The tug of war between filmmakers and producers on one side and the Chinese censors on the other reached surreal levels this year. After Zhang Yimou’s long-awaited One Second, set during the Cultural Revolution, and Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s Better Days, a drama about disaffected youth, were pulled from the Berlinale at the last minute, citing “technical issues” as the reason, it was the turn of first-time director Zu Feng and his chaste debut feature Summer of Changsha (Liu Yu Tian) to be mysteriously yanked from Cannes. In the end, the film was screened in Un Certain Regard but sans cast and crew and, most importantly, without the official passed-by-censorship stamp.
The mystery within the mystery for Western viewers is to discern what is so upsetting about this low-key story, a murder investigation like so many other trendy Chinese noirs that revolve around an almost-romance between two depressed, guilt-ridden people. This could be the description of any number of films from Black Coal, Thin Ice onwards and hardly seems grounds for controversy.
Summer of Changsha is, in any case, miles away from the gritty, hard-boiled world of most detective films and fiction. Police investigator A Bin, played by Zu (who starred as the police detective in Lou Ye’s Mystery), is a deeply sensitive fellow who has already handed in his resignation from the force before the story begins. His reasons are personal and concern his girlfriend’s suicide, which he could not prevent and even, in a moment of frustration, encouraged. Unable to forgive himself, he is so weighed down by guilt that he flirts with suicide himself.
A Bin is waiting for his dismissal when a fisherman finds a human arm in the river, the first of various body parts to resurface. Investigating with his senior partner Lei (down-to-earth Chen Minghao, who one would have liked to see more of), A Bin proposes to check out the missing persons listings. That is how he finds Li Xue (Huang Lu, another Lou Ye graduate from Blind Massage), a beautiful but stony-eyed hospital surgeon whose brother has been missing for weeks. She has no qualms about telling him her dream, in which her brother told her he had been murdered and gave directions to the place where he was buried. They find his remains in the exact spot she describes. Only his head is missing.
The mystery, it seems, is solved almost as easily as finding the body, and it’s clearly not police work that interests the filmmaker. As soon as possible, Zu shifts the focus to the interior thoughts and feelings of his characters. A Bin’s continuing depression, fed by an inability to sleep, is tested by several chance encounters. The first is the unwanted attention of young good-time girl Ting-Ting (Zhang Qianru), who has already been cast off by his partner Lei. He treats her with the same gross egotism and insensitivity that precipitated his girlfriend’s tragedy.
This past trauma is brought back to life and wounds reopened when he happens to meet the dead girl’s father and is invited to dinner. There he reconnects with other family members who, to his surprise, are moving on with their lives, including her spirited sister (Liu Tianchi). Many scenes later, she speaks her mind in a memorable and completely credible dressing-down.
A Bin’s least believable relationship is with the mysterious Li Xue, whose dream about her brother puts her on the police suspect list. Emotionless as an iceberg, she is perfectly impenetrable and uncommunicative, piquing A Bin’s curiosity and setting him on a search into her troubled past. He discovers she, too, has a guilty secret that makes life not worth living, but at least gives them something in common to talk about. This all becomes tedious at a certain point when it is made clear that the circumstances pulling them apart are stronger than they are.
More interesting than these sad characters are the bits of real life that creep into the story, like a Buddhist memorial service that A Bin attends and an eccentric group of Buddhist animal rights activists who buy fish and release them into the river. This is the nearest thing to a political statement in the film.
Shot in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, the poetic screenplay is reinforced by Dong Yingda’s melancholy score with its poignant repeated motif and Jeffrey Chu’s romantic lighting. The nimble editing by Wen Jing reflects A Bin’s fast-moving thoughts.
Production company: Gootime Media Co.
Cast: Zu Feng, Huang Lu, Chen Minghao, Liu Tianchi, Hou Qiuhai, Zhang Qianru, Tian Yu, Shi Yueling
Director: Zu Feng
Screenwriter: Zhou Yang
Producer: Li Rui
Executive producer: Yu Xiaoyan
Director of photography: Jeffrey Chu
Production designer: Peng Shaoying
Editor: Wen Jing
Music: Dong Yingda
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
World sales: Indie Sales