sad truth is China has become far more oppressive than it was in the 1980s. It
was not paradise, but you could breathe under Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang
(remember, it was the death of the latter, purged in 1986 that helped spark the
Tiananmen Square protests). Things would take a turn for the worse in the
1990s, but a young boy growing up in Inner Mongolia is blissfully oblivious of
the macro forces at work, at least until they directly intrude into his life in
Zhang Dalei’s The Summer is Gone (trailer here), which screens
during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
Zhang Xiaolei looks up to his father, Chen, whose work at a local film studio
gets then admitted to the movies for free. He basically tolerates his school
teacher mother Guo, because she is the practical one who worries about getting
him admitted to a respectable middle school. He is small for his age, but he
still enjoys a largely carefree summer. However, a chance encounter with a
teenage bully stokes some unhealthy hero-worship in Zhang. His irresponsible
nature will also finally start to try his parents’ patience as they struggle to
care for his dying great-grandmother just as Chen loses his job in the first
wave of state enterprise privatizations.
Summer boasts Tibetan
auteur Pema Tseden as one of its producers, but it feels most aesthetically
akin to the work of Edward Yang. You can feel the sun and humidity and smell the
wild flowers through the starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Lu
Songye (who also lensed Tseden’s Tharlo).
It is a coming-of-age story, but Zhang’s attitude towards the era is more bitterly
elegiac than sentimentally nostalgic, essentially lamenting: “if only they had
known what was in store for them.”
like Tseden, Zhang employs a “non-professional” cast of actors, who are really
quite professional. As Zhang Xialoei, Kong Weiyi is convincingly bratty in a
Huck Finn kind of way, but he also conveys great depth and sudden maturity when
faced with personal disappointments and familial tribulations. Zhang Chen plays
his father with slow-burning intensity, but it is Guo Yanyuan who really gives
the film heart and soul as his quietly forceful, chronically under-appreciated
Zhang’s postscript: “Dedicated to the generation
that birthed ours” is a massively potent kicker, because it basically confirms
the nature and frequency of sacrifices the third act implies are soon to be
visited upon provincial families like Zhang Xiaolei’s. Yet, Zhang Dalei only
blames himself (and his analog) for not making better use of the time they had.
It is a film of exquisite sensitivity, but it is also surprisingly tough.
Highly recommended for those who follow independent Chinese cinema and anyone
who likes a good family drama, The Summer
is Gone screens this Thursday (3/16) at the Walter Reade and Friday (3/17)
at MoMA, as part of ND/NF 2017.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Coming of age films, ND/NF '17, Pema Tseden