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A beautifully-shot black-and-white drama unfolding across one sweltering summer in a provincial Chinese city in the early 1990s, The Summer Is Gone is a lush and melancholic ode about the end of an era — for a boy spending his last vacation before enrolling in the local junior high, and for a community confronting the changes brought about by the privatization of state-backed enterprises from which they had long earned their stable living.
Shunning the bombastic, comical romance-driven approach omnipresent in the deluge of nostalgia-fueled cinema emerging from mainland China during the past few years — in films of varying levels of quality, from the gaudy Tiny Times to the grittier So Young — first-time director Zhang Dalei offers a subtle, poetic, if a bit overtly mellow reminiscence of his country’s simpler, supposedly better days before rampant market-driven reforms took over.
Counting award-winning Tibetan-Chinese filmmaker Pema Tseden (The Silent Holy Stones, last year’s Venice title Tharlo) among its executive producers, The Summer Is Gone should see more festival berths in the fall after its world premiere at the FIRST International Film Festival in Pema Tseden’s hometown of Xining.
Zhang Dalei’s protagonist — or his on-screen proxy, given the similarity of their names — is Zhang Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a 12-year-old living in a non-descript working-class neighborhood in the director’s real hometown of Hohhot, the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. An unremarkable and unambitious boy, Xiaolei kicks off his summer holiday with more or less what he’s been doing every year: whiling his time away with his friends on the street or at the swimming pool, watching (and dreaming about) the beautiful and older girl across the street, or spending time down at the local cinema.
While Xiaolei switches off, however, his parents — or at least, his teacher mother (Guo Yanyuan) — are in full-on panic mode about getting their son into the local elite secondary school, spending a lot of time and resources seeking that backdoor through which to squeeze the boy in.
And as the hot days unfold, more changes emerge. Xiaolei’s great-grandmother’s health deteriorates, bringing into sharper focus the past and present schisms of the family. Meanwhile, Xiaolei’s father (Zhang Chen) — a state film studio employee who spends most of his time at home watching taped foreign films — sees his job and his artistic ambitions vanish as the government disbands state-owned companies.
The Summer Is Gone is thus at once Xiaolei’s rite of passage and also mainland China’s, as the country takes its baby steps (and biggest gamble) in exposing its populations to the opportunities and risks of market economics. There’s another important historical landmark in there too, as Xiaolei and his father try to go into a screening of The Fugitive, the first-ever US film to receive an official release in China back in 1994.
It’s an anachronistic plot point though: the film actually opened in November, rather than in the summer. Still, Zhang has certainly pulled all the stops in getting the period right through sets (old-style tenements and dancehalls), props (VCRs!), characters (smalltime hoodlums) and popular-culture bookmarks (music and soap operas).
But it’s the general ambience which elevates the film. On top of recreating and recording the soundscapes of the season and the simpler city, Lv Songye’s lush camerawork and Zhang Dalei’s editing provides a vivid portrayal of a small, sleepy and stable community before the social maelstrom hits.
The reality back then — and the consequences which follow — are certainly much more harsh than the sepia-tinged stories unfolding here. But The Summer Is Gone never seems to play itself up as a tour de force trying to contemplate and cross-examine China’s big historical narratives: this is a delicate exercise oozing nostalgia but also offering nuanced emotions at every turn.
Production company: Beijing Mailisi TV and Film Culture
Cast: Kong Weiyi, Zhang Chen, Guo Yanyun, Zhang Kun
Director: Zhang Dalei
Producers: Mai Lisi, Zhao Yanming, Suo Yiluo
Executive producers: Pema Tseden, Zhang Jian, Tuya
Screenwriter: Zhang Dalei
Director of photography: Lv Songye
Production designers: Lv Songye, Zhang Dalei
Costume designers: Han Guangren, Bai Ling
Editor: Zhang Dalei
Casting directors: Hao Mengfu, Yuan Qi
No ratings; 106 minutes
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