Zhang Dalei’s semi-autobiographical debut feature The Summer is Gone is an excellent film that revolves around a decidedly average boy. Set in the early 1990s in Hohhot, the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, this is a leisurely account of how 12-year-old Zhang Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi) whiles away his summer. There is nothing exceptional about Xiaolei, an underachieving student, nor his holiday activities, which include swimming at the local pool, hanging out at the cinema, and fantasizing about the beautiful older girl from across the street. At no point does he display a previously hidden talent or go through anything particularly traumatic. Yet this ordinariness is integral to Zhang’s detailed recreation of recent history – the real story is what is happening around the blissfully unaware Xiaolei as the traditional community life he takes for granted will be irrecoverably changed by China’s planned economic reforms.
The reforms are largely represented here through the privatization of China’s film industry as Xialoei’s father Chen (Zhang Chen) had a job at a state-run studio that has recently closed. Cinema is initially seen as a place of pure escapism with Xialoei as keen to watch the charismatic local hoodlums who take the prized seats on the front row at the neighborhood theatre as the movies themselves, but this activity is gradually being made part of China’s increasingly complex social-economic apparatus. When Chen takes Xiaolei to the cinema to see The Fugitive (1993) – the Harrison Ford blockbuster was the first US import to receive a release in Mainland China on a revenue-sharing basis – they are not allowed to sneak in as usual. Not only has new management been put into place but a long line of people are willing to pay for the novelty of seeing Hollywood spectacle on the big screen rather than on a fuzzy bootleg. What was a place for the whole community is on its way to becoming a social status symbol for those who can afford it, but Chen tries to remain sanguine about such developments as cinema represent both his professional hopes for the future and a way to bond with his son. Xiaolei idolizes Bruce Lee and has a poster of the Hong Kong superstar on his bedroom wall, so Chen saws the handle off a mop to make his son a pair of nunchucks, which the boy proudly carries everywhere. It’s a gesture that conveys fatherly love while showing how Chen seeks to distract himself from looming changes.
Xiaolei and Chen may be drifting through the summer, but the clock is ticking for the boy’s pragmatic teacher mother Guo (Guo Yanyuan) who insists on getting him admitted to an elite middle school despite the fact that his grades fall below the required standard for entry. If the film has a plot, then it’s this parental mission, which sees Guo using every connection in the local community in order to achieve her goal. Otherwise, the film plays out as a series of childhood vignettes that balance wistful nostalgia with hindsight as talk of the impending reforms swirl around the neighborhood, Xiaolei’s parents bicker about their son’s education, and Chen’s career frustrations come to the boil when he pulls apart a dubbed VHS copy of Taxi Driver (1976).
In terms of its staging and mode of observational, The Summer is Gone invites comparison to the works of Hou Hsio-hsien with its deceptively calm surface, humid seasonal ambience, and seemingly effortless ability to place the viewer in scenes from everyday life which are patiently captured in long takes. Zhang’s decision to present these memories in austere black-and-white has the side effect of diluting the naturalistic air achieved by his wonderful non-professional cast, but serves to illustrate how far away the China of the 1990s seems following several decades of unprecedented social transformation.
If his youth entails that Xialoei only ever comprehends a fraction of what is going on around him, Zhang’s meticulous control of this social microcosm ensures that his captivated audience gets the complete picture.