The 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.
Young 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.”
Much 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 mother.