77

*Crossroads / 十字街頭 (Shizi jietou)
(1937, Shen Xiling, China) AW, GHFF #91

*The Spring River Flows East / 一江春水向东流 (Yi jiang chunshui xiang dong liu)
(1947, Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli, China) AW, HKFA #27, GHFF #40

Long Live the Mistress! / 太太萬歲 (Taitai wansui)
(1947, Sang Hu, China) AW, HKFA #82

*Spring in a Small Town / 小城之春 (Xiao cheng zhi chun)
(1948, Fei Mu, China) AW, HKFA #1, GHFF #5

*Myriad of Lights / 萬家燈火 (aka The Lights of Ten Thousand Homes) (Wanjia denghuo)
(1948, Shen Fu, China) AW, HKFA #91

Crows and Sparrows / 烏鴉與麻雀 (Wuya yu maque)
(1949, Zheng Junli, PRC) AW

An Orphan on the Streets (aka The Winter of Three Hairs) / 三毛流浪记(San Mao liulang ji) (1949, Zhao Ming, PRC) AW

Sorrows of the Forbidden City / 清宫秘史 (Qing gong mishi)
(1949, Zhu Shilin, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #37

*This Life of Mine / 我这一辈子 (Wo zhe yibeizi)
(1950, Shi Hui, PRC) AW, HKFA #46

The Life of Wu Xun / 武訓傳 (Wu Xun zhuan)
(1950, Sun Yu, PRC) AW

*In the Face of Demolition / 危樓春曉 (Weilou chunxiao)
(1954, Lee Tit, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #18

New Year’s Sacrifice / 祝福 (Zhufu)
(1956, Sang Hu, PRC) AW

*Mambo Girl / 曼波女郎 (Manbo guniang)
(1958, Yi Wen, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #83

Feast of a Rich Family (aka The Grand Party) / 豪門夜宴 (Haomen yeyan)
(1958, Lee Tit, Luo Zhixiong, Li Chenfeng, Wu Hui, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #84

Lin Zexu / 林则徐 (Lin Zexu)
(1959, Zheng Junli, Qin Fan, PRC) AW, HKFA #94

The Lin Family Shop / 林家鋪子 (Lin jia puzi)
(1959, Shui Hua, PRC) AW, GHFF #91

The Wild, Wild Rose / 野玫瑰之戀 (Ye meigui zhi lian)
(1960, Wong Tin-lam, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA# 64

All These Pitiable Parents / 可憐天下父母心 (aka The Great Devotion) (Kelian tianxia fumu xin)
(1961, Chor Yuen, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #65

Third Sister Liu / 刘三姐 (Liu Sanjie)
(1960, Su Li, PRC) AW

The Red Detachment of Women / 红色娘子军 (Hongse niangzi jun)
(1961, Xie Jin, PRC) AW

*The Love Eterne / 梁山伯與祝英台 (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yintai)
(1963, Li Han Hsiang, Hong Kong) HKFA #38, GHFF #11

Beautiful Duckling / 養鴨人家 (Yangya renjia)
(1964, Lee Hsing, Taiwan) AW, GHFF #50

*Stage Sisters / 舞台姐妹 (Wutai jiemei)
(1965, Xie Jin, China) AW, HKFA #53, GHFF #91

At Dawn / 破曉時分 (Poxiao shifen)
(1967, Song Cunshou, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #58, GHFF #27

*One-Armed Swordsman / 獨臂刀 (Dubi dao)
(1967, Chang Cheh, Hong Kong) HKFA #15, GHFF #73

*Dragon Gate Inn / 龍門客棧 (Longmen kezhan)
(1967, King Hu, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #7, GHFF #9

*A Touch of Zen / 俠女 (Xia nu)
(1971, King Hu, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #9, GHFF #15

*The Arch / 董夫人 (Dong furen)
(1969, Tang Shu Shuen, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #20, GHFF #44

The Winter / 冬暖 (Dong nuan)
(1969, Li Han-hsiang, Taiwan) GHFF #48

Home, Sweet Home / 家在臺北 (Jia zai Taibei)
(1970, Pai Ching-jui, Taiwan) AW

*Execution in Autumn / 秋決 (1972, Lee Hsing, Taiwan)
(1972, Li Hsing, Taiwan) HKFA #85, GHFF #38

