Chinese actor Zu Feng makes a professional, polished but overly cautious directorial debut with “Summer of Changsha,” a dour police procedural wrapped around an even more dour romance that seems to exist to make the point that no good deed goes unpunished in our modern, alienated world. Trapped in a muddy, deterministic plot, hurting, guilt-ridden characters bond tenuously while a seasonal heat wave makes everyone torpid and irritable, and generally no one seems to have much fun, least of all the audience. There’s certainly room, in this year’s Asia-noir-heavy Cannes slate, for a Chinese genre film that skews gritty, but there’s gritty and there’s just plain grim, and then, further along that spectrum there’s “Summer of Changsha.”
Framed in DP Jeffrey Chu’s tasteful but anonymous medium shots, and accompanied by Dong Yingda’s muted score, one bright spot, or more accurately a dully glinting one, is the caliber of committed performance that Zu elicits from his cast, not least himself in the lead role. As A Bin, a detective hollowed out by his sense of responsibility for the suicide of his girlfriend, Zu finds as many shades as possible in his character’s dark blues, though the overall mood is so depressive and repressive that when we finally see him smile, it’s a little disorienting. People here can do that?
As the film begins, A Bin, who is awaiting his captain’s acceptance of his resignation, and his earthier partner Lei (Chen Minghao, deserving more of the limelight than he gets) have been assigned to a murder case. A severed arm has been found floating in the river, and the investigation, which unfolds with possibly accurate but rather undramatic monotony, soon supplies the victim’s probable identity. If the mystery part of this murder mystery is fairly rote (and the anticlimactic solution occurs with still half the runtime to go), it’s because it really exists to bring the still-grieving A Bin into the similarly mournful orbit of local doctor Li Xue (Huang Lu), the unfortunate victim’s sister.
A Bin has rid himself of the perky, amorous attentions of Lei’s ex-girlfriend Ting Ting (Zhang Qianru), a character given a pretty raw deal in Yang Zhou’s screenplay as the lightweight foil to Li Xue’s emotionally unavailable ice queen. But then A Bin clearly does not feel he deserves uncomplicated affection, and instead, Li Xue’s doomy aura of death is the kind of narcotic aphrodisiac he craves (the frosty doctor is mourning not only her brother but her young daughter, who perished some time prior). Together, they emit all the pheromones: guilt, grief, suicidal self-loathing. Misery loves company after all, and soon Yue and A Bin are engaged in a morose kinda-courtship that often feels more like a game of one-downmanship.
The relentless descending monotone is occasionally broken. A clever, well-observed scene with A Bin’s deceased girlfriend’s sister (Liu Tianchi) briefly enriches the film’s psychological insights into the fundamental solipsism of self-hatred and the selfishness that often underpins the urge to confess. And an intriguing subplot, sadly backgrounded in favor of the credulity-defying central relationship, coalesces around an illicit activist group that releases captive animals back into the wild in line with Buddhist principles — Li Xue’s apparently saintly brother was involved with these people, much, it turns out, to his detriment. But if there is sly political comment being made by this detail, or even some allegory about a population chafing against social constraints, it’s opaque indeed: The characters in this sludgy noir feel more trapped by the genre’s overarching mood of hopelessness than by any circumstance specific to Changsha (the capital of Hunan province), or to China in general. Their misery appears to be almost wholly of their own manufacture.
This is surprising because the film’s Cannes premiere was not without political controversy. It had been rumored to have been pulled from the Un Certain Regard competition but eventually screened without the fanfare of an attending team and crucially, without the so-called Dragon Seal, the mark of approval by Chinese authorities. It is hard to account for the Chinese censors’ hesitancy, as a texture of political and social relevance — often so problematic to the powers that be — is exactly what “Summer of Changsha” lacks. It makes Zu Feng’s slick, restrained and competently made debut a frustratingly remote experience that, despite the sweat stains, rumpled collars and incongruous ice-pop eating of its summer heat wave, feels cold as a corpse to the touch.