(Mandarin Chinese dialogue)
Mainland Chinese star Jiang Wen (“Red Sorghum,””Hibiscus Town”) makes an engaging directing bow with “In the Heat of the Sun,” a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age pic set in Cultural Revolution China whose only major fault is its fulsome running time. Full of well-observed characters, and actorly to a degree, “Sun” could cast a modest shadow over arty wickets with half an hour sheared.
Movie is based on a 1991 novella by well-known bad-boy writer Wang Shuo, though Jiang’s script is more of a free interpretation, changing some 70% of the original and mixing in a mass of personal memories. (Even the central character/narrator’s nickname, “Monkey,” was Jiang’s own teenage moniker.) It’s not Jiang’s first shot at scripting: He previously worked uncredited on some pix in which he starred –“Red Sorghum,””Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch” and “Black Snow.”
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Characters are intro’d in 1969, as the boys’ military fathers are shipped out in a troop plane to spread Chairman Mao’s doctrine. Cut to the early ’70s, and a hot summer in Peking: The bunch are in their mid-teens, living in a military compound with time on their hands for skipping school, getting into brawls and eyeing girls.
Leader is the assured Liu Yiku (Geng Le), who seems to be sleeping with the devil-may-care Yu Beipei (Tao Hong). The younger Monkey Ma (Xia Yu) also gets the come-on from her, but is obsessed with an older girl, Mi Lan (Ning Jing).
Pic’s main problem is that its episodic structure, which essentially boils down to a last-summer, rite-of-passage movie, is too fragile to go two-hours plus. (Initial cut was 220 minutes, enough for a miniseries, which remains an option, according to producers.) Jiang consciously avoids the cliches of Cultural Revolution-set movies, with virtually none of the usual Maoist book-waving and demos, but he doesn’t come up with a strong enough central narrative on which to hang the series of vignettes.
Though the pic has a hazy feel, as if this is how Ma remembers things rather than how they actually happened, a Brechtian device in which the action freezes while the narrator clears his mind comes too late for proper assimilation.
Still, there’s a freshness to the characters (especially the two independent-minded girls), and sexual frankness (a shower scene with the boys, a brief topless shot of actress Ning), that tread new ground for a Mainland China-shot movie. Scenes of rival-gang hooliganism, plus a bold sequence of cadres privately viewing a Western t&a movie, are also eye-opening in the same context.
As in many actor-helmed items, thesps are given plenty of rein, sometimes at the expense of overall pacing and structure. But on an individual level, perfs are fine and casting top-drawer. As Monkey Ma, 17-year-old high school student Xia has both an uncanny resemblance to Jiang himself and a likable combination of insolence and innocence.
Standout perf comes from Ning (the striking lead in “Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker”), enigmatic as the object of Ma’s infatuation. Newcomer Tao etches memorable support as the free-thinking tease Yu. Well-known Siqin Gaowa pops up in two scenes as Ma’s mom.
Ace lenser Gu Changwei (“Judou,””Farewell My Concubine”) bathes the pic in a gorgeous late-afternoon, summery glow, with play of light and shadow. (Chinese title literally means “Days of Brilliant Sunlight.”) Romantic scoring, based on a well-known theme from Italo opera “Cavalleria Rusticana,” may send mixed signals to Western auds, though the director says music of this kind was an essential component of his youth.
End crawl bears a special thanks to Volker Schloendorff, boss of Germany’s Babelsberg Studios, where final mixing was done. Most of the $ 2 million budget on the three-way Chinese co-production was raised from Hong Kong.