*Fist of Fury / 精武門 (Jingwu men)
(1972, Lo Wei, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #16, GHFF #30

China Behind /再見中國 (Zaijian, Zhongguo)
(1974, Tang Shu Shuen, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #78

Everlasting Glory / 英烈千秋 (Yinglie qianqiu)
(1976, Ting Shan-hsi, Taiwan) AW

*The Private Eyes / 半斤八兩 (Banjin baliang)
(1976, Michael Hui, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #13, GHFF #66

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin / 少林三十六房  (Shaolin sanshiliu fang)
(1978, Lau Kar-leong, Hong Kong) AW

*Drunken Master / 醉拳 (Zhui quan)
(1978, Yuen Woo-ping, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #33, GHFF #66

The Butterfly Murders / 蝶變 (Diebian)
(1979, Tsui Hark, Hong Kong) HKFA #34

The Secret / 瘋劫 (Fengjie)
(1979, Ann Hui, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #31

The Spooky Bunch / 小姐撞到鬼 (Xiaojie zhuang dao gui)
(1980, Ann Hui, Hong Kong) HKFA #79, GHFF #58

Father and Son / 父子情 (Fuzi qing)
(1981, Allen Fong, Hong Kong) HKFA #26

*Boat People / 投奔怒海 (Touben nuhai)
(1982, Ann Hui, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #8, GHFF #83

*Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain / 新蜀山劍俠 (Xin shu shan jian xia)
(1982, Tsui Hark, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #40, GHFF #66

Sandwich Man / 兒子的大玩偶 (Erzi de da wan’ou)
(1983, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tseng Chuang-hsiang, Wan Jen, Taiwan) AW, GHFF #27

Growing Up / 小畢的故事 (Xiaoabi de gushi)
(1983, Chen Kun-hou, Taiwan) AW, GHFF #56

*Yellow Earth / 黄土地 (Huang tudi)
(1984, Chen Kaige, PRC) AW, HKFA #4, GHFF #13

Homecoming / 似水流年 (Si shui liu nian)
(1984, Yim Ho, Hong Kong / PRC) AW, HKFA #23

Long Arm of the Law / 省港旗兵 (Shenggang qibing)
(1984, Johnny Mak, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #6

*A Time to Live and a Time to Die / 童年往事 (Tongnian wangshi)
(1985, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #24, GHFF #3

Taipei Story / 青梅竹馬 (Qing mei zhu ma)
(1985, Edward Yang, Taiwan) KHFA #80, GHFF #50

*A Better Tomorrow / 英雄本色 (Yingxiong bense)
(1986, John Woo, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #2, GHFF #17

*The Terrorizers / 恐怖分子 (Kongbu fenzi)
(1986, Edward Yang, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #41, GHFF #11

An Autumn’s Tale / 秋天的童話 (Qiu tian di tong hua)
(1987, Mabel Cheung, Hong Kong) HKFA #49 GHFF #56

City on Fire / 龍虎風雲 (Long hu feng yun)
(1987, Ringo Lam, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #54

*A Chinese Ghost Story / 倩女幽魂 (Qiannu youhun)
(1987, Ching Siu-tung, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #19, GHFF #35

*Red Sorghum / 红高粱 (Hong gaoliang)
(1987, Zhang Yimou, PRC) AW, HKFA #25, GHFF #21

Dust in the Wind / 戀戀風塵 (Lian lian feng chen)
(1987, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan) HKFA #74 GHFF #7

*Rouge / 胭脂扣 (Yanzhi kou)
(1988, Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #21, GHFF #27

*City of Sadness / 悲情城市 (Beiqing chengshi)
(1989, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #1, GHFF #5

*A Brighter Summer Day / 牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (Gulingjie shaonian sharen shijian)
(1991, Edward Yang, Taiwan) AW, HKFA #12, GHFF #2

*Days of Being Wild / 阿飛正傳 (A fei zheng zhuan)
(1990, Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #3, GHFF #4

Once Upon a Time in China / 黃飛鴻 (Huang Feihong)
(1991, Tsui Hark, Hong Kong) HKFA #43, GHFF #91

The Story of Qiu Ju /秋菊打官司 (Qiu Ju da guansi)
(1992, Zhang Yimou, PRC) AW, HKFA #45 GHFF #35

*Center Stage / 阮玲玉 (Ruan Lingyu)
(1992, Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #44, GHFF #30

Farewell My Concubine / 霸王别姬 (Bawang bieji)
(1993, Chen Kaige, PRC/Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #55, GHFF #30

The Blue Kite / 蓝风筝 (Lan fengzheng)
1993, Tian Zhuangzhuang, PRC) HKFA #81, GHFF #41

The Wedding Banquet / 喜宴 (Xiyan)
(1993, Ang Lee, Taiwan/US) HKFA #62 GHFF #23

The Puppetmaster / 戲夢人生 (Xi meng ren sheng)
(1993, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan) HKFA #101, GHFF #41

*In the Heat of the Sun / 阳光灿烂的日子 (Yangguang canlan de rizi)
(1994, Jiang Wen, PRC) AW, HKFA #17, GHFF #19

*Vive L’Amour / 愛情萬歲 (Aiqing wansui)
(1994, Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) GHFF #13

*A Chinese Odyssey / 大話西遊 (Da hua xi you)
(1994, Jeffrey Lau, Hong Kong) HKFA #19, GHFF #73

Chungking Express / 重慶森林 (Chongqing senlin)
(1994, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #22 GHFF #21

Ashes of Time / 東邪西毒 (Dong xie xi du)
(1994, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong) HKFA #50, GHFF #35

*Comrades: Almost a Love Story / 甜蜜蜜 (Tian mimi)
(1996, Peter Chan, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #28, GHFF #16

*Made in Hong Kong / 香港製造 (Xianggang zhizao)
(1997, Fruit Chan, Hong Kong) AW, HKFA #36, GHFF #58

Xiao Wu / Pickpocket / 小武 (Xiao Wu)
(1997, Jia Zhangke, PRC) GHFF #35

*The Mission / 鎗火 (Qiang huo)
(1999, Johnnie To, Hong Kong) HKFA #14, GHFF #44

*Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / 臥虎藏龍 (Wo hu cang long)
(2000, Ang Lee, Taiwan/PRC/Hong Kong/US) HKFA #10, GHFF #6

Yi Yi: A One and a Two/ 一一 (Yi yi)
(2000, Edward Yang, Taiwan) HKFA #56, GHFF #7, dGF #4

*In the Mood for Love / 花樣年華 (Hua yang nian hua)
(2000, Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong) HKFA #22, GHFF #9, dGF #1

*Platform / 站台 (Zhantai)
(2000, Jia Zhangke, PRC) HKFA #63, GHFF #73, dGF #3

Shaolin Soccer / 少林足球 (Shaolin zuqiu)
(2002, Stephen Chow, Hong Kong) HKFF #76, GHFF #66

*Infernal Affairs / 無間道 (Wu jian dao)
(2002, Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, Hong Kong) HKFA #32, GHFF #18

*West of the Tracks / 铁西区 (Tie xi qu)
(2003, Wang Bing, PRC) dGF #2

Blind Shaft / 盲井 (Mang jing)
(2003, Li Yang, PRC) GHFF #58, dGF #10

*Oxhide / 牛皮 (Niu pi)
(2005, Liu Jiayin, PRC) dGF #7

Still Life / 三峡好人 (San xia hao ren)
(2006, Jia Zhangke, PRC) GHFF #44, dGF #5

Summer Palace / 颐和园 (Yi he yuan)
(2006, Lou Ye, PRC) GHFF #73, dGF #7

Lust, Caution / 色,戒 (Se jie)
(2007, Ang Lee, Taiwan) GHFF #30

Cape No. 7 / 海角七號 (Haijiao qi hao)
(2008, Wei Te-Sheng, Taiwan) GHFF #38

*City of Life and Death / 南京! 南京! (Nanjing! Nanjing!)
(2009, Lu Chuan, PRC)

*Let the Bullets Fly / 让子弹飞 (Rang zidan fei)
(2011, Jiang Wen, PRC / Hong Kong)

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2 Comments »

  • Jack Miller says:

    What, in your opinion, is the greatest Chinese film ever made?

  • alsolikelife says:

    That’s an impossible question to answer, but if I had to pick one personal favorite, it would be LOVE AND DUTY from 1931 starring Ruan Ling-yu. Funny thing is, it’s not even on this list. STREET ANGEL, A TOUCH OF ZEN, CITY OF SADNESS and A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY are up at the top for me as well.

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