A young boy and his elderly neighbor strike up a friendship in “End of Summer,” a well-crafted but milk-and-water debut by Chinese director Zhou Quan. Set during the 1998 World Cup, the film is flushed with quaint memorabilia like Ronaldo shirts, traditional courtyards and other rose-tinted recreations of small-town life. Compared with the trenchant “Stonehead,” another soccer-themed Chinese children’s film, or the similarly nostalgic but more artsy “Summer Is Gone,” Huang Yimei’s predictable screenplay soft-pedals its social and emotional elements, making “Summer” nothing more than a pleasant diversion. As such, the film should slot easily into family channels on domestic TV or streaming platforms (it has been acquired by Chinese giant Tencent Penguin), but it won’t score with critics or programmers on the hunt for auteur voices.
Gu Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan), who attends a provincial elementary school in Shaoxing, a city near Shanghai, has the misfortune of being a teacher’s son. Xiaoyang loves soccer, but like many Chinese parents, dad Jianhua (Zhang Songwen) believes sports are a distraction from homework and forbids him from playing. The boy finds an ally in neighbor Grandpa Cheng (Ku Pao-ming), a soccer fanatic who agrees to coach him so he can qualify for the school team.
By setting the interaction of the boy and the grumpy old man in the shared courtyard of their ancient mansion-turned-collective residence, director Zhou evokes an era when people lived in close quarters and were more congenial and unguarded towards each other. He also implicitly mourns the fading of this communal spirit through news of government enforced “urban renewal” as well as market forces that make residents like Xiaoyang’s mom Huifang (Tan Zhuo) long to move into modern condos.
Despite their age gap, Xiaoyang and Grandpa both have honest, endearingly tactless personalities that save their rapport from feeling corny. The older character’s immersion in the kid’s interests not only throws into relief his tiger parents’ conventional expectations in education, but also acts as a buffer against adult problems stewing at home.
Huifang is a high-flying Yue opera performer who neglects her family to concentrate on rehearsals. Then Dad is tipped by the principal that he’s a likely candidate to become the next vice-principal. A newly inflated ego, coupled with old wounds of being over-shadowed by his wife, emboldens him to act on a crush on Miss Shen (Dong Qing), the new English teacher.
The film treats Jianhua’s transgressive desires with gentle amusement, his clumsy overtures making him less a sexual predator than a self-satisfied moralist whose mid-life crisis caught him by surprise. Although he also conveys Shen’s discomfort about the unwanted attentions of a senior who has power over her career, Zhou almost romanticizes that prim era as an age of innocence — as in a scene at a dance hall where couples sway furtively to the cloying songs of Taiwanese crooner Teresa Teng. The ambience and activity are both laughably tame to modern viewers and tantalizingly risqué to the characters.
In addition to mapping Xiaoyang’s coming of age amid his parents’ marital discord, the film captures the young protagonist’s first sense of heartache, as he learns that bonds can be as easily made as broken, even ones forged through mutual loneliness. As it happens, Grandpa has been grappling with a painful loss, amid which Xiaoyang is a source of comfort. The script never spells out, but provides plenty of hints about the old man’s past. His struggle to come to terms with fate (calibrated by Taiwanese veteran Ku with a kind of grumpy gusto), sounds a bittersweet note that helps dilute the soapy tone of the family melodrama.
Contrary to the many youngsters found in films like “Stonehead,” child characters (other than Rong) are confined to the periphery of this story. Rong, who appeared in Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” is cute in a doll-like way, which fits right into the idyllic time vacuum that Zhou painstakingly creates. Having said that, the film is obviously made with a lot of care, suggesting what the tyro helmer is capable of in future, preferably more commercial projects.
The modest budget is deftly disguised by the ace production team, especially Michael Solidum, who captures the “Jiangnan” region’s landmark canals, stone bridges and traditional tea houses with a lush radiance. Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke’s preferred composer Lim Giong’s ethereal score wafts lightly throughout without overwhelming the drama. The resulting image is picturesque but also a bit precious.