End of Summer (China, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Zhou Quan’s meditative coming-of-age feature begins with the sounds of soccer and a young boy’s face as he stares into the camera. This is our introduction to the subject of the film, a soccer-loving fifth grade boy named Gu Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan). The film captures childhood innocence, curiosity, and desire. Kids peek into a classroom where a staff meeting is going on. Xiaoyang takes his action figures out from under his bed and imitates the soccer players – especially his idol, Alessandro Del Piero – he just seen on TV during the 1998 World Cup in France.

Everyone, it seems, is at a crossroads. Quan treats all of the characters – whether they be children, middle-aged, or elderly – with the same sensitivity and nuance as he explores a rural community in the midst of change. Chang, economic and social, is the theme of End of Summer.

The film captures both early-career and mid-career anxiety. Xiaoyang’s father (Zhang Songwen) is a teacher at his school, and has just been temporarily promoted to Vice Principal, which puts him in a tenuous position. The new English teaching fellow, Lily Shen (Dong Qing), strives to bring new ideas to the classroom. “Just call me Lily,” she tells her young charges, with enthusiasm and a desire to be hip and even casual. But she comes face to face with the realities of the community when she meets parents for the first time. She wants the parents to speak English with their children every day, but one parent cannot read Chinese, let alone speak English. The parents want their children to sing patriotic songs in Chinese, not “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” accompanied by the young woman’s guitar playing. This backlash disheartens the newly minted educator, who turns to Mr. Gu for guidance, but he is also figuring things out himself. As his wife’s acting career takes off, Mr. Gu finds himself stuck, struggling to prove that he is good enough to take on the position of Vice Principal permanently, instead of as a fill-in. When it becomes clear that he and his wife are having some marital problems as her acting career takes off, he turns to Lily.

Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s neighbor “Grandpa Zheng” (Ku Pao-ming) opposes the “urban renewal plan” that will turn the local textile factory into a shopping mall. His son and he would be forced to move from their close-knit compound in their small town in Jiangnan province to the metropolis of Shenzhen. The kids play soccer, an age-old pastime, but they also marvel at Game Boys and satellite TV. Economic prosperity may be on the horizon, but Mrs. Gu (Tan Zhuo) still rides a bicycle and sings at night, lending an ethereal quality to the film.

The daily insecurities and frustrations of childhood take center stage, sometimes to comedic effect. Xiaoyang is forced to tattle on a friend, and he misinterprets the situation when Lily needs help retrieving her dropped guitar pick from a tight spot. As Mr. Gu helps her, his son thinks they are in a compromising position, bent over and leaning against each other. Xiaoyang is also frustrated that his career-minded father refuses to let him play soccer. But there is also the joy of childhood, as Xiaoyang develops a bond with Mr. Zheng, who agrees to train him for the upcoming soccer team tryouts.

One hallmark of this film is its rich sound design. It begins with the sounds of soccer, which immediately draw the viewer into the story. The background noise of the school lends authenticity because schools are certainly not quiet, even in the countryside! Capturing the vivid imagination of Xiaoyang, we hear the thundering roar of a massive (imaginary) crowd as the young boy plays soccer with his friends at a stadium, wearing the Alessandro Del Piero jersey that was a gift from Mr. Zheng, who has become a mentor to him.

Although the film can at times feel unfocused because there is so much going on between Mr. Gu, Mrs. Gu, Xiaoyang, Lily, and Mr. Zheng, the director ultimately brings each respective storyline together when Mr. Zheng and Xiaoyang find Mr. Gu and Lily, leading to a climax that feels naturalistic and earned.

End of Summer is an understated movie but one that avoids meandering; it is well structured and engages the viewer by capturing compelling characters in a pastoral setting. These characters stay with you long after the film has ended, leaving the viewer quietly satisfied.

End of Summer is showing on July 6 at the New York Asian Film Festival.