A peculiar dedication closes first-time feature director Zhang Dalei’s clear-eyed and lovely “The Summer Is Gone.” Over the only color footage we’ve seen (the rest is shot in satiny black-and-white that quietly dignifies its portrayal of provincial Chinese domesticity) the words appear: “Dedicated to the generation that birthed ours.” It’s a slightly awkward phrase — certainly in its English translation; perhaps it’s more elegant in Mandarin — and it could seem a little grandiose in the context of a modest last-summer-of-childhood debut. And yet somehow the words release a warm flood of feeling. This is the rare dedication that feels like it makes sense of the whole film, like it was even the reason for it, not simply an afterthought. With a maturity beyond his experience level, Zhang admires the past without revering it, with his filmmaking style, too, seeming to pay unassuming homage to the canon of great Chinese directors, while being dipped in a newness that is unique to him.
It is the early 1990s, in a city in a far-flung province of China. Twelve-year-old Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi, a non-professional like most of the cast) has a summer of indolence to enjoy before middle school, but the stability of his life is threatened by prevailing political change. His father Chen (Zhang Chen), faces insecurity at what should have been his job-for-life with the regional state-run film studio, as the effects of China’s conversion to a market economy begin to make themselves felt. Xiaolei’s teacher mother Guo (Guo Yanyuan, in a beautiful performance of unselfconscious stolidity) frets about getting Xiaolei into the school she’s chosen, though his grades aren’t good enough; while her carefully tended epiphyllum plant threatens to bloom in the courtyard; and her mother, Xiaolei’s grandmother, lies ill. But the neighbors in the apartment block come and go with the usual hubbub, and all Xiaolei really wants to do is hang out with his friends or duck into the movie theater or idle the hot days away playing inexpertly with the nunchucks he wears slung around his neck.
One of the things that allows ‘Summer’ to transcend the cliches of the childhood memoir film is in how Zhang portrays the little boy, who is the age the director would have been at the time, enacting scenes that Zhang was inspired to write after a visit to his own ailing grandmother. Usually, nostalgia and a kind of ego suffuses this sort of portrayal, an insistence that all the things that happen in the film happen to the central child. But here, Zhang is less interested in the rather unremarkable Xiaolei than he is in everything that is going on around him — perhaps all the things that Zhang fears he missed the first time around. Instead of the standard honeyed view of childhood, then, he determinedly refocuses our attention on the parents, and on the unsung heroism of ordinary people doing their best to keep everything normal for each other in challenging times.
Chen is at home a lot, watching videos and casually fixing things — a lamp, a broom. Guo meets school officials and cooks meal after meal with unflagging, pragmatic energy, all of which she brings to bear on getting Xiaolei into that school. Unlike the aggrandizing tendencies of autobiography, it’s as though Zhang has designed the film, which he also wrote and edited, as a gentle rebuke to his 12-year-old self, and as an expiation of his adult guilt for all the things that, as a child, he never noticed or appreciated.
The black-and-white photography from DP Lu Songye is stunningly immersive from the very opening moments. It wears its grace lightly, but even a frame composed of little but a prosaic doorway into a cramped apartment kitchen can become beautiful, and a wide shot of father and son on a street can feel like we’re looking into a snow globe memory, without any of the sentimentalization that implies. The sound design too, is exceptional, precisely evoking the ticking calmness within the home and the bustle of a provincial city outside — one big enough to be noisy, but small enough, on the massive scale of China, to feel like its inhabitants are at the mercy of decisions made far, far away.
With so much consideration and care gone into every frame, the danger is in holding on too tight and squeezing the life out. But the film’s most impressive and paradoxical quality is that within its careful compositions, the performances and interactions happen with such naturalism it’s like we just happened upon them. This mixture of consideration and spontaneity, of premeditation and serendipity, is reminiscent of great Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, without ever directly referencing either.
If it were only a portrait of China on the brink of its newest incarnation of modernity (symbolized, neatly enough, by Xiaolei and his dad trying to go to see “The Fugitive” in the local cinema but not being allowed to sneak in because of a change in management) “The Summer is Gone” would have value. But it is more than that again — it is a quiet act of appreciation that could only have come from a society in which honoring your parents is not just a commandment to which lip service is paid, but a deeply ingrained cultural attribute. And yes, it is a coming of age story, but not so much for the character of Xiaolei, as for Zhang Dalei, who seems to innately understand the secret of the genre: you don’t come of age, age comes to you, as it has to every generation before, in rolling, unstoppable waves of time and change, and we owe a debt of gratitude the people who provide a harbor for us, for however brief a summer